In an exclusive interview, Michael Mann analyses the creation of his crime classic: “I never thought of it as doing a genre piece…”
by Tom Ambrose
Michael Mann has done his homework. Nothing new there—after all, the visionary 64 year-old director hasn’t carved himself a reputation as the new Kubrick just because of his meticulous framing and fastidious filmmaking, but his attitude to research. This is the guy who went smuggling at night with Colin Farrell for Miami Vice; the guy who virtually became an inmate at Folsom Prison for his very first movie, The Jericho Mile. For Mann, preparation is everything.
Yet it still takes Empire somewhat by surprise to learn that the night before our interview with Mann concerning his 1995 classic, Heat, even though he’s busy producing Will Smith superhero comedy Hancock, or directing a couple of commercials, or prepping his next movie, he sat down and watched the movie to prepare. “I got land of trapped in it,” he laughs. “I fell victim to it the way some other people have told me. I thought I’d look at a scene or two and I wound up looking at the movie!”
And what a movie it is, too. Ostensibly the very simple cops-and-robbers tale of a master criminal (Neil McCauley, played by Robert De Niro) doggedly pursued by a cop on the edge (Vincent Hanna, played by Al Pacino), Heat is actually so much more. It’s an epic and tragic tale of obsession, of ego, of driven professionalism, of failed romance, spreading its net beyond the two main characters to shine a light on the relationships and working practices of supporting characters from cops to criminals, fences to embittered wives, serial killers to short-order cooks. It’s a stunning achievement, technically flawless, psychologically insightful, profound, starkly beautiful, and demarcated by its astonishing cast, from its two iconic A-listers to a supporting roster of the great, the good and Jeremy Piven. And it fully rewards Mann’s determination to stick with the project from the time he first got the idea in the mid-’70s, when a friend of his, ex-Chicago cop Chuck Adamson (a technical consultant on Thief) told him of the time he took a criminal he had under surveillance for a cup of coffee. That criminal’s name was Neil McCauley.
Mann wrote the script and sat on it for a while, waiting for a chance to take it to the big screen. “It took me a long time to get it right,” he says. “It was a writing issue more than anything else.”
But the wait was worth it. When Team Empire went into a huddle and started bandying around ideas for a modern crime classic to give the retrospective treatment, there was really only one contender: Heat. Mann’s masterpiece, the film his entire career had been building towards, and damn near the best crime movie of all time.
There’s only one small problem, though.
“It isn’t a crime film to me,” says Mann, sitting back in the Santa Monica office of his production company, Forward Pass. “I don’t concern myself that much with genre categorisation. To me, Heat was always a highly structured, realistic, symphonic drama. I never thought of it as doing a genre piece.”
In our defence, Heat walks and talks like a crime film—there are cops and there are robbers, and the robbers try to commit crimes, and the cops try to stop them, and both sides have guns and those guns go off quite a bit. But in Mann’s defence, Heat is so much more. It may even be a work of frickin’ art. Here’s why.
In a strange way, Heat began with the ending. Not in a flashy Tarantino way, but with the literal ending, in particular the image of Hanna holding the hand of a mortally wounded McCauley following their showdown amid the harsh floodlights and tall grass adjoining a runway in Los Angeles International Airport, which flashed into Mann’s head when he could have been forgiven for thinking that Heat had well and truly gone cold. With no big-screen version forthcoming, in 1989 Mann, a veteran of TV shows such as Miami Vice and the wonderful Crime Story (which was, at one point, the working title for Heat), agreed to turn Heat into a pilot with a view to a series. The pilot was L.A. Takedown, a rough and ready, cheap and cheerful and not particularly good 89-minute movie that Mann shot in 17 days, with actors who were, to put it mildly, no De Niro and Pacino. And it tanked. No TV series was forthcoming, and that was apparently that.
Except Heat wouldn’t get out of Mann’s head, and then one day, unbidden, that image popped into his head, and Heat was back on.
