Machete Star Danny Trejo

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Joaquin Avellan / 20th Century Fox / AP

Danny Trejo stars as a legendary ex-Federale in a scene from Machete.

You may not know his name, but you certainly know his face. With his chiseled physique, long hair and handlebar mustache, Danny Trejo is one of the most recognizable character actors working today. (As well as one of the most prolific — he's appeared in nearly 200 films.) Trejo's life could have easily turned out differently: he spent his youth as a drug addict and an armed robber before turning straight. His career as a drug counselor led him to Hollywood, where he worked as an extra and a boxing instructor before moving into acting. Trejo's relationship with the director Robert Rodriguez began when he played a silent assassin in Desperado; he has appeared in most of Rodriguez's films since. In 2007 Trejo played the lead in Machete, a fake trailer that played before Rodriguez's Grindhouse — now the pair returns with an actual full-length Machete film. TIME spoke to Trejo about his past, his tattoos and how to be a tough guy.

You used to be a pretty bad guy. How did you change your life around and become an actor?
I took drugs and alcohol out of my life and dedicated my life to helping other people. A drug addict, an alcoholic, a criminal: They're very, very selfish people. When you get the spotlight off of you and turn it on to other people, your life is just better.

Does your past impact your acting in any way?
Well, when a director asked me if I could act like a convict, I was like, "I'll give it a shot." I've been in every pentientiary in the state of California. And so when they say, "Can you do a robbery?" I go, "Hell, done a few of those."

You got your start playing henchmen and heavies. How did you learn to be a good henchman?
I think for the first five years of my career I played Inmate Number 1. And that was a dirty role, but I learned what was going on in the acting world. Hollywood wants guys who can act tough — Hollywood don't want tough guys.

So what's the difference between acting tough and being tough?
The reality was that you don't become tough until the director says "Action." And then all you do is, you bring out what you got. You put yourself in the situation and boom! It comes out. Like, "OK, let's do this robbery." You're not tough when you're planning a robbery, but when you kick in that door to rob that poker game, you'd better be pretty tough.

How did you get your tattoos?
I put 'em on. [Laughs.] The tattoo on my chest was done by a friend of mine that I've known since we were 14 years old. And he put that on when we were in prison, he tattooed it on with a needle and thread.

As someone who's been a real-life violent person, how do you feel about the violence in Machete?
Robert Rodriguez comes from a comic book background. The violence in Machete is almost funny. It's not gory. You're shocked, and then you laugh.

What were the origins of the Machete character?
Robert and I talked about Machete 16 years ago on Desperado. We were in Mexico when we were doing [the shoot], and nobody knew who Antonio Banderas was. He was just a pretty-boy actor. And so I'm walking around, and I've got this vest on and I've got all these tattoos, and [everyone] thought I was the star. They kept coming up to me and taking pictures and asking for autographs, so Robert said "Hey, they think you're the star of the movie." And I told him, "I am the star." So we just hit it off. He started telling me about the character Machete, and it was actually pretty close to what the movie is.

This is the eighth film you've made with Robert Rodriguez. What are his working methods like?
He's the most innovative director I've ever worked with. On other movies, you will shoot a scene, and then somebody will say, "OK, we've got an hour and forty minutes for them to set up the next scene." On one of Robert's movies, when you're done with one scene they've already got the other one set up, so there's not a lot of downtime. Every director that I've worked with so far who's read his book Rebel Without A Crew, they've learned to utilize time. Robert Rodriguez has done more for American cinema than any director I know in the past 15 years.

The film concerns a plan to build an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. What do you think it has to say about the immigration issue?
I don't think [the film] is about illegal immigration. It's not about the guy sneaking across the border to come work as a day laborer to support his family. It's about the corruption that goes on that side of the border and the corruption that goes on this side of the border. The only ones who really want a wall are the drug cartels, simply because that will drive the price of drugs way up on this side. Every time somebody in politics wants a platform to stand on, they immediately shoot at immigration. But the reality is that nobody has done anything about it.

This is your first lead role. What would you want to do now that you've accomplished that?
I love action films. I don't really like drama. But this is work for me, this is a job. I just want to keep working. If they want me to play a tree, I'll play a tree! But if you want fruit on that tree, you've got to pay me more money.

Why don't you enjoy drama?
They're slow. Since I was five, I've been hyperactive. And in drama you spend a lot of trailer time. "Wait a minute, we have to do this scene." And so they're doing a scene with two other people, and you're sitting in your trailer thinking — like you're in San Quentin.

Is it true that you were supposed to be in The Expendables?
I was approached to be in The Expendables. I met with Sly Stallone.

It just didn't work out?
You know what? It's like, I make them guys look too soft.

So you're too tough for them?
[Laughs.] You said that. Not me.