Ready or not, Death Race 2 is zooming onto DVD/Blu-ray January 18th, and last week B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen had the opportunity to sit down with the cast, including Ving Rhames (Piranha 3D) and Danny Trejo (Machete), to talk about the prequel to the 2008 Jason Statham vehicle Death Race (which was itself a prequel to 1975’s Death Race 2000). The film deals with the origin of the original “Frankenstein“, convicted bank robber Carl Lucas (Luke Goss), who died in a race at the beginning of the last film. Check out the full (lengthy) article inside!
Ok, forget about that last one. But the other three questions are indeed valid in the context of this article. The 2008 film was hardly a box-office dynamo, grossing a rather measly $12 million its opening weekend on its way to a $36 million domestic total. The budget was $45 million. But ah, see, you’ve gotta factor in the foreign grosses as well, which amounted to another $39 million. Crunch those DVD/Blu-ray sales numbers (another $24 mil in the bank), and it looks like you’ve got yourself a moneymaker! Not enough to warrant a theatrical sequel, but nevertheless good enough for some direct-to-DVD action.
Have you been briefed on Ving yet? a publicist asked me as I sat outside the hotel suite where in moments I’d be interviewing the Golden Globe-winning actor, who in the film plays the moneyed, opportunistic creator of the “Death Race” concept. I hadn’t.
He’s gonna ask you if you’ve seen the movie. Have you seen the movie? Nope, nope I never did get around to it, I told him. Don’t tell him that, he said. We had some ‘incidents’ earlier. And don’t ask him any questions like, ‘What’s the movie about?’ or ‘Can you tell me about your character?’“ Some “incidents“? Like what, he threw a journalist off the sixth-floor balcony in a rage? I was suddenly feeling the urge to pee myself.
There was one journalist in front of me – a woman named Deborah who apparently hated being called Deborah, which I knew because she’d just told the publicist that through gritted teeth after he made the mistake of addressing her by her full name. It’s Debbie, thank you, she intoned, giggling bitterly under her breath (when will they ever learn? it seemed to be saying) before settling down into one of the cold hard plastic chairs beside me.
I sat waiting for awhile longer, furiously crossing out questions on my carefully typed list and writing in new ones. There was a rumor floating in the air that earlier Ving had made a young female journalist cry. Deborah – excuse me, Debbie – and I chatted a bit to pass the time (nice lady, as it turns out), and soon enough her turn was up. I looked after her with almost a note of pity as she entered Ving’s suite and the door closed behind her. And then, within seconds, she was back out in the hallway again.
I panicked. Oh shit, she must have told him she hadn’t watched the movie and he kicked her out, I was thinking. Do I just lie and say I have? What if he starts grilling me about it?
“Change of plans“, Debbie announced. Ving was hot under those T.V. lights, as it turned out, and he wanted to do the rest of the interviews in his private room down the hall. As in, I’d be alone with him, with none of those video technicians around to protect me if something went wrong. As he appeared in the doorway and turned down the long hallway (which had suddenly taken on a sinister quality), the publicist prodded me to follow. I just wanted to go home.
I heard laughter wafting past the closed door of Ving’s hotel room – it was Debbie, conducting her interview with the man I’d vaguely come to fear inside. I took her laughter as a good sign – Had he appreciated her moxie when she’d corrected him on her name? Should I go in with an aggressive stance and assert my dominance? – and began feeling a bit more at ease. The publicist had moved one of those hard plastic chairs down the hall and set it outside Ving’s door for me to sit on. We made small talk for a bit – ‘How long have you worked at Bloody-Disgusting?’ ‘Oh, a year or so I guess.’ – before one of his co-workers appeared. They moved down the hall a bit and began speaking in hushed tones.
I started to sweat. I scribbled out some more questions and wrote in new ones to replace them, questions designed to throw Ving off the scent that I hadn’t watched his movie and had no intention of doing so at any point in the future.
Debbie had been in there for a long time now. The publicists continued to whisper to each other two dozen feet away, their voices taking on a particular sort of frenzy. What was happening? Weren’t they going to go in and tell Debbie her time was up? For god’s sake, the poor woman was trapped in there with him! I checked the clock on my phone. The little colon just sat there, unmoving. Mocking me. Time was like a heavy syrup, nightmarishly slow. I’d surely been waiting for an hour now. I hadn’t heard Debbie laughing in awhile.
And then the door opened, and there she was. She strode out confidently – an old pro at this, surely. Her eyes dry, no signs of a struggle. And then one of the publicists indicated that I should enter Ving’s room. I did, clutching my battered red folder with all those scribbled-out questions apprehensively. It was like Daniel and the Lion’s Den, if you want to get Biblical about it.
And Mr. Rhames did appear like some kind of god as I entered – reclining on a white leather sofa, lounging like the most patient of lions, Los Angeles spread out hazily beyond him through the glass doors leading to the balcony.
“Hey brother, how many more do I have?” he asked the publicist tiredly, his voice deep and full-toned but also…pleasant. Cordial, even.
“We have, after this…two more“, the publicist replied, flipping through the day’s schedule. I looked to Ving, anxiously awaiting his reaction. “And then there were some phoners that we had scheduled…”
“Yeah, I may do the phoners from home, or whatever“, Ving interrupted.
“Ok, well, we’ll figure it out“, said the publicist.
And then I was on. I glanced quickly at my sheet of questions, feeling much more at ease now. He wasn’t scary. He wasn’t mean. He wasn’t even as tall as I’d thought, though it was hard to tell as he lay back on the white leather sofa as if preparing for a heavy therapy session. I was able to discern at least one question from the maze of frantic pen strokes and hastily written-in substitutes – gee Ving, you’re so busy all the time – do ever take time to stop and smell the roses? I just went with it.
“Always“, he told me as he reclined back further on the sofa. “I always take at least three weeks before going to the next project.”
And then the conversation moved along, flowing organically. What had all the fuss been about? Our short but interesting conversation delved off into all sorts of unexpected corners – Bill Gates, reality T.V., Kim Kardashian, the U.S.’s tenuous standing as a superpower in the world – revealing the actor be a thoughtful and amiable man who seemed less interested in promoting the film than espousing some deeply-held beliefs about the state of America today.
“I hate to say it, but I don’t know if ‘Death Race 2’ is that far away in some regards to being a reality show“, he said in all seriousness. “I just look at it like the destruction of America. All powers have to fall. That’s just history. And to me, we’re in that stage. The fabric of America is not only changing, but I think it’s crumbling. We deal with countries, and we have nuclear weapons, and we say, ‘you can’t have one’. Well, who are we? ‘I have one, but North Korea, you can’t’, or ‘I have one, but Iran, you can’t’. So…[other countries] are now saying, ‘Who are you to tell me what I can and can’t have? Especially when you’ve dropped an atomic bomb on people before. You should be the last person who should be saying who can have what!’”
It was all certainly profound, but at the end of the day we were here to talk about Death Race 2, a low-rent, blow-’em-up film with hot girls, fast cars, and a bunch of oiled-up dudes out to survive a sadistic televised competition by any means possible. It’s the sort of film that Rhames knows well, having lately appeared in a string of action movies including Piranha 3D, Bruce Willis-starrer Surrogates, and direct-to-DVD (ish) title Operation: Endgame.
“I guess part of it is the escapism, the heightened reality, and as an actor it’s even more freedom, because you can be a little more outlandish or out of the box“, he said when I asked him what he enjoyed about shooting an action film specifically. “But it can work because this action thing…no one goes to ‘Death Race 2’ and expects it to be reality. So that gives me a certain freedom as an actor, that, well, the audience is not expecting ‘reality’, really, so you can go do heightened reality! It gives you a different sort of freedom.”
It wasn’t a freedom that required Rhames to get behind the wheel, however. While the movie’s very reason for existing is to showcase muscle-bound cars trading paint and trailing sparks through the air, Rhames’ role was such that he merely had to stand back and watch as his fellow actors and stuntmen put themselves in harm’s way. And that was just fine by him.
“I’ve seen the injuries that happened on the set“, he told me. “I’m 51 years old, I have no problem…you guys wanna crash cars? Hey, go ahead, knock yourself out. I’ll be in my office with a tie on, that’s ok with me. But you have a good time!”
And then it was over. Eleven minutes. Boom! Done. “God bless“, Rhames uttered as I shook his hand and headed for the door. It was all I could do not to dangle grapes over him as he lounged back on that leather sofa – nice guy or not, he certainly was the king of his domain. Kind and patient with me, surely, but I wouldn’t wanna fuck with the dude either.
After leaving Mr. Rhames – or Ving, as I like to call him now – back in his suite to ponder the meaning of America some more, I headed down the hall to interview the film’s lead actors, Luke Goss (aka Not Jason Statham) and Maxim covergirl Tanit Phoenix, in a neighboring room. The two were quite the attractive duo, a Hollywood version of the king and queen at senior prom – Luke the tall, angular leading man with a smile to die for and Tanit the wide-eyed sex kitten with gorgeous flowing hair that I imagine smells like rose petals when she first wakes up in the morning.
Tanit stuck out her hand aggressively as I entered the room, introducing herself in a soft and charming South African accent and sporting two of the most dazzling emerald-green peepers I’d ever seen. Luke sat beside her, cool and relaxed and flashing a brilliant-white set of perfect teeth likely to make even the most hardened of (female or gay male) journalists melt to the floor.
“I’m a tomboy“, said Phoenix, a quote I imagined had at some point or another accompanied a delicious spread of her in a bikini inside one of those ridiculous “men’s lifestyle” magazines she routinely posed for. “I’m sure Luke’s gonna keep telling people that I smack him about, I do smack him about. I smack everyone about. [Laughs] I grew up with a whole bunch of boys in the family…so I just kind of train for fun and for exercise, and I skydive, I bungee jump and I horse[back] ride…it just became second nature to me to be around guys and to be around this action. My dad used to race cars, and I grew up in airplanes, so I felt at home. I feel more at home doing action than anything else, really.“
“You’ve got bigger balls than I do“, I told her jokingly.
“That’s not what I heard“, said Goss, flashing his Crest-white movie star style at me.
“Well, I guess that depends on who you talk to“, I replied, attempting to stifle a schoolgirl giggle.
“Oh, I talk to aaalll the right people [emphasis mine]“, he winked. And that smile again – like butter slathered with caramel.
Oh sorry Tanit, what was that you were saying? You can play rough with the boys too?
“I wanted to race the car[s] to be honest, but they wouldn’t let me“, she beamed.
In the film Phoenix plays Katrina Banks, a sniper-trained beauty who becomes the object of affection for Goss’ character Carl Lucas, a convicted bank robber who’s forced to compete in the Death Race competition and in the process takes on the “Frankenstein” moniker. Given that the movie was shot in Capetown it was a blessing for the young model/actress, who was still residing in her native South Africa at the time of filming but has since moved to Los Angeles.
“I was actually in South Africa when it was happening, so I…campaigned very hard, I got a hold of the script, and went in…and I booked one of the leading female roles“, said Phoenix, clearly grateful for the opportunity. “And I [got] to stay at home, and sleep in my own bed, and all my friends would come onto set and come and support me, and it was brilliant.”
And we would have pillow fights and ice cream parties in just our underwear, too, I imagined her saying, in some FHM quote writ large above a sexy, half-naked photo of her with feathers floating about.
Goss – a Brit who was once in an English boy band named “Bros” with his twin brother Matt before turning to acting – was, like Phoenix, admirably “on” for having given interviews for the last several hours straight (I came in near the end of the day), talking about his experiences doing charity racing earlier in his career and how that background allowed him to perform most of his own stunts in the film.
“I’ve always driven pretty fast cars, I like driving a lot“, he told me, also professing his love for ’60s and ’70s icon Steve McQueen. “So I’ve been trained for some of that stuff before, so I just said ‘I can do it’. They put me in a test area, I did a J-turn, a couple of 360s and pulled it up to the stunt guys and they’re like, ‘Ok, Luke can do a lot of his own driving’. So that was it, it was that simple.”
Goss also told me he’d watched both the 2008 Statham film as well as the ’75 original starring David Carradine before embarking on the shoot.
“I think I felt somewhat of a responsibility to kind of [familiarize] myself with the  version“, he said. “I think it poked fun way more at the concept of media exponentially getting to the point where people’s appetites are going nuts for more, more, more, more. And I think it’s poking fun at that. I think the one that Statham did was a kind of more refined version of that. And [ours] is a prequel to that story, and I think it’s in the same vein. It’s more of a contemporary Hollywood movie [as] opposed to the very camp [original]…you know, those outfits. No capes and running over the elderly in this movie. It’s a crazy-ass film, that first one.“
The three of us also took some time out to profess our love for co-star Danny Trejo, who plays the role of “Goldberg” in the film (and whom I’ve also met twice before). Given he stunning looks it wasn’t surprising to me when Tanit told me he’d become almost like a father figure to her during the shoot – honestly, what dyed-in-the-wool straight man wouldn’t want to spend every minute with her?
“We were ‘like this’ straightaway on set“, she said, crossing two of her fingers in an indication of solidarity. “And we’re extremely close now…he’s my godfather, my very own Machete…I’m new to L.A., so I’m not used to a lot of things, and who to call, and where I can do what, and if I ever get stuck with anything, I’ll pick up the phone and like that [snaps fingers] he’s there.”
“He would come to the house at my place out there, looking out at the ocean, and we’d all hang out there, and eat and drink and talk, and I’d see him on the camera [during the shoot], and I’d be like, ‘Hey everyone! It’s Danny fucking Trejo!’” laughed Goss. “Every time we saw him on the camera we’d be laughing because that’s how I’d introduce him all the time: ‘That’s Danny fucking Trejo!’”
I met the diminutive Mexican actor – who last year graduated to “leading man” status in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete – on the 6th floor balcony of the hotel, where he sat smoking cigarettes under the gray Los Angeles sky. He hadn’t remembered meeting me before – “Hi, I’m Danny Trejo, nice to meet you” – but it didn’t matter; given the amount of projects he’s attached to (no less than 15 unreleased films in some stage of production or development) and the amount of new people he meets on a daily basis, I would’ve been surprised if he had.
“Bloody-Disgusting.com, sounds like my kinda website!” he joked as I took a seat at the table across from him. And then he laughed. Oh yes, that famous Danny Trejo laugh. Despite being known for playing hardcore “tough guy” roles in dozens and dozens of films, the ruddy-faced actor is one of the most genuine, likable people you’ll ever meet, with one of those rich, contagious guffaws that will have anyone in his immediate vicinity instantly joining in. I asked how the experience of shooting in South Africa had been.
“Awesome“, he told me. “I’d been there before. I did ‘From Dusk Til Dawn 2’ and ‘3’ in Capetown, South Africa…and I met Tanit Phoenix, so what the hell? [Laughs] So it made the whole damn thing worthwhile!”
I started asking questions about the project. Generic ones, to start. What was it like working with director Roel [Reine]?
“He’s a sweetheart“, said Trejo. “I hate sitting in a trailer, [but] he just keeps you going. And that’s what makes it a lot of fun, you’re not just sitting around getting paid to wait…you get paid to act.“
I tried staying on topic – this was the Death Race 2 junket, after all, and that’s what I’d been assigned to cover – but inevitably the conversation turned to the role Trejo has become most famous for – Machete, the tough-as-nails, populist Mexican action hero who fights upper-class corruption with single-minded focus and an ample supply of firepower. Trejo admitted he was surprised at the response the faux-trailer got when Grindhouse was released back in 2007.
“When we did ‘Grindhouse’ and we shot that fake trailer…it was like, ‘woah’. And when I got to England, guys were tattooing that picture of Machete on their back…so I called Robert and I said, ‘You know what, Robert? We’d better do [this].’ And he [said], ‘It’s in the works, homie.’ Because of the response. People were asking him more about ‘Machete’ than they were ‘Sin City 2’.”
The actor admits that since taking on his first leading role in a major Hollywood production (with sequel Machete Kills – for which there’s already a script – reportedly in the works), people have been asking whether he’ll only be accepting bigger parts from now on. His answer?
“Hell no, man, I wanna work! I ain’t waiting for nothing! My agency gets about 20 scripts a week…”
At that point director Reine – who I hadn’t been scheduled to interview for the press junket – suddenly appeared on the balcony, prompting Trejo to leap from his seat and greet the Dutch helmer, who has more than 20 mostly direct-to-DVD directing credits to his name (he is next attached to Scorpion King: Rise of the Dead, another low-budget sequel). After a few seconds of trading niceties, Reine joined us at our table, brushing off my question on whether he’d like to talk about the film before Trejo began speaking again, now in furious “sell the damn picture” mode.
“I’ve gotta say that if you really wanna see a great action movie, you’ve gotta pick up this DVD“, said Trejo. “It’s just a blast, man. I watched it with about five of my friends at home, they couldn’t stop. Like ‘woah, shit!’ Flipping a car frontwards is one of the hardest things there is to do, and we did it. It was like right downtown, Capetown, South Africa – [mimes car exploding] – we blew up this cop car. Everybody was like screaming. So it was amazing…we had a crowd, it was like a soccer game. [Laughs]”
Going with the actor’s lead, I asked what we could expect in the unrated edition of the movie being trumpeted on the cover of the DVD/Blu-ray.
“Hey, you see me naked!” he laughed heartily. “No, I’m kidding! No, the uncut version is just a lot of the stuff that you couldn’t play, and it’s like unbelievable. The whole film is like wall-to-wall action, that’s it. It’s a rollercoaster ride of adrenaline. And I like it, cause you still don’t lose the story. But there’s not a lot of that dialogue that goes on forever, you know what I mean? It’s like, get to the point!”
After another minute or so I left Reine and Trejo on the balcony together, shaking each of their hands before heading down in the elevator and out through the lobby of the swanky hotel to my car. I left still unclear as to whether or not my life has meaning, but nevertheless with the realization that it sure could be a hell of a lot worse than interviewing celebs in a swanky hotel all afternoon. Shit, maybe I’ll even watch the movie now.