“I had most of it there. But you know when you know. And I knew when I figured out exactly what happened in the end and I took that dialectical conclusion and worked it backwards into the structure and modified everything that was going on to serve that, that’s when it all clicked into place for me,” he explains. “But the notion that both characters are the only two characters in the film who are completely conscious wasn’t there yet. There’s not an iota of self-deception in Vincent Hanna, nor is there in Neil McCauley. They know exactly what’s happening inside of them, they know exactly what’s going on in their world.”
Which really makes this haunting final shot, as Moby’s intensely melodramatic God Moving Over The Face Of The Water washes over cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s meticulously framed image — transforming a death that’s small in the grand scheme of things into mythic tragedy. In a way, though, because McCauley and Hanna are so self-aware, and given their earlier conversation in the movie’s seminal coffee shop scene, this fatal collision is inevitable. Intriguingly, you sense that McCauley wouldn’t have it any other way; if he’s going to check out, at least it’s at the hand of someone who gets him.
Mann’s skill in the final sequence is that he genuinely keeps you guessing about the outcome — we know one of these men must die, but we’re not sure who, and for a while we’re not sure whom we want to survive either. Heat is not a moral judgment, yet ultimately Mann comes down — as he has in each of his quote-unquote crime films, be it Jamie Foxx in Collateral or William Petersen in Manhunter — on the side of the angels. For, likeable and human though De Niro makes Neil McCauley, he’s still a stone- cold sociopath, the kind of guy who would open fire on a crowd of innocent shoppers in order to make good his escape.
Pacino’s Hanna, on the other hand, is charismatic and unpredictable, but he’s also single-minded and brusque, even callous at times. Note, for example, that he never says “goodbye” to anyone after a phone conversation. A second spent saying goodbye could be spent catching bad guys. “He is that aggressive meat-eater cop who is not there ‘to serve and protect’,” says Mann. “He is not there to do good. He’s there because he’s a hunter. That doesn’t mean that he’s devoid of morality, though.”
Indeed, Hanna has a moral impulse that McCauley simply does not have, and which surfaces throughout the movie—when he comforts the mother of a dead hooker (slain by Waingro, a rogue member of McCauley’s crew, whose rash actions brings McCauley into Hanna’s sights in the first place), for example, or when he races to save the life of his suicidal stepdaughter (Natalie Portman). This compassionate streak is partially why he takes McCauley’s hand at the end, but there’s also a feeling of true regret here, as Hanna sees so much of himself in his vanquished opponent. In another time and place, they might have been friends. In this, they were fated to be enemies.
Intriguingly, and typical of the director’s reach, each of the three examples above recall Michelangelo’s famous Pieta—a statue showing the Virgin Mary cradling Christ’s body—and in each it’s Hanna, blessed and cursed with empathy, who is doing the comforting.
HANNA AND McCAULEY
Throughout Mann’s career, he’s been drawn time and time again towards making movies and television shows about extraordinary men, driven by their passions into a heightened state of emotion and consciousness, from cops to boxers to passionate frontiersmen. “It’s anybody who has ambition, and who is excited by trying to do something beyond the circumscribed self,” he says, although he’s keen to deflate comparisons between himself and his subjects. “I guess I could say I’m driven to make the films I want to make—I wouldn’t be good as a journeyman director. But a lot of this comes from life—the edginess of Vincent Hanna, a man who’s completely conscious… I’ve met people who are like that.”
Although it’s near-impossible to think of Mann’s movie without lobbing in De Niro/McCauley and Pacino/Hanna as a job lot, and while there are fundamental similarities and overlapping characteristics between the two men that could be interpreted as a soulful connection or a homoerotic attraction or brotherhood, the two are also very, very different.
