Bad Guy. Inmate #1. Killer Guy. Mexican Guy with Tattoos. For the first five years of his movie career, Chicano actor Danny Trejo portrayed characters who were so menacing, they didn’t need names.
Trejo didn’t go to acting school to learn how to play rough. A convicted felon, the Los Angeles native had been locked up in San Quentin, Folsom, and Soledad. But his tough guy image began long before he set foot into America’s most notorious prisons. He learned how to be a “macho bad mutha” at home from his family.
This month, Trejo shares the jaw-dropping story of his life (so far.) Called Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood (Atria Books, 2021), he wrote the memoir with the help of his close friend and fellow actor Donal Logue.
In your book, you detail how you were drawn to crime and violence at an early age. What was your childhood like?
Danny Trejo: I thought it was normal. I remember my dad waking me up with his arms on my throat, screaming at me. The first seven years of my life, I grew up with my grandmother, five aunts, and five girl cousins. It was just—kittens were nice and flowers smelled good. At seven, I moved in with my dad, my grandfather, and my dad’s five brothers. Shit changed real quick. I found out little boys don’t do pee-pee sitting down, goddammit. You go from being Shirley Temple to John Wayne in one night.
It must have been very hard.
Danny Trejo: I didn’t know it was traumatic. My family was tough. I had this one ray of light, my uncle Gilbert. He smoked weed. I didn’t know it. He was just giggling happy.
How has the “extreme manhood” you describe in the book driven your public image and private life?
Danny Trejo: You have to have a persona in prison that says, “If you get near me, I will kill you. And then I’m gonna go kill the guy that dry cleans your clothes.” You gotta have that without saying a word.
In the film industry, the minute I would walk on set—and everyone’s supposed to be a tough guy—a director would say, “Oh, take off your shirt.” I’d take of my shirt and there’s that tattoo. Then he’d say, “Can you say something prison-y?” And I’d say, “I’m gonna kill all you sons of bitches!” “Oh, that’s great,” he’d say. That’s what I did the first five years of my movie career.
The first time I got interviewed, the reporter said, “Danny, don’t you believe you’re being typecast?” It was the first time I heard that word. I said, “No, what do you mean?” She said, “You’re always playing the mean Chicano dude.” I thought about and said, “I am the mean Chicano dude!”
How did you get started in movies?
Eddie Bunker, a guy I knew in San Quentin, saw me win the lightweight and welterweight title up in prison. He asked if I was still boxing ‘cause he’d adopted the screenplay of Runaway Train for an American audience. He said, “Man, Danny, we need somebody to train one of the actors how to box.” They were giving me $50 for being an extra. This’s in 1985 when they used to pay you in cash. I was a drug counselor. I’d take the cash in a minute. “What’s it pay?” I asked. He says, “$320 a day.” I said, “How bad you want this guy beat up?”
Were you serious?
I wasn’t making $320 a week and they’re gonna give me $320 a day? I says, “How many days do I gotta beat him up?” I thought he was really mad at this guy and wanted me to hurt him. I thought, well, I’d do it and tell my sponsor and make amends.
I’ll never forget. He says, “No, no, you gotta be careful. This actor is real high strung. He might sock you.” I says, “Eddie, for $320 bucks, you can give him a stick. I’ve been beat up for free!”
$320 day, that’s dinero. The first check I got, I looked at it. I thought they made a mistake. I went to the bank to cash this check before they found out. Eddie stopped me and said, “What’s going on?” I said, “They screwed up, holmes.” He said, “No, you got meal penalty, you got overtime …” All this stuff I didn’t even understand.
I said, “Well, I want to be an actor.” I did every prison movie from 1985 to 1991.
You started by playing bad guys, but as an actor, you have a lot of range, like in Spy Kids, where you don’t take yourself too seriously. What’s your approach to that comedic type of role?
Danny Trejo: It’s like, I’m a house painter. So, in order to be a house painter, I’ve gotta have my equipment, and I’ve got to know what color paint they want. They hire a director to direct. They hire an actor to act.
When the lady of the house comes out and says, “No, that’s not the color I want. I want a deeper blue.” I’m the painter. It’s not up for me to say, “Wait. I think this house should be this other blue.” It’s her damn house.
So when the director comes up and says, “I want you to do it this way,” I got hired to listen to that guy. It’s funny. [Spy Kids director] Robert Rodriguez would always say, “Stop acting, Danny.”
Since you mention Rodriguez, let’s go there. Is Machete Kills Again … in Space ever going to happen?
Danny Trejo: I talk with Robert Rodriguez every day. “Hey, what’s up with Machete in Space? Right now is the best time in the world.” I want everyone to text him, “Robert, we’re waiting.”
You’re upfront about your battle with addiction. You’ve now been clean and sober for over 50 years and use your platform to educate and help others. What’s one of the most memorable times you used your past to help someone else?
Danny Trejo: I met a guy in San Quentin when I was doing a movie called Blood In, Blood Out. If you look in the dictionary for East L.A. cholo gangster, it has his picture. I met him and we talked and stuff.
Eight years later after he came out, I helped him get a job in needle exchange working in drug abuse [treatment]. Then he got sick and lost his job. So, I just said, “Come work for me.” He’s been working for me for about 15 years. And the guy saved my son’s life. When my son was battling drug addiction, he saved my son’s life.
You once said, “Everything good that’s ever happened in my life has come as a direct result of helping someone else and not expecting anything in return.”
Danny Trejo: That’s literally the way I live. That’s the way everybody around me, that I break bread with, that I call a friend, lives. We all got like socks and thermal underwear in the trunks of our cars to pass out to the homeless. I got dog food—I love dogs—and give it out.
I don’t want to sound like a do-gooder, but every morning I say, “Dear Heavenly Father, you know what? Help me stay sober and clean and let me help some other people, every day.”
On Wednesday, July 14, 2021 at 8:00 PM Eastern / 5:00 PM Pacific, Danny Trejo appears with fellow actor Steve Buscemi in a live, virtual book event moderated by University of Houston professor Daniel Peña. Go to the Brazos Bookstore’s website for more information about the ticketed event.