More than a few tough guy actors have been, to one degree or another, actual tough guys — soldiers, cops, even petty, and not so petty, criminals. Still, Danny Trejo earned those intimidating facial lines with perhaps the toughest real-life background of anyone to ever transition from a life of crime to a successful life in the fantasy factory of Hollywood.
Of course, it’s that authenticity that’s attracted casting directors since the start of Trejo’s career in the mid-80s. His early small roles eventually led to Trejo’s association with Robert Rodriquez, who coincidentally turned out to be his second cousin as well as the filmmaker who would finally give him his first starring role. Starting with “From Dusk ‘Till Dawn” through the “Spy Kids” trilogy, it was a long path that first led to the funniest fake trailer in “Grindhouse” and then the ultra-violent yet entirely tongue-in-cheek Mexploitation action-fest, “Machete,” now available on Blu-ray and DVD. In his mid-60s, Danny Trejo is now a movie star.
A Los Angeles native with an astonishing 201 roles to his credit, the actor grew up within a half-hour’s drive of the film studios in Burbank, but his tough neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley might as well have been in Tierra del Fuego. He was a heroin addict by age 12 and, way-too-shortly thereafter, an armed robber on a supersonic path to jail or the grave. Fortunately, as depicted in the biographical documentary “Champion” (available via streaming video on Netflix), jail got Trejo first. He eventually found his way to a 12 step program that allowed him to turn his life around to the poing where he could stop being a hard case and, with the benefit of a fortuitous encounter with the late ex-con author and “Reservoir Dogs” actor, Eddie Bunker, start playing them instead.
A voluble gentlemen, Trejo enjoys talking to the press and is not a difficult interview by any means. The roundtable nevertheless started with a slightly awkward moment of silence when a writer who had been patched in via telephone for some reason didn’t come up with the first question and was never heard from again.
Eventually I chimed in with a query, perhaps a bit serious for an opener. I mentioned “Champion” and how, in the film, Trejo discusses how criminals, both inside and outside of prison, are forced to present their natural fear as anger in order to survive in a brutal environment. I wondered if Trejo considered that world of false but convincing bravado to be his first acting class.
“You have to learn how to act. If you’re standing out in the yard in San Quentin and something’s going to come down, you’re scared to death and you can’t show it. Inside, you’re dying, but outside you’re [saying] ‘Bring it!’ I think that was the first way of trying to cover up a feeling that is inside. [Anger is fear] turned outward. That’s automatic. Some people don’t even play with fear, they just go straight to rage and that’s the best weapon anybody can have if you’re under attack.”
I mentioned that, for a tough guy performer, it’s notable how many essentially comic roles he’s taken on. I wonder if he felt more comfortable with those. I mentioned an ex-criminal I’ve met who said he couldn’t even sit through an episode of “The Sopranos” because it hit too close to his past. His answer helped explain why Trejo’s been such an incredibly busy actor.
“I’ll do whatever you’ve got. Bring me what you’ve got. I did a TV series for a while called ‘Kingpin,’ [a hugely watchable show created by the late David Mills of “The Corner,” “The Wire” and “Treme”] and it was just super-violent. I just thought it was funny. I take this as a job, that’s all. Acting is a job the same as a house painter, a plumber or electrician. Same thing. I show up for work, ‘What you got?,’ and then I’ll do what you got. Some of it’s really easy because I’ve done it. It makes it really simple.”
Regarding Trejo’s long association with Robert Rodriguez, another writer asked if things have gotten to the point where he’d pretty much do anything Rodriguez suggested.
“Absolutely. He’s got a standing ‘Yes’ at the office. He calls and the first thing is ‘Yes, we’ll do it. What now?'” Trejo said with a chuckle.
But with the enormous number of movies and television shows that Trejo will do in a year, does he ever really have time to catch his breath and enjoy his success?