There’s no lead role, per se, in Heat but, even though Hanna doesn’t appear until the film is ten minutes old, Pacino is billed first. And it’s Hanna—based in part on Chuck Adamson, but also at least three different policemen whom Mann won’t name, who is by far the flashier role—an exuberant and confident showman, pinballing through over-exaggerated emotions, always on the edge of exploding either at his men, or his (soon-to-be-ex) third wife, Justine Hanna (Diane Venora), and yet extraordinarily gifted and professional. “All I am is what I’m going after,” he tells Justine, a line which shows how self-aware Hanna is. He tries to keep up the pretence of normal life—wife, stepkid, cable TV, cold chicken—but ultimately the appeal just isn’t there. You can picture him after retirement, lost and lonely, the buzz of the hunt forever gone. Just as Hanna and McCauley are, superficially at least, flipsides of the same coin, so are the principal performances. De Niro’s turn is introspective, while Pacino has often been accused of over-acting. But while there are sequences where he seemingly goes over-the-top—howling the infamous line, “She’s got a GREAT ASS!!” at a bewildered Hank Azaria— it’s a carefully modulated performance, with the bluster actually encouraged by Mann.
“Every big city police department’s major crime unit has that kind of guy there, who does that kind of work. That’s a highly accurate, highly authentic character that Al’s doing, and I think Al’s performance was exactly where I asked him to go,” says Mann, who cites one scene in particular—the chop-shop scene where Hanna unsettles his informant, Albert (Ricky Harris), by bursting into song before yelling at him with category five fury—as an insight into Hanna’s working practice.
“If I had one thing I would do over differently, I would probably hang on Al more in the chop-shop scene,” says Mann. “That scene comes from some place—it’s about the relationship between a really high-line pro like Hanna and the informant. You’ve got to motivate him and shake him. It’s not that he will tell you the truth all the time. That only happens in movies. In real-life it doesn’t. If you need to know something, your management of him is highly manipulative, and that is what’s being characterised here, particularly that Hanna has one modality and one objective: make my informant be ill-at-ease, let’s rattle his cage. That’s why that scene is that way. It’s not laughing at Al being large.”
Hanna’s pumped-up personality was initially cosmetically generated — during the scene where he visits an illegal after-hours club, Hanna was going to chip cocaine to keep him sharp, on the edge, where he’s gotta be. So much for a moral compass. “I thought it sent the wrong signal,” admits Mann of the excision.
In contrast with Hanna, De Niro’s McCauley is calm, collected and — when we meet him—utterly cold and incomplete. A shell of a man, McCauley is bound by a strict edict, an idea of how to live his life: famously, “Do not have anything in your life that you cannot walk out on within 30 seconds if you feel the heat coming around the corner.” To this end, McCauley is a man of few words and fewer possessions. His clothes are monochrome, his movements deliberate—he aspires to anonymity, even invisibility. McCauley is a man defined entirely by what he does, not by what he owns, and yet he’s extremely lonely, an idea perhaps best encapsulated in arguably the movie’s defining image, the blue-drenched night-time shot where he returns to his apartment alone, drops his keys and his gun on a coffee table and stares out at the restless ocean. It’s based on an Alex Colville painting from 1967, entitled Pacific, yet Mann gives it his own stamp, with the blue lighting—a motif in Mann’s films—here seeming to hint at McCauley’s ghostly nature. He is a man content within himself on the surface, yet utterly lost beneath. He needs the love of a good woman. He needs Amy Brenneman’s Eady.
One of the criticisms, incidentally, of Heat is that good women are few and far between. In Heat, there are three principal female characters, all of whom are ultimately left alone by their connection to their husbands and lovers. Yet, whereas Hanna’s wife Justine is an unstable pill-popper, and Charlene, the wife of McCauley’s right-hand man, Chris Shiherlis, is an emotionally battered adulteress, Eady is an innocent who falls for McCauley without knowing what he does. Heat was Mann’s first film after the achingly romantic The Last Of The Mohicans, yet only Neil and Eady’s relationship is allowed a chance to breathe, with some of the most romantic and sensual compositions in the movie reserved for them, including a stunning night-time scene high above the Hollywood hills, the only sequence to use a stage on this location-bound movie. “I wanted the impulse to see the city at night, because LA’s gorgeous at night when you’re up high and you’re looking down on it,” explains Mann. “If I had had hi-def then, I would have just shot it. As it was, to get the same effect we had to go the really elaborate technical way to do that with greenscreen shooting.”
