Danny Trejo, the craggy-faced, tough-guy character actor who has appeared in almost 200 movies and TV shows, was in the middle of an autograph session in London in 2007 with director Robert Rodriguez to promote the release of “Grindhouse” when he encountered an unusually devoted fan.
“This guy came up to me and lifted his shirt, and he had a huge tattoo of (me as) Machete on his back,” recalls Trejo, who usually plays a villain who gets blown away by the hero.
“He asked me to autograph it and then said he was going to have my signature permanently tattooed. That’s when I turned to Robert and said, ‘You better make this movie, and you better make it good.’ ”
At that time, “Machete” – the story of a Mexican Federale who fights corruption and drug dealers with the eponymous blade – wasn’t a real film. Rodriguez had directed a fake trailer for the movie that was shown during the three-hour “Grindhouse,” an epic homage to 1970s exploitation pictures.
“Grindhouse” was a disappointment at the box office, grossing $25 million worldwide. But the “Machete” clip – replete with preposterous action, gratuitous nudity, tongue-in-cheek acting and a groovy vibe – made such an impression on audiences that they began clamoring for the real thing.
Their wish will be granted today when the feature-length “Machete” opens in theaters.
The movie is a cheerfully gory, hyperviolent and grandly funny satire in which the taciturn hero must avenge the bloody murder of his family by a drug kingpin (Steven Seagal) and bring down a corrupt senator (Robert De Niro) who wants to build an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
But instead of a mere over-the-top spoof, “Machete” is also a “real” movie, with characters who aren’t necessarily aware of the film’s comedic undertone – such as Jessica Alba’s U.S. immigration agent or Michelle Rodriguez as a lunch-truck vendor with a secret side job.
Rodriguez had originally conceived of the project 15 years ago, long before the idea for “Grindhouse” existed.
“We were shooting ‘Desperado’ in Acuna, Mexico, with Antonio Banderas, but nobody knew who he was there,” he says. “Instead, people kept coming up to Danny and taking pictures with him. They thought he was the star of the movie.
“That’s when I told him, ‘I have the perfect role for you, a starring role: the first Latino-accented action hero.’ ”
Over the next few years, Rodriguez continued to cast Trejo in supporting roles, his characters always named after sharp objects: Navajas (blades) in “Desperado,” Razor Charlie in “From Dusk Til Dawn” and Cuchillo (knife) in this summer’s “Predators,” which Rodriguez produced.
In “Spy Kids,” Trejo’s character was even named “Machete.”
By the time the cameras rolled on “Machete” the movie, he and Rodriguez had worked together so often they had developed a shorthand language.
“I know what Robert wants, and he knows what I want,” Trejo says. “He has a ‘Damn it, you better do it’ look!’ that I can recognize right away.
“Sometimes I’ll try a certain approach in a scene, and he’ll say ‘Stop acting! It’s a movie! Don’t act!’ ”
Recalls Rodriguez: “We were at Comic-Con one time, and he kept trying to reach me on my cell phone. I finally answered and said, ‘Stop calling me, man! Just send me a text message!’ And Danny said ‘Machete don’t text.’
“So when we were making the movie, I incorporated that line into the script and told him, ‘Just say it exactly the way you said it to me five years ago.’ ”
Rodriguez used the fake “Machete” trailer to lure the likes of De Niro, Seagal, Don Johnson (as a vicious border patrol agent) and Lindsay Lohan.
“By being able to show them the trailer along with the script, they knew the tone and the kind of movie it was going to be, so it was easier to get them to sign on,” he says.
“I love ensemble casts, and you always start at the top of your dream list and work your way down until someone says yes. But ‘Machete’ was easy, because a lot of these actors had worked with Danny before and wanted to support him.
“Robert De Niro put a bullet in Danny’s head in ‘Heat.’ Steven Seagal had killed him a couple of times.”
The 15-year gestation period of “Machete” has paid off in an unexpected way. The film’s pointed satire of U.S. immigration policy suddenly seems insanely timely – and not all that far-fetched – after the controversial new Arizona law that allows police officers to question people they suspect of having crossed the border illegally.
“Whenever we screen the movie, everybody looks at each other and thinks ‘This (stuff) is real!’ ” Rodriguez says.
“We’ve been thinking about this movie and putting it together for so long, it’s really freaky for it to come out now. The timing feels so right.
“It’s the only project I’ve ever had that took on a life of its own. This thing just willed itself into existence.”