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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TCA Press Tour: CBS Executive Session

Nina Tassler, President of CBS Entertainment, favored us with her presence this morning at the TCA tour, sitting down for an executive session which provided us with the following quotes and tidbits:

* Regarding the decision to place the new reality series “Undercover Boss” in the plum spot following the Super Bowl, she said that it was a combination of good timing and a good series. “We’re very high on the show, but we spent a lot of time talking about what the right strategy would be,” she said. “We’ve seen five or six episodes of ‘Undercover Boss’ by now, and there is a tone and a quality to the show that we felt was a great fit after the Super Bowl. It is aspirational. It is a feel-good program.
Everybody who is sitting and watching the Super Bowl, be you 8 or 80, can stay right there and enjoy the program. I think 15 years ago, that spot was used to launch new programming. Obviously, in the last 10, 15 years it’s been used more as a platform to get greater exposure for existing shows. But we thought, ‘You know what? We have a great project, we’re very high on it, and we think we’re going to launch another big-branded reality show.'”

* Obviously, NBC’s continued fall from grace via the great failure that was “The Jay Leno Show” was a topic of conversation that everyone wanted Tassler to weigh in on. “Through it all, we have to realize that ABC, CBS and FOX…we’ve all fared, I think, very well during this experimental phase for NBC,” she said. “But if we can harken back to when there was that grand proclamation about 8 o’clock at NBC…? Remember? We all wrote about that: 8 o’clock was over at NBC. They were going to have a whole different strategy developing for 8 o’clock. And then along came 10 o’clock, and they were going to have a whole different strategy for 10 o’clock. You know, I think ultimately, there is no substitute for developing great shows, working with great talent, and getting your program on the air.”

“The unfortunate thing is that our creative community was to some degree somewhat bruised by this,” she continued. “I think that the talent as this was taking place, a lot of people were put out of work. A lot of people really saw this as having a pretty negative impact on our business. But I think right now for us, it just allowed us to get a bigger piece of the ad revenue pie at 10 o’clock, and again, what I have the most trouble with is for their company, their decision to do what they did, to sort of turn that and say that his is a reflection on the whole network business, I think is misguided. Our business is thriving right now. We are enjoying success with new hit shows, as is ABC, as is FOX. So I think at the end of the day, it was an experiment that obviously did not work, but for us, like I said, there’s no substitute for just developing and producing and launching great shows.”

There’s certainly no question that a couple of CBS earned some additional success from viewers’ indifference to “The Jay Leno Show.” As Tassler observed, “We moved ‘The Mentalist’ to 10 o’clock on Thursday night and launched ‘The Good Wife,’ so 10 o’clock has been good business for us.”

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