Once Neil meets Eady, though, and opens up to her, he is effectively undone. “I wouldn’t say it’s Eady,” considers Mann. “I would say that Neil is the cause of Neil’s downfall. Neil McCauley is a rigid ideologue. It’s there in his choice of shirt, suit, everything. There cannot be attachments, there cannot be an emotional life, and you don’t allow yourself spontaneity because that will make you make a mistake. It’s such a rigid structure of how to live your life that when he gets spontaneous and when he deviates from that, he is in trouble. He’s a boat out on the high seas with no rudder.”
This is perhaps illustrated best in the tunnel sequence. Here McCauley, content and at peace, with a reconciled Eady by his side, on the way to LAX to get the hell out of Dodge and begin a new life, gets a call from his fence, Nate (Jon Voight), telling him that Waingro, the skuzzy killer whose last-minute recruitment to Neil’s gang at the film’s beginning sets events spiralling out of control, is at a hotel under police supervision. This is a trap set up by Hanna, who knows instinctively that McCauley is too smart to fall for it. But he hasn’t reckoned on McCauley’s late deconstruction.
As they drive through a tunnel, the change in lighting conditions temporarily overwhelms the lens, creating a beatific glow that Mann claims was serendipitous, but which remains possibly the finest cinematic depiction of an epiphany as McCauley makes the fatal decision to go after Waingro. The sequence is memorable not just for the lighting, but for De Niro’s extraordinarily nuanced performance as Neil wrestles with himself, with his commitment to Eady and his commitment to his own motto. Ultimately, disclosed to us by a wry smile, he gives in and decides to go after Waingro, setting in motion the chain of events that will lead to him breathing his last in an airfield, with Hanna holding his hand in solidarity. It’s a stunning piece of acting in a performance that both Mann and Empire feel is De Niro’s best of the last 15 years. “Val Kilmer would come around on days when he wasn’t working, just to see how Bobby was doing a certain scene,” says Mann. “When I’m looking at it, I’m seeing in microscopic detail subtleties that are there, that are very, very small: the way something motivated him to tilt his head a certain way, the look across his face, a gesture with his hand, how rapidly he’ll say a certain line, and that choice he made. It’s a truth-telling style which is a phrase I gave Waingro, but that’s literally what it is: a truth-telling style.”
A COUPLE OF REGULAR FELLAS
Given that Heat first ran through Mann’s mind in the mid-’70s—before he started filming on his first movie, The Jericho Mile, in fact—the roles of Hanna and McCauley weren’t written for De Niro and Pacino. (Nor were they written for Alex McArthur, who played the McCauley figure ‘Patrick McLaren’, and the aptly-named Scott Plank, who played Hanna in L. A. Takedown.)
But when the new and improved Heat script was ready to go into production in the autumn of 1994, it was clear that the roles of Hanna and McCauley would need two heavy-hitters to justify the $60 million budget and epic scope. Mann didn’t just plump for movie stars—he plumped for legends. And suddenly the central coffee shop scene—where Hanna flags McCauley down while he’s under surveillance and invites him to chinwag over a cup of Joe—took on a new significance: the two greatest actors of the late 20th century, who had been in The Godfather Part II but never shared screentime, would now be united in a single frame. An epochal event.
Movie history was made at a diner called Kate Mantilini on Wilshire Blvd. for the scene where, in between the tough-guy posturing dialogue exchanges about failed marriages and discipline, the two men begin to probe each other gently, looking for an advantage over the other. “The movie is really a quest of Hanna for Neil, and then a quest of Neil for Hanna,” says Maim, referring to the role reversal when McCauley ‘makes’ the LAPD down at the dockyards. From here on, a mutual appreciation society forms, with each man recognising something of himself — the motivation, the self-awareness, the hunger —in the other, which allows both men to be disarmingly frank with each other in the coffee shop. It’s virtually the only time in the movie that Hanna is quiet and reflective, the bombast jettisoned. With McCauley he doesn’t need it.
