One of the deciding moments in the making of the neo-exploitation, ultra-violent-comedy thriller "Machete" came when star-to-be Danny Trejo was doing an autograph signing in England. "These guys came up and they had pictures of 'Machete' tattooed on their backs," Trejo said. "Talk about responsibility."
"He took pictures and e-mailed them to me," laughed director Robert Rodriguez. "I said, 'That's insane.' Danny said, 'We've got to make the movie now."
Up until then, "Machete" - which opens Friday, Sept. 3, and co-stars Jessica Alba, Lindsay Lohan, Robert De Niro, Don Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin and Steven Seagal - was just a counterfeit trailer tacked onto another exploitation movie, "Grindhouse" (2007), the Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino homage to trashy '70s drive-in movies. In between the two "features" that made up "Grindhouse" - "Death Proof" and "Planet Terror" - were trailers for equally cheesy-albeit-imaginary features, including "Werewolf Women of the SS," "Hobo With a Shotgun" and "Machete," the story of a Mexican federale who becomes embroiled in the cross-border drug trade.
Except "Machete," for which Ethan Maniquis is credited as co-director, wasn't entirely a pipe dream.
"Robert Rodriguez told me about 'Machete' when we were doing 'Desperado' 15 years ago," said Trejo, referring to the Salma Hayek-Antonio Banderas film. "And it was funny, no one knew who Antonio Banderas was in Mexico - he was from Spain and he talked funny. So when I showed up on the set all the people on the set gravitated toward me because they'd seen me in 80 movies. That's when Robert came up and said, 'I have this idea for this movie. It's called 'Machete,' kind of in the Clint Eastwood-Charles Bronson genre."
Which it is, except with a level of cartoon violence that's only palatable because it's funny. (Rodriguez said that when they showed their soon-to-be-infamous scene involving a bad guy's large intestine at July's Comic-Con in San Diego, "It was like a rock concert. People were screaming.") But Machete is also a hero, one who finds himself at the center of a criminal / political conspiracy involving an immigrant-baiting Texas state senator (De Niro), his malevolent aide (Fahey), the aide's licentious daughter (Lohan), a border vigilante (Johnson), a taco-flipping insurrectionist (Michelle Rodriguez), an Immigration agent (Alba), and Machete's brother, a radical priest (Marin). The timing of the film, in terms of current events, couldn't be more on-the-money.
"It's amazing how sometimes the stars align for a project and make it feel really timely," said director Rodriguez. "Because in the exploitation days, that's what they would have done, move really quickly with a low-budget production and done the whole 'ripped from today's headlines' thing. This happened in reverse: We shot 'Machete' over a year ago, the first trailer was five years ago and the script was 15 years ago."
For Trejo, his first starring role came with some perks. "I love to work with women who God worked overtime on," he said of his three female co-stars. "But they weren't Sally-come-lately's - they were strong ladies. Even Lindsay, the nun with a gun."
Lohan, who's presence in the film will bring it a little extra notoriety, does in fact use a nun's habit and some automatic weaponry. (Her character's nude scene makes pretty obvious use of a body double). In terms of screen time, though, she takes a backseat to Alba and Michelle Rodriguez.
"He called me up," Rodriguez said of her director, "and said, 'I have this project, it's insane but I think you might be good for it" and I said, 'That's awesome. As long as I don't have to rip my clothes off and die at the end, I'm a happy camper." He said "We'll see about that."
One of the things that attracted Michelle Rodriguez and, presumably, the rest of a very-high-profile cast to a deliberately low-rent movie, was the director's irreverent attitude, something that's been at the heart of everything from "El Mariachi" to the "Spy Kids" franchise. "There's not a lot of people who do what he does," she said. "I just think when you play that joker card, you can get away with murder." The 'joker card,' she said, is about making films that are "too crazy to be taken seriously in any way, shape or form." And thus being able to say whatever you want without getting in trouble.
"Machete" is brewing with trouble, political and otherwise. But Michelle Rodriguez said she had other motives for getting involved with "Machete." "Robert has an innate ability to make everybody in his movies look sexy. Even the 60-year-old Danny Trejo. There are moments in the movie where he actually looks great!" She laughs. "Robert makes everything look pretty."
Danny Trejo, a Latino superhero, is Machete
Danny Trejo, the star of "Machete," has more film and video credits than almost anyone in Hollywood - partly because he'll apparently do anything for anybody. "I just did a film called 'Blacktino,' " he said from Los Angeles. "They gave me $100. But I like to do as many student films and first-time directors as I can."
Still, the actor with the indelible face has never played the lead, not until "Machete," the title character of which is arguably the first Latino superhero. "It feels pretty cool," he says, "because we haven't really had one. And I don't have to wear tights. And I get to kill Steven Seagal."
He has played a Machete before - namely, the kindly uncle in the "Spy Kids" series directed by his second cousin, Robert Rodriguez. "I have heard, 'Look Mom, its Uncle Machete' in 40 different languages all over the world," Trejo said. "And the funny part is, I always know which parents monitor what their kids are watching, because when the kids go crazy and the parents don't know who I am, I say, "Aha, you just let them sit in front of the TV and watch whatever they want . . . "
Part of the satisfaction for Trejo - who spent years in California prisons and is a recovering drug addict and a 12-step advocate - is what his acting career has done for his own children: Danny Boy, a computer whiz ("I call him a vidiot; he invents games and stuff"); Danielle, an actress; and Gilbert, who Trejo said is about to produce a movie called "Skinny-Dip."
"He better hire me," Trejo joked. "I don't want to hear, 'Dad, you're too old for the part.' "