A roundtable chat with actor Danny Trejo, aka “Machete”

Danny Trejo is More than a few tough guy actors have been, to one degree or another, actual tough guys — soldiers, cops, even petty, and not so petty, criminals. Still, Danny Trejo earned those intimidating facial lines with perhaps the toughest real-life background of anyone to ever transition from a life of crime to a successful life in the fantasy factory of Hollywood.

Of course, it’s that authenticity that’s attracted casting directors since the start of Trejo’s career in the mid-80s. His early small roles eventually led to Trejo’s association with Robert Rodriquez, who coincidentally turned out to be his second cousin as well as the filmmaker who would finally give him his first starring role. Starting with “From Dusk ‘Till Dawn” through the “Spy Kids” trilogy, it was a long path that first led to the funniest fake trailer in “Grindhouse” and then the ultra-violent yet entirely tongue-in-cheek Mexploitation action-fest, “Machete,” now available on Blu-ray and DVD. In his mid-60s, Danny Trejo is now a movie star.

A Los Angeles native with an astonishing 201 roles to his credit, the actor grew up within a half-hour’s drive of the film studios in Burbank, but his tough neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley might as well have been in Tierra del Fuego. He was a heroin addict by age 12 and, way-too-shortly thereafter, an armed robber on a supersonic path to jail or the grave. Fortunately, as depicted in the biographical documentary “Champion” (available via streaming video on Netflix), jail got Trejo first. He eventually found his way to a 12 step program that allowed him to turn his life around to the poing where he could stop being a hard case and, with the benefit of a fortuitous encounter with the late ex-con author and “Reservoir Dogs” actor, Eddie Bunker, start playing them instead.

A voluble gentlemen, Trejo enjoys talking to the press and is not a difficult interview by any means. The roundtable nevertheless started with a slightly awkward moment of silence when a writer who had been patched in via telephone for some reason didn’t come up with the first question and was never heard from again.

Eventually I chimed in with a query, perhaps a bit serious for an opener. I mentioned “Champion” and how, in the film, Trejo discusses how criminals, both inside and outside of prison, are forced to present their natural fear as anger in order to survive in a brutal environment. I wondered if Trejo considered that world of false but convincing bravado to be his first acting class.

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Late Friday movie news dump

It’s been a long four day week, and the hits just keep on coming.

* Even as A-listers are wrapping up George Clooney‘s Haiti telethon, the Sundance Film Festival is now underway in earnest and under new management, although boss Bob abides, naturally. Anne Thompson has a report from the front. Yesterday, she reported on the notable acquisition of the super-fest, director David Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman” — which is not about to whole “when will the next Superman movie come out?” thing or even superheroes at all. Sorry.

More Sundance news to come next week, no doubt. Watch this space.

* Movie City News has compiled the results of 225 Top 10 lists and come out with a top 30 of its own. At the top, “The Hurt Locker” far ahead of nearest competitors, “Up in the Air” and “Inglourious Basterds.” At the bottom of the “best of” lists, Lars von Trier’s horror drama “Antichrist,” the most controversial film in a career filled with controversy.

* Speaking of films at the bottom, the Wrap brings us Forbes’ annoyingly hard-to-read list of the biggest fiscal flops of the last five years in more easily digestible form. Topping the list is the recent adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” which went from Oscar hopeful to complete dud in nothing flat when it came out. There are two films I personally like on this list, “Grindhouse” and “Walk Hard.” Anybody else out there have a favorite on the flop list? In any case, I wonder about the accuracy of the list as it doesn’t include DVD figures.

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Whatever you don’t, don’t watch this while carving the turkey!

Now, embedding this particular video today might be in slightly poor taste…okay, it’s actually and definitely in deliriously bad taste…but if I’m going to post Eli Roth’s hysterically disturbing fake trailer for a thankfully non-existent seventies slasher flick called, “Thanksgiving,” what better day is there to post it? You’re probably not at work, but FYI, NSFW. Slasher violence, culinary gore, gratuitous grainy film stock, and gruesomely brief sex and nudity follows.

And here’s a brief but fun little promotional film covering the fake trailers shot for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” by Roth, Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead“), and Rob Zombie (“The Devil’s Rejects,”). Shame the damn thing didn’t make any money.

Mr. Roth and I are of similar ethnic/religious background and, though I’d probably be too squeamish to see an actual Eli Roth horror film based on the holiday that kicks off the Days of Atonement  — and I’d definitely be too chicken to cross the ADL picket lines that would be set up in front of every movie theater and video store that dared to feature it — but I love his idea for a Rosh Hoshannah-based slasher flick. I even have a tag line ready: “May you be inscribed in the book  of…death!” All I need to do know is to figure out the Yiddish for “bwa-ha-ha-ha” and I think we’re halfway to another trailer.

  

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RIP Larry Gelbart

large_LarryGelbart photo web

An important chunk of entertainment history left us yesterday with the death of Larry Gelbart at 81. Gelbart was gifted both working alone and as a collaborator with other writers. It probably helped that relatively early in his career he labored alongside Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Neil Simon on comedian Sid Caesar’s classic early variety shows. In the sixties he graduated to Broadway and the movies. With Burt Shevelove, he cowrote the book for the Broadway musical/Zero Mostel vehicle, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (later filmed by Richard Lester) and the hard to find all-star cult British comedy, “The Wrong Box.” A Chicago-born graduate of L.A.’s Fairfax High (right across the street from Cantor’s Deli), he lived in England for a time, working with another nice Jewish boy named Marty Feldman at the height of his English television fame.

He became much better known in the seventies as the primary writer during the early, funnier and more politically pointed days on the television version of “M*A*S*H.” I get to write about him because he made a mark in movies that’s too important to ignore, writing several good ones, and some not so good. He’ll probably be most commonly remembered for his work on “Oh, God” with George Burns in the title role, and what is probably Dustin Hoffman’s best performance in “Tootsie,” which is something of a comedy classic. He also co-wrote with Sheldon Keller the vastly underrated and all but impossible to see spoof of early Hollywood (specifically Warner Brothers) films, “Movie, Movie,” directed by Stanley Donen and starring George C. Scott, Eli Wallach, Trish van Devere, and Barry Bostwick. (A likely model for “Grindhouse,” in that it was also a double-feature complete with fake trailers.) It more than made up for the regrettable but profitable “Blame it On Rio,” written by Gelbart and also directed by Donen, which starred Michael Caine, Joseph Bologna and an extremely young Demi Moore.

In the nineties, he divided his time between Broadway plays like “City of Angels,” a musical spoof of classic hard-boiled detective novels, and pointed TV movies like “Barbarians at the Gate” — a tongue in cheek version of a nonfiction book about the buyout of Nabisco — and 1992’s “Mastergate,” an unbelievably witty parody of the hearings that invariably follow major Washington scandals.

Mr. Gelbart never stopped writing until almost the end, and was easily one of the most respected and beloved writers in all of show business. 81 isn’t exactly young, but we could’ve used a few more years of his presence. It’s a sad weekend for the world of funny.

Below, a great moment from “Tootsie.”

More about Mr. Gelbart’s illustrious career here, here, here, and here.

  

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Exploitative movie moment #2

More of the work of exploitation master, Jack Hill in honor of Cody Jarrett’s grindhouse nouveau masterwork. This amazing vintage trailer is for the film better known today, thanks to Quentin Tarantino, as “Switchblade Sisters.” I’m deeply ashamed to say I’ve never seen this. I mean to correct that, soon. You’ll see why.

And this is what I call ACTING. Great stuff.

  

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