“They’ve gotten pretty intimate. You’ve got Neil giving Vincent, the man who’s hunting him, marriage advice. Hanna is meeting the only other person in the universe of the film as tuned in as he is, and that’s McCauley. They’re smart, reflective, insightful about each other. They come together in the stalemate of the coffee shop, then everything cuts loose into a state of chaos for both guys until the resolution happens.”
During shooting the takes ran into the teens (Mann used most of Take 11 ultimately). De Niro on the right, Pacino on the left, two grandmasters embarking on a game of actorly chess; each gesture, change in inflection or intonation, each glance and adjustment of posture met and reciprocated. And it all stemmed from Mann, who relished the challenge of directing the two men who are, arguably, the greatest American actors of all time. And he tailored his approach for both.
The wonderful Taschen published book about Mann’s career includes script notes to Pacino from the preceding scene, where Hanna flags down McCauley, which go as follows: “BACK STORY—you left the dysfunctional marital arena for the engaging dynamic complex one, as if simmering in the subconscious was dilemma: a surveillance of a man cognizant of it: go meet, go get him, go talk to him.” De Niro’s notes were much cleaner, much simpler: “Is this guy nuts? What is this about? What’s going on? No other units… Yeah, I’ll talk to him. He wants to find out about me? I’ll find out about him.”
“I do not walk in and say ‘a little more, a little less’,” laughs Mann, who openly acknowledges that he never directs any two actors, much less De Niro and Pacino, in the same way. “Directing actors, I want to really understand their language, how they think, how they work with themselves, to bring themselves to understanding character and beyond that into making a situation and scene feel spontaneous again and again.
“Al tends to internalise and find the character within, from sources within himself,” he continues, warming to the subject. “Bobby tends to move out from himself and look for the character. He’ll be concerned with having the right haircut, the right taste in clothes that the guy would have, about acquiring the skillsets that the guy has, to be able to shoot as well as McCauley, to open safes, to scope out a bank. It’s spectacular working with these guys.”
By the way, Kate Mantilini is still there on Wilshire Blvd., and yes, they still get bookings from people who want to sit at that table.
One of the most noteworthy things about the coffee shop scene is that it was shot in a real coffee shop, when it could quite easily have been shot on a soundstage. But Mann’s quest for authenticity can be translated into three simple words: location, location, location. As such, every single one of Heat’s 107 shooting days was spread across 95 locations across the city. Incidentally, it would be virtually impossible to shoot Heat nowadays with the same degree of freedom afforded Mann and his crew. LAX airport’s shooting policy is far more strict post- 9/11, for one thing. Many of the locations have disappeared, for another. And it’s much more expensive, to give a third and perhaps most important reason.
Although the real-life meeting between Chuck Adamson and the real Neil McCauley (which ended with McCauley’s death in 1963, following a shoot-out) took place in Chicago, Mann chose not to set the film in his home city, instead opting to set the movie in Los Angeles, his adopted home, which he had fallen in love with, spiritually and architecturally. “I had done Thief in Chicago and didn’t want to repeat myself,” he says. “You get, with these kinds of stories, some really fascinating cityscapes, and nightscapes. You’re in the industrial core of a place.”
Heat is a film defined by LA, with Mann finding beauty and romance and a restless spirit in the cold concrete of subways and flyovers, freeways and drive-in cinemas—the result of a meticulous months-long research process that found him on patrol with friends in the LAPD in polyglot communities that saw white supremacist gangs rub shoulders with disenfranchised blacks. Yet Mann soaked it all up, and would often adjust his script and, indeed, cast, incorporating characters he met along the way—a homeless guy with a TV in a shopping cart, an African-American albino—as extras.
