Danny Trejo is that rare 69-year-old still asked to take his shirt off in movies.
“Machete Kills” star Trejo’s career has been unusual from the start. Born in Los Angeles, Trejo spent much of his youth imprisoned on drug and robbery charges. He turned things around in 1968, kicking drugs and promising God, he said, to do better with his life.
Clean and sober now for 45 years, Trejo entered the movie business in 1985, when his work helping others in recovery led him to visit the set of the film “Runaway Train,” which starred Jon Voight and Eric Roberts.
When the casting people got a load of Trejo’s experience-etched face, gravel-growl voice and immovable-force physicality, they cast him, in an extra role, as a criminal. Dozens of small, tough-guy roles followed, many of which showed off a woman-in-sombrero tattoo that covers most of Trejo’s torso.
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In 2010, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who had cast Trejo in 1995’s “Desperado” and several movies to follow, made him a star. He wrote “Machete,” an intentionally C-grade homage to 1970s exploitation movies, specifically for Trejo. The movie grew out of a fake trailer that had accompanied “Grindhouse,” Rodriguez’s 2007 collaboration with Quentin Tarantino.
In “Machete,” Trejo plays a former federale with a penchant for justice and big-bladed weapons. The low-budget movie made $26 million at the U.S. box office. It was enough to enable a sequel, which opened Friday.
“Machete Kills” is even more of a free-for-all than “Machete.” Charlie Sheen (billed under his birth name, Carlos Estevez) plays the U.S. president, who sends Machete on a special mission. Sofia Vergara plays a madam with rage in her eyes and bullets in her machine-gun bustier.
Trejo remains a leather-vested stalwart amid the madness. But if “Machete Kills” succeeds at the box office, Rodriguez will test Trejo’s solidity by sending him into space, in a third Machete film. Rodriguez hypes his yet-to-be-made sci-fi sequel in a trailer attached to “Machete Kills.”
Reached by phone during a recent publicity stop in San Francico, Trejo is exceptionally good-humored and game about answering The Bee’s free-ranging questions. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Nepotism after the fact: Trejo met Rodriguez during the casting process for “Desperado.” Rodriguez cast Trejo in a supporting role in the film, shot in Acuña, Mexico.
“My family came down to visit me in Acuña, from San Antonio, and that is where Robert is from,” Trejo said. “My uncle started talking to Robert, and we realized (Trejo and Rodriguez) are second cousins. So it has been divine intervention all the way.”
On supposed typecasting: “I remember somebody asking me about being ‘typecast,’ I said ‘What?’ ‘Well, you are always playing the mean Chicano dude with tattoos.’ And I thought about it, and I said, ‘I am the mean Chicano dude with tattoos.’”
3 prisons, 1 tattoo: “The tattoo on my chest was started in 1965 in San Quentin. A guy named Harry ‘Super Jew’ Ross did the outline. And then I got kicked out of San Quentin, they sent me to Folsom. (Ross) said, ‘Don’t let anybody touch it; let me finish it.’
“I got to Folsom and then he came there, and he did a little more. And then there was a big riot in Folsom and they sent me to Soledad. ... (Then Ross) came to Soledad and he finished it. It took us about 2½ years. Well, we didn’t have anything else to do.
“It’s funny because he became a very, very great tattoo artist before he passed away. He was really well known for his fine lines and stuff.
“When you first start drawing, you are kind of Neanderthal. And this was like a Neanderthal tattoo to him. Yet it became his most famous tattoo.”
Prison hopping: “In 1965, it wasn’t too hard to pay somebody to get you transferred to here, transferred to there.”
Reader demographics: “I used to read The Sacramento Bee when I was in prison. ... I was busy boxing or playing handball, but I would look at the headlines.”
Stone face: Asked how many times he has smiled on screen in his career, Trejo laughs heartily. “I did a (2006) movie with Maggie Gyllenhaal called ‘Sherrybaby.’ I smiled once.”
Pushing 70, forever fit: “I exercise, and I walk. I don’t watch my diet. I eat anything, but in moderation. I don’t drink, I don’t use drugs, and that’s usually a big factor because alcohol really ages you.”
Shirt or skin: “In the first five years of my career, all I heard was, ‘Danny, take off your shirt.’ Because it was a prison movie or a bad-guy movie and they just loved my tattoo. And then I would say my one line – ‘Kill ’em all!’ That was just part of the deal.
“Now, I look at a script, and I’ll go, ‘OK, shirt on, thank God.’ Or ‘Shirt off – I gotta’ go to the gym.’”
Will the Machete-in-space film be better than “Gravity”?: “Oh absolutely, it’s going to be amazing. You know, we did ‘Machete’ out of a fake trailer, because the audience demanded it. Then we did ‘Machete Kills’ out of the audience response from ‘Machete.’ So we are trying to see how the response (to ‘Machete Kills’) is. But I think Robert’s already writing it.”