Everybody Loves a Villain: Danny Trejo Talks
Danny Trejo says his life changed with one word — the first time a director yelled “Action!”
Trejo was 40 years old before he wandered onto his first movie set, Andrei Konchalovsky's 1985 “Runaway Train.” He was working as a youth drug counselor, himself an ex-convict, when he received a call at 11 p.m. one night from a teenaged client who needed help.
“This kid called me up and said he was afraid he was going to start using again, so he asked if I would come down and hang out with him, and support him,” Trejo told the Sun-News. “So I went down to his job. He was a (production assistant) on a movie called 'Runaway Train,' with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts.”
Trejo will be at the screening of his most well-known movie, “Machete,” followed by a Q&A session, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Allen Theatres Cineport 10 as part of the first Las Cruces International Film Festival. The festival debuts today at different venues in Las Cruces.
Trejo was born in Echo Park, a Los Angeles neighborhood with a tough reputation. (Some 50 years later, Echo Park would be the setting of “Mi Vida Loca,” in which Trejo played a junkie named Frank, or Casual Dreamer.) However, Trejo spent much of his early life growing up in the Pacoima neighborhood.
“Pacoima was the murder capital for a while,” Trejo said. “A life in the movies is certainly not something I envisioned for myself. My ambition was to be a great gangster or something, I don't know. I had an uncle, Gilbert, who taught me how to deal drugs and do robberies. So from there, I just kept going to prison.”
He spent much of the 1960s in and out of some of California's toughest prisons. While doing time in San Quentin, he became a champion boxer in that prison's lightweight and welterweight divisions.
He now says, if he could go back in time and give himself one piece of advice, it would be, “Be careful who you choose as role models.”
“I had my Uncle Gilbert, who was a drug addict, an alcoholic and an armed robber,” he said. “But then my Uncle Rudy, his older brother, was on the track team. He was a good football player and went to college. My Uncle Rudy's still alive, and my Uncle Gilbert died of an overdose.”
While in prison, Trejo completed a twelve-step program and overcame drug addiction. He has now been clean and sober for 47 years.
Trejo, 71, has appeared in more than 330 film and television projects. The first, of course, was “Runaway Train.”
“I walked onto that movie set and happened to run into a guy named Eddie Bunker that I knew in prison,” Trejo said. “I asked Eddie what he was doing there, and he told me that he had adapted the screenplay. And then he asked me if I was still boxing.”
Bunker had seen Trejo fight in San Quentin, and the filmmakers needed someone to train Eric Roberts for a boxing scene.
“I asked him what it paid, and he told me $320 a day. I said, 'How bad do you want this guy beaten up, and how many days do you want me to beat him up?” Trejo said, laughing.
Konchalovsky saw Trejo training, liked his look and the way he moved around the ring, and cast him to play Roberts' opponent in the film.
Trejo went on to star in “Blood In Blood Out,” “Desperado,” “Con Air,” “Spy Kids,” “Machete,” “Bad Ass,” and countless other feature films and television shows.
Life of service
“When I got out of prison, I truly dedicated my life to helping others,” Trejo said. “Everything good that has ever happened to me has come as a direct result of helping someone else.”
He recalls one of the best pieces of advice he ever received.
“Eddie Bunker told me, 'The whole world can think you're a movie star — but you can't.' I really GET that,” Trejo said. “I'm just enjoying life. And the good Lord has given me a life that allows me to help people. My passion is talking to young kids, schools, juvenile halls and prisons — that's my passion.”
Being an actor, he concedes, is little more than a means to a very important end.
“If you're going to talk to kids, first you have to get their attention — which is impossible, because they have none. Then you have to keep their attention, which is also impossible. And then you have to show them that you're cool, which is impossible if you're more than 10 years older than they are,” he laughed.
Trejo's message to children, teens and convicts is that drugs and alcohol will only make your life worse, and that education is the key to whatever you want to do.
“Anybody can deliver that message, if you can get their attention and keep it,” he said. “What the good Lord has given me is a position — so that when I walk into a school, a prison or a juvenile hall — I've got everybody's attention, automatically, before I even say a word. They don't want to hear Danny Trejo; they want to hear that guy from 'Spy Kids,' that guy from 'Blood In Blood Out,' that guy from 'Heat.' That's the blessing.”
'That's what I do'
Trejo said he doesn't think much about his legacy as an actor.
“As an actor — I know it sounds crazy, but that's what I do. That's my job. It's like being a house-painter, it's just that more people see my work,” he said. “Besides, an actor wouldn't be anything without a director, a producer, the lighting, grips, PA's — it takes a whole lot to make a film. The actor's just the one out front.”
He'd much rather be remembered as a great parent to his three children.
“I'm trying to leave them pretty secure,” he said. “My son, Gilbert, just finished producing, directing and shooting a music video for a band, and it's awesome. He's learned it himself, because he's been on movie sets with me since he was 4 years old.”
Away from the camera, he enjoys spending time with his five rescue dogs. (As he spoke with the Sun-News by telephone from his home in Los Angeles, he was throwing a ball and playing with his dog, Duke.) He also collects classic cars, which he enjoys working on — and driving around, showing them off.
“Everybody loves them,” he passionately proclaimed. “I've got a 1936 Dodge touring sedan, which is beautiful. I also have a 1942 Chevy Stylemaster, a '65 Buick