“Very few people really know Los Angeles.
I thought I knew LA, and I realised that I was just scratching the surface,” he recalls. There’s this real ambience here to what is under-culture, to what is sub-culture. We had a number of locations around Pico-Union that visually evoke a certain sensuality and a certain mentality of urban Los Angeles life that’s real. Everything’s shot on location. I think the picture has a lot of authenticity in it, in every part of it.”
Which brings us neatly to the shoot-out.
For a movie that’s not a genre picture, Heat contains arguably the finest shoot-out you’ll ever see, as Neil and his crew, having successfully pulled off a bank job, find themselves ambushed by Hanna and his men (who were tipped off, anonymously, by Waingro). Instead of meekly surrendering, the McCauley crew decides to blast their way out with automatic weapons, a precursor to shock and awe as they shred civilians, cops, cars and anything in their path to escape. Casualties are great: the cops lose Ted Levine’s Bosko, and Neil loses his driver, Breedan (Dennis Haysbert), and Tom Sizemore’s Cheritto, killed by Pacino after taking a little girl hostage. “He’s Mr. Family Values, loves his kids, but he doesn’t love your kids,” says Mann. “He’s a complete stone-cold sociopath.”
On a stylistic level, the sequence is astonishing: a sustained ten-minute assault of urban combat, with Mann eschewing the slo-mo overload favoured by so many directors in favour of a hyper-real, virtually real-time and realistic depiction of what would happen if three sharp, cold-blooded criminals, very much in the zone and armed with M-16 assault rifles, were ambushed by the police in downtown LA and decided to shoot their way out before the odds became overwhelming.
Much has been made of ex-SAS tough nut Andy McNabb and ex-special forces Mick Gould’s contributions to the military precision with which De Niro, Kilmer, Sizemore, Pacino, Levine, Mykelti Williamson and Wes Studi wielded guns big enough to scare Rambo to death; that the sequence is often shown to Marines as the epitome of military technique (with special mention going to Kilmer’s reloading technique); that the actors spent weeks training and learning how to shoot; that Mann, Pacino and Levine went onto the streets of LA to photo-storyboard the sequence in detail; that De Niro and his gang staked out a bank and got so good at it that they weren’t picked up on security cameras; that it was filmed on four separate weekends on the streets of LA; that the dozens of cars reduced to string vests by the gunfire had holes punched in them with real rounds before filming began, to best show the sickening impact of bullets; how Mann used the deep thudding echo of production sound to convey the terrifying sonic assault of gunfire hemmed in by tall buildings.
All these factors—and more—have led to the Heat gunfight being hailed as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in movie history, and certainly one of the most influential, with its tendrils stretching to the likes of the Bourne series and The Kingdom (directed by Mann protege Peter Berg, and featuring a shoot-out which nearly matches Heat in terms of visceral impact), while Brit director Nick Love recently announced plans for a shoot-out in his big-screen version of The Sweeney that is, rather ransparently, going to be a British version of Heat’s dust-up.
Yet, as concerned with style as Mann is, it’s substance that, for him, is the real juice. The beauty of Heat’s shoot-out is how it distils several of his thematic concerns, notably cause and effect, as characters—not just McCauley, whose team is blown apart as a direct result of his failure to execute Waingro earlier in the movie—see choices they made rebound upon their lives in the most shocking, dramatic and final manner. The affecting fate of Breedan, the parolee short-order cook who is tempted into becoming Neil’s replacement driver, illustrates the success of Mann’s decision to turn Heat into an overlapping epic, to delve into the home lives of even the most seemingly superfluous character. “That was the real interest I had in the film,” he admits. “Not to see who could shoot a sexier shoot-out. An event isn’t just an event, it’s an event that impacts into the beating heart of real human lives and real circumstances and each person in their human condition. That’s the real interest in that and the passion I had for making the film, because it told the story of all these people and their lives. And you don’t make these things up sitting in an office, or sitting by the pool in Los Angeles. They actually come from the street.”
