Robert Rodriguez was fresh out of the University of Texas when he shot his first feature, El Mariachi for the sum of $7,000. It made a huge splash, opening the door for a wild array of additional directing projects. Like his colleague Quentin Tarantino, he embraced the grindhouse: producing loving homages to B-movie schlock that often transcended their low-rent origins. His works include From Dusk Till Dawn, The Faculty, the Spy Kids franchise, Sin City and Machete. The latter film spawned a sequel, Machete Kills, which is being released this week.
The star of both films is Danny Trejo, a Rodriguez regular whose path to the screen has been no less interesting. His early life was marred by drug addiction and prison time, which ended when he cleaned up and resolved to help others do the same. A contact at one of his recovery meetings invited him to the set of Runaway Train, where he was cast as an extra after helping star Eric Roberts learn to box. That soon grew into a healthy career as a character actor, with notable roles in the likes of Heat, XXX, Anchorman, and The Devil’s Rejects, as well as Rodriguez’s films. The two sat down this past weekend with fellow cast members to talk about Machete Kills and their long-time working relationship.
(Note: special thanks to Michael Dequina for his help with this article. You can check out Mike’s overall awesomeness at http://themoviereport.com/)
Question: Danny, how gratifying is it to have a leading character like this, to play the lead in a film?
Danny Trejo: Hey man, it doesn’t matter if you’re the lead or a day player. You gotta bring your A-game. The only difference when you’re the lead is you gotta be there every day, so you gotta bring your A-game every day. That’s the challenge. Robert [Rodriguez] is great for that. He had such confidence in me, he was so excited to do this, that it really gives you confidence. These movies are so much fun, there’s so much adrenaline involved. Robert just makes it so easy to do your best.
Q: What’s his directing style like? How is he able to make these films so inexpensively and still attract these big-name stars?
DT: Robert’s not a secretive guy. So much going on in Hollywood is this big secret. Robert’s an open book. We have tours coming through the studio down there [in Austin] when we were shooting! He’s as much a teacher as he is an editor and a director. My son worked on the first film with him and he learned so much. He’s doing his own film now, called Snapshot, and he owes those skills to Robert. He didn’t even have to ask me for money!
Q: Robert, how is it for you to go through this transformation with Alexa Vega? She started out as this little girl in your movies and now…
Robert Rodriguez: I love transformations. I’m a big fan of that. And it started way back. I loved taking actors and seeing where we could take them. It’s an interesting challenge for them and I love it. It started with George Clooney in From Dusk Till Dawn. He was so good at playing a nice doctor on TV, but he wasn’t getting any movie offers. So we made him a stone-cold killer and then he got all kinds of stuff.
Carla Gugino was only 28 when she made Spy Kids, but she suddenly got labeled as this mother type. I put her in three movies, successful movies, and suddenly she was stuck as this mom. So I put her in Sin City, and that changed her career. Even then, even having experiences like that, it’s amazing.
Anyway, Alex calls me and says, “I’m really having trouble getting grown-up roles. I’m still getting sixteen-year-old, seventeen-year-old, eighteen-year-old parts.” So I say, “What’s wrong with that?” And she says, “I’m twenty-five!”
So she says, “If you ever have any parts that would work, any Sin City-type parts…” And I said, “That would never happen, no one would cast you in a role like that.” And then I realized that I was part of the problem. I put that curse on her, so I needed to help her get away from it. So I said, “I don’t know about Sin City yet, because the audience still has too much baggage, but I’m doing a Machete movie now. There’s no real part yet, but there’s this hooker and she’s got a group of girls with her and we can make you one of them. And you can come as forward as you want. If you want to play a bigger part, we’ll get more dialogue in for you, and if you just want to be in the background, we’ll do that too. It’s really up to you.”
And she came in and just went for it. Got the craziest outfits and put herself right out there. She has so much confidence. I actually think she was in the first photo that went out from the set. It went to Rolling Stone. And she owned it, she just turned everyone around on it.
Q: Your casting approach in Sin City was sort of piecemeal, getting whoever was available. You can’t do that here, at least not as easily…
RR: Ah, but we did! With this one, I actually would go after the dream cast, and would make the time work. We only had Charlie Sheen for one day. We only had Mel Gibson for three days. I shoot very, very fast, and I wanted to make a much bigger movie, but we didn’t have the budget. We had to shoot this one ten days faster than the original. So we get an actor, and we make the best use of the time for that actor. It’s actually nice because in an ensemble piece, you can make actors feel short-changed. This way, we could focus just on that actor, and not had my attention scattered. That individual attention gives you a lot, a lot of size that might not have been there otherwise.
Q: You have a penchant for casting bad boys in movies like this. Sheen and Gibson’s stars have fallen a bit in recent years. How do you make those casting choices work without being overshadowed by their off-screen personas?
RR: You go into it honestly. You don’t chase headlines. I’m a fan of both of theirs and thought they were right for their parts. If they thought I was going for some kind of tabloid publicity thing, they never would have agreed to sign on. And they certainly wouldn’t have given 150%, which they both did. I went to them artist to artist. I’m a fan of theirs as an artist, and that crosses all lines. Tabloid headlines come and go, but the artist? That’s permanent.
Q: How about changing Charlie Sheen’s name?
RR: We had this joke in the first film with Don Johnson, who appears in the credits as “Introducing Don Johnson.” And I thought, “What kind of funny new riff can we do on that?” Carlos Estevez just sort of popped in there. I decided to wait until the end of the day’s shoot to talk to him about it… then the night before we started shooting, he came to me and said, “I want to be billed as Carlos Estevez.” And that was it. We had to do it then! You know, when he started, he had to change his name because Latinos couldn’t get work. It’s nice to know some things have changed.
Q: Danny, you’ve played this character twice now. What have you learned from him?
DT: I’m not someone who takes too many steps backwards. When Robert approached me about him, he said, “You’re perfect for this. You don’t even have to act!” And sometimes he’ll tell me “stop acting,” when we’re doing these movies. I think he got a little bit of my personality stuck in this guy. I enjoy this character. I think he’s the kind of guy who, if some old lady in his neighborhood gets sick, he’ll water her plants and mow her lawn for her. And then if burglars break into her house, he’ll kill them. [Laughter.]
Q: You referred to the original trailer for this character, the one in Grindhouse, as “Mexploitation.” What does that phrase entail? What does it mean?
RR: Quentin [Tarantino] and I were sitting around talking about trailers we could use for Grindhouse. I said, “I have this idea called Machete. It’s Mexploitation!” The idea was that this character had been in, like, 200 movies, and that he found an audience because he was a Latino action hero. So we did the trailer and thought that was the end of it, but people just kept saying “you should make that as a real movie!” So we did that, and then it became a hit, and this character just kind of took on a life of his own. “Mexploitation” was just the word we associated with it. And I love him. We didn’t want to wait to get permission for a third film, so we sort of built this one around a third film. The character has been driven completely by the audience, so we’ll see what they have to say. Stay tuned!