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.
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:
“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.”
“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.”
“Now, I look at a script, and I’ll go, ‘OK, shirt on, thank God.’ Or ‘Shirt off – I gotta’ go to the gym.’”