Told you he was good at homework…
* * *
THE HARD WAY
Forget De Niro’s Method madness—Danny Trejo has been an armed robber, drug addict and spent time on Death Row
by Damon Wise
If you’re looking for a guy to play a scary Mexican criminal, go direct to Danny Trejo. He’s had a lot of practice. A former armed robber, heroin addict and inmate of California’s most infamous prisons, Trejo actually spent time on Death Row until a bizarre coincidence allowed him to go free: of the three witnesses to the crime he was convicted of, one went AWOL, one was too afraid to testify and the third simply didn’t know he was involved. Grateful for his life, Trejo resolved to reform. “I did five years inside and they gave me five years on parole,” he confesses. “I finished it in two-and-a-half. This was 1972. I was 28, and it was the first time I’d been off parole since I was 12.”
That said, Trejo had no immediate plans to join the movie world. “I had no idea I was going to be an actor,” he says. “I went on to be a drug counsellor, and I’m still a drug counsellor. One of the biggest problems with drug addiction is that you don’t wanna talk to someone that hasn’t been addicted. It’s like a weird quirk in drug addiction, but that’s what happens. The greatest therapist in the world could be talking to you, but what you’re thinking is, ‘You haven’t been through it.’ One of the keys to curing addiction is using ex-addicts, because you can’t hide from them. And so I went to see one of my clients at work. She was getting a little shaky and thought she was gonna use again. She was working on a movie called Runaway Train, with Jon Voight, and when I got there I ran into ah old friend of mine, Eddie Bunker, who was advising on it. I used to box in prison, so he offered me a job training Eric Roberts how to box. Eric was scared of me, so he would do whatever I told him. The director saw that, and so he hired me as The Boxer in Runaway Train.” Since then, he’s made more than 140 films, most of which he’ll never see, unless they appear on late-night TV. But as long as Hollywood needs a badass, there’ll be plenty more to come. “One time I was doing a scene where I was carrying a gun and I had a bag of money. The producer came out and saw me. He’d just finished reading an article in the LA Times about me, and he said, ‘You know, we might be giving the wrong guy the gun!’” He laughs, “But movies are cool. Those guys know I can handle guns and they know I’ll show up for the safety meetings too.”
Despite a career in fleeting bad guy roles, notably in Robert Rodriguez’s Mariachi films, Trejo is best known for his part in Michael Mann’s Heat. “Ohhh, I mean, come on!” he drawls. “Robert De Niro, Al Pacino… I was with the elite!” He remembers the movie as a career high, but more importantly he remembers what a dude De Niro proved to be. “I always ask movie stars to come out to jails with me and talk,” he recalls, “and that guy actually showed up. He went out to a jail where everybody was hardcore. They were all 187 [numeric code for murder], everybody there. Double-gang murder. And he came and he talked. On his own! I was so sure he wouldn’t turn up, I didn’t put his name on the list. Then all of a sudden we got a call from the front desk, saying, ‘We got Robert De Niro down here!”‘
While the cheques still come in for the movies, he remains committed to his social work. “A lot of guys that I take under my wing have just come out of prison, or they’ve just finished with drug addiction. I just kinda sponsor them. We just hang out. There’s three or four of them that have started working in the movie business. A lot of times, what I’ll do is take a guy up to San Quentin State Prison. I know some of the guys up there, so we’ll go into the yard and walk around and I’ll say, ‘Okay, now, this is it, homes.’ And you’ve got guys yelling out, ‘Hey, hey, Danny, who’s s that little cutie-pie?!’ And all of a sudden they start thinking, ‘Wait a minute, this might not be where I wanna end up.’ So we talk about it. I mean, what problems do we have, really? I just got back from Walter Reed hospital and I’m seeing little kids with their arms blown off, and their legs off, and their spirits are so high. I’m lucky. God gave me a second chance.”
Empire, November 2007; pp. 152-160