When Danny Trejo turned up on the set of Robert Rodriguez' second film, Desperado, the Mexican-American director couldn't believe his luck. Here was the kind of real-life character he needed to make his movies truly mean. Trejo's huge chest tattoo of a woman in a sombrero - which has since been voted the Most Recognisable Tattoo In The World by International Tattoo magazine - particularly caught his attention.
"We were in Mexico and I had no shirt on so the locals just gravitated towards me and saw it," recalls Trejo, who was also born in the US of Mexican parentage. "I remember Robert saying, 'They think you are the star of the movie' and I told them, 'I am!' From there on, Robert said he had this character, Machete, that he wanted me to play. I'd probably made the mistake of telling him about my old parole plan which said I couldn't be near sharp objects, so he made me a knife guy in every movie!"
Indeed, Trejo, who also discovered he was Rodriguez's second cousin, has been in all of the prolific director's subsequent movies, even the family comedy Spy Kids. After about 300 acting roles though, Machete marks Trejo's first lead.
"I don't think Hollywood would have ever made me a leading man, because, come on, I don't look like Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio," opines the rehabilitated ex-con, who saw the error of his ways after spending more than a decade in America's worst jails, including San Quentin. "But it took Robert to say, 'Hey man, not everybody's that pretty!' I've been training for the Machete character for a long time, with every movie."
Machete, whom Trejo proudly calls the first Mexican superhero, began as one of the fake three-minute trailers in the Quentin Tarantino/Rodriguez double feature Grindhouse/Planet Terror. Audiences loved it so much that Rodriguez expanded it into a full-length Mexploitation feature with Trejo reprising his role as a lawman turned legendary outlaw hired to assassinate an anti-immigration senator, played by Robert De Niro.
"I've known Bob for years. He wanted as much irony as possible," Rodriguez explains. "I sent him a couple of ideas and he liked them all, so we put them all in the movie."
Jessica Alba plays the immigration officer sent to capture Machete, yet she comes to see his point of view - and clearly more, as they end up in bed.
"Robert made it look really, really sexy when all there was, was a kiss and then we left on a motorcycle," notes Trejo. "I took my 83-year-old mom to this movie and she loved it. When I was in the pool with the two girls, I didn't want her to see it, so I said, 'Mamma wait!' and she said, 'Shhhh shut up!"'
Michelle Rodriguez, killed off early in television's Lost, though recently resurrected in Avatar, was the first of many women Rodriguez cast and she sees plenty of action. Making the film via his Troublemaker Studios, the director-producer-writer-editor points out how she is the only Rodriguez in the credits who is not related to him. His sister helped him edit the film; two of his cousins were co-writers; while his ex-wife, Elizabeth Avellan, is still his co-producer and Troublemaker co-owner. (His marriage ended as the result of his short-lived affair with his Planet Terror star, Rose McGowan.)
"Michelle looks awesome, what a star," Rodriguez enthuses. "She comes out wearing an eye-patch and the audience goes nuts. I'd always wanted to work with her and when I met her I changed the whole script around her. Then when Jessica, who I'd worked with on Sin City, wanted to be in the movie, I fashioned the character to be more appealing for her to play too. 'Is there anything else you want?' I asked her. 'Yeah, I want to beat people up!"' he sniggers at the memory. Rodriguez loves strong women in his movies, even when they're bad girls.
"Lindsay Lohan's character already existed in the trailer and I was adamant about having every shot from the trailer in the film. So I had to reverse engineer the story. The scene with Danny in the water with the wife and daughter, I thought like, 'Who could be the daughter? Oh that could be Lindsay Lohan.' So I called Lindsay. 'Hey, I have this part that starts off this way and then you turn into this nun with a gun.' She just thought it was a hoot. She thought it was a good play on people's perceptions of her to start the character that way, and then have it evolve into this holier than holy being, who ends the war."
While indeed the breasts we see on screen are not Lohan's - but a stand-in's - he remains astounded that nudity remains harder to get past American censors than killing.
"It depends on the time and who's on the censorship board, but usually it's 'Violence is good, Nudity is bad'. It makes no sense at all."
Who: Robert Rodriguez (pictured above) and Danny Trejo
When: Opens at cinemas on November 25