“I love what I’m doing. I love doing this. To me, being on a movie set is fun. It’s not even work. When I have to act, that’s the work. I remember somebody asking me, ‘When do you go on vacation?’ I was in Capetown, South Africa [working on a film]. I mean, people work all their lives to get here. In the work there’s fun. I was in Hawaii for three months doing a  movie called ‘Six Days, Seven Nights’ with Harrison Ford and Anne Heche. I was there three months, I probably worked 15 days. I got tired of scuba diving [and] snorkeling. To me, my life’s a vacation. It’s something that I love doing.”
The next question prompted Trejo to tell the story of how a visit to the apparently cocaine-laden set of the 1985 action-thriller, “Runaway Train,” led to the chance encounter that jump-started his film career.
“I got there completely by accident. I was a drug counselor; I was working for Western Pacific Med/Corp. One of the kids that I was working with called me and said, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of blow down here on my job. Can you come and hang out with me for support?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I went down at 11:00 at night to hang out with him. That’s what I do. I support people that wanna stay clean and wanna stay sober.”
“I went down there and it was funny because I walked on to a movie set. He was a P.A. [production assistant]. I got overwhelmed because everybody was dressed like convicts and they’re all trying to be hard. It was funny. This guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you wanna be in this movie?’ I said, ‘What do I gotta do?’ He said, ‘You wanna be an extra?’ I said, ‘Extra what?’ He said, ‘Can you act like a convict?’ It was funny because I’d been in every penitentiary in the state of California. I said, ‘I’ll give it a shot.'”
“They gave me a blue shirt, so I took off mine and I had that big tattoo [of a woman wearing a sombrero] on my chest. The minute I took off my shirt this guy came over to me and said, ‘You’re Danny Trejo.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I’m Eddie Bunker.’ I said, ‘I know you, there was a guy Eddie Bunker that I was in prison with.’ He said he was a writer. I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ He said, ‘I wrote the screenplay.’ He said, ‘You want a job?’ I said, ‘I got one, they’re gonna give me 50 bucks for acting like a convict. He said, ‘No, no. We need someone to train one of the actors how to box.’ He knew that I boxed. I said, ‘What’s it pay?’ He said ‘$320 a day.’ And I said, ‘How bad you want this guy beat up?'”
Trejo got some laughs with that, but the story wasn’t over.
“He said, ‘No, no. You gotta be careful. Actors are a little high strung and he might sock you.’ I said, ‘Eddie, for $320 a day, give him a stick.’ I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t making $320 a week. I started training Eric Roberts how to box for the movie. Andrey Konchalovskiy, the director, saw that Eric would do whatever I told him to do. So, he hired me. The rest is history. I went from movie to movie to movie. The first five years of my career I was always ‘Inmate #1’ or ‘Bad Guy with Tattoos.’ The first time I got a name was in ‘Death Wish 4.’ I was Art Sanella and I played with Charles Bronson. I thought I’d made it. I said, ‘Whoa, that’s it. Look, my name’s on the trailer.’ I couldn’t believe it. It just kept on and kept on, going from movie to movie. My agent, Gloria, she keeps me working.”
“They know that the worst time for me is when I’m not working, though when I’m not working I got three vintage cars that I love working on. So. I’ll do that, but I can only do that so long and then I start calling. ‘Hurry up, get Danny a job!'” Trejo said in a mock angry voice, laughing at himself.
But is there any kind of role he won’t do?
“Depending on what it is, you know. If the bad guy is gonna get away with crime, nah, I won’t do it, it’s not real. Bad guy’s gotta die.”
That led me to note that his “Spy Kids” character is named “Machete,” actually Isador “Machete” Cortez. I asked if he thought Carmen and Juni would be shocked if they knew what their uncle was up to.
Chuckling, Trejo said, “Oh, that’s what Uncle Machete does when he’s not taking care of the kids.”
But, seriously, is the Uncle Machete of “Spy Kids” actually the same guy as the hard-living and hard-killing Machete of the 2009 movie?
“We named Uncle Machete in ‘Spy Kids’ just as an homage, or whatever you call it, to ‘Machete.’ We hadn’t done the trailer yet and we didn’t know if that movie was ever going to be made. Robert loved this character, so he named Uncle Machete, the mystery uncle, [after it]. Then, when we did the trailer, the trades came out and said, ‘This is the best thing in ‘Grindhouse.’ When we walked out of the premiere of ‘Grindhouse,’ me and Robert just looked at each other and started laughing because we knew we gotta make this movie.”
Of course, Rodriguez had written the first version of the “Machete” screenplay some years before, around the time him and Trejo were making the slightly less spoofy action flick, “Desperado,” the 1995 sequel to Rodriguez’s career-making “El Mariachi.” The movie starred Antonio Banderas, then still making the transition from being the young leading man of worldwide art house hits like Pedro Almodovar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” to an international superstar.
“It was funny. Antonio Banderas could be standing next to me, but nobody knew who he was. It was his first starring role and we were in Mexico and he’s from Spain. Everybody was asking me for autographs and taking pictures. I remember Robert saying, [in a low voice] ‘They think you’re the star of the movie?’ I said, ‘I am. Aren’t I?’ We had a blast,” Trejo said, laughing.
“That’s when [Robert Rodriguez] told me about ‘Machete.’ 16-17 years ago. About this character that he wanted to do. Badass.”
Speaking of “Machete,” I wondered if Trejo knew anything more about the failure of the State of Texas to pay a promised $1.75 million in tax rebates for shooting the film in the state, presumably because the film’s satire of anti-immigrant politicians, in the form of the villainous independent state senator played by Robert De Niro, was somehow regarded as an attack on the state by the very conservative Republican governor, Rick Perry.
“He got kind of upset. It’s funny because the [Texas Film Commission], they were on the set. Texans are known for keeping their word. They were on the set; they read the script. Nothing that was in that movie was a surprise to them. So, I couldn’t understand why they did what they did. Evidently, they’re not Texans.”
The next question segued to Trejo’s appearance on a television show you might not expect, the long-running daytime soap, “The Young and the Restless.” The questioner noted that such appearances seem like a trend for a lot of big stars, including James Franco.
“I started it. He’s a copycat,” Trejo said, a big grin on his face. “Let me tell you something. I’ve been in this business for 25 years. My mother never thought I had a job. I mean, I would come home to my mom’s house and say, ‘Mom, I worked with Robert De Niro.’ She’d say, ‘I know, mijo, but when are you going to get a job?’ Then I do two episodes of ‘The Young and the Restless,’ I come home and you’d think I won an Oscar. ‘Mijo, you made it. We saw you. You were on the novela!” Trejo chuckled.
So, did Trejo ever think he’d get to the point of being the star of a film like “Machete”? Did he enjoy being the lead, or did he prefer the perhaps lower stress level of doing a supporting role.
“I didn’t give it much thought. As long as I’m working, I’m working. For a long time, Hollywood had us fooled that a leading guy has to have a certain look. He’s gotta be, you know, purty,” said Trejo getting laughs from the room. “Not that that’s bad, but Robert Rodriguez said that that’s bullshit. I was completely content just working all the time. I remember when we did ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico.’ I would stand between Johnny Depp and Antonio Banderas, they’d hang around me. I’d look around, ‘Am I having a bad day or what?’ It was ridiculous, these guys are pretty, and there’s nothing wrong with being pretty but you don’t have to be pretty to be a leading man. Rodriguez [said], ‘We’re going to make the plumber or the mechanic [the lead].’ That’s me.”
Someone else mentioned his appearance on the sitcom “Modern Family” and wondered if he was hoping to do more purely comic roles, not just tongue-in-cheek macho parts like “Machete” or his very funny appearance as a comically murderous drug dealer on “The Good Guys.”
“Give me what you got. I’ll play a tree if you want me to. You want fruit on it, pay me more money. Comedy’s fun.”
Could he see himself headlining his own long-running sitcom?
“That sounds like work to me,” Trejo said with a comical sigh. “Whatever. I love working, I love what I do. My passion is talking to kids. My passion is talking in juvenile halls, and youth authorities, and high schools. That’s my passion. The more I do in film, the more I get their attention. The minute I walk onto a campus, I have everybody’s attention. My message is to stay off drugs and alcohol. Education is the key to success in anything you want to do, and that people who help other people seem to have better lives. They’re not only listening to me, they’re hearing what I’ve got to say.”