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The 'Machete' Is Family

Robert Rodriguez, Danny Trejo, and Alexa Vega, together again

By Richard Whittaker, 9:00AM, Fri. Oct. 11, 2013


La familia that slays together: Danny Trejo, Alexa Vega and Robert Rodriguez at the Fantastic Fest premiere of Machete Kills
Photo by John Anderson

Used to be, the favored killing weapon for Austin filmmakers was a chainsaw. Now it's a machete. But the cast and director of Machete Kills have more pressing concerns than the murder device du jour. Robert Rodriguez just dropped a pecan on his shirt. "You're like a squirrel," laughs Alexa Vega.

It's the morning before the film's world premiere at Fantastic Fest 2013, on the upper floors of the W Hotel. Vega, Rodriguez, and the man himself, Danny Trejo, are sharing a couch. Some press days seem like a chore for the actors and filmmakers. This feels like three friends goofing off.

With the Austin-shot Machete Kills, as always with a Rodriguez joint, there's an air of familial familiarity going on. After all, Trejo played Uncle Machete to Vega when she was still Carmen in Rodriguez's Spy Kids franchise. This time around he's just Machete, the meanest federale on the planet, and she's KillJoy, the leather chaps-wearing hooker with a mean streak of her own. Overseeing this reunion is Rodriguez, who is back in his comfort zone of untrammeled insanity. If Machete was the birth of Mexsploitation, then Machete Kills shoots it into space (literally). The pre-credits sequence promises this is the second part of a lunatic trilogy. It looks like Trejo and Vega are happy to be clutching to the side of Rodriguez's crazy train.

Austin Chronicle: If the first Machete film is a Mexican 007, this is a Mexican Our Man Flint. Robert, you really seemed to go "Rule book? Fuck it."

Danny Trejo: Excuse me, have you ever had a rule book?

Alexa Vega: What rule book?

Robert Rodriguez: I don't have a rule book, but these in particular, you have to throw away any preconceived notions and ideas, because the series has to be surprising. It has to surprise even me, so the audience is surprised by what's coming up next. I run to those challenges. I have an idea, "Oh, OK, that's too out there, it'll never work," I get more curious about it. "OK, what if we could make it work?" It's riskier in a lot of ways, but then it's not. I think it would be a bigger risk to play it safe. I think it would be a bigger risk to not play up to the promise of the first film, which was constantly surprising. If there's a rule, it's that: to be unpredictable.

AC: And to fit in as many Star Wars references as you can.

RR: I love Star Wars. That came from when I was trying to realistically figure out how to get anyone into space. I ran into [Tesla Motors and PayPal co-founder] Elon Musk at a party. He designed SpaceX, he's sending these rockets, and he's taking over for NASA. I asked him about space, and he said, "Oh, we're already going to colonize Mars." I said, "Can I go visit your factory?" and I went.

AV: Those pictures were so cool.

RR: I saw one of their rockets, and it said "Falcon" on it. Why's this called the Falcon? "Oh, after the Millennium Falcon. I'm a Star Wars fan." Wow. Talk about making your Star Wars dreams come to life. I'm going to make my character who dabbles in space travel be a Star Wars fan, so he would have all this stuff around that references to it.

AC: So when Robert says, "I have a script," is there a certain amount of bracing yourself?

DT: Robert has …

AV: An outline, maybe?

DT: He has an automatic yes when he calls. Before you answer the phone, yes. He has a script, but it's usually for the funding source. When you get on a Rodriguez set, it's an adrenaline rush of fun, let's do this. It almost reminds me of a sand lot football game. Everybody knows what they're doing. "You go over here." "I'll throw you a pass." "Alright, don't forget to button hook." Me and him, we've done enough films that we just have our communication going. Her too. I know sometimes with me he'll go, "Danny, stop acting. You're acting too much. Do it like Uncle Machete." So you know what he wants. It's really simple.

The thing I love is, the people he gets fit the characters he has. You don't have somebody trying to play this absolutely hard guy that doesn't fit.

AV: He also gives people opportunities where no one would ever see them as that role, but he believes that they could do it. Like with KillJoy. I don't think anyone believed that I could do a role like that. He didn't either. I had to convince him. But it's nice when you have somebody who is willing to take that step and go against the rules and give them an opportunity like that.

AC: You do have your troupe, so how do you balance giving them roles that fit them, and how much is it about pushing them? Not just into new kinds of parts, but like with Danny. This time Machete is even more monosyllabic than before.

RR: This guy's got two tools to work with: a machete and a bigger machete. I like the freedom of limitations sometimes.

Just about every movie, I'll bring people back to do the role again or a completely different kind of role. I worked with Steve Buscemi in one film [Desperado], and went, "You know what? He's be great in a kids' movie. Then half of it is adding new people. So incrementally, the family keeps growing. It's all dictated by the script, where I'll go, "Wow, this actor that I've never worked with, always admired, he's going to be perfect for this role."

AC: This time the three big additions are obviously Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, and the one that will appeal to hardcore action film fans, Marko Zaror. I saw Mandrill and went, "Holy shit, people need to know who this guy is."

RR: They don't know him enough. I wrote a part for him, and he read the script, and the part says Zaror. Well, there's only one person that can play Zaror, and that's Zaror, I told him, "I wrote it for you. I even liked your name." He was amazing, so I wrote him a role to introduce him to audiences, and hopefully work with him again.

He's tall, too. I mean, I'm a tall guy, so I could really relate seeing how fast he can move. Guys like us, we can't move that fast. He defies physics. It's magic, and he just worked on getting faster and faster.

Finding people like that, where I'm just a fan of this person, and I'll make them a role. A lot of these roles are just placeholders, and the role's going to grow or shrink, depending on who you cast. If you can't cast anybody, the role gets smaller. If someone like Sofia Vergara walks in, OK, the role just got bigger, and her accessories and appendages get bigger.

AC: At what point does it become clear that, OK, we're bringing back some classic props like her crotch gun?

RR: I had to bring that back.

AC: Then there's some surprises, like Alexa thinking, "Hmm, it's suddenly cold here."

AV: When I first saw the design of the outfit, I went wow. I'm going to own this. There's only one thing you can do with that outfit, and that's have confidence or go home. It certainly showed people that I'm growing up, but it was still done in a playful way. We weren't taking ourselves too seriously, and the character's very much in control, strong and confident. I like that. She's not just a wild cannon.

AC: It does raise some interesting questions about the idea that the Machete and Spy Kids movies are all in the same universe.

AV: Everyone asks, "Is that Carmen?" Definitely not Carmen. Although Daryl's in the first Machete.

DT: We had a hard time. She's like my daughter, and seeing her for the first time, I was like, "Oh my god, no." But she said, "Stop it." She owned it, but for me, it was like the first time my daughter walked out in a bikini. "Is this OK, dad?" "NO! GET BACK IN AND CHANGE!"


Machete Kills is in theatres now. For our review and showtimes, visit our Film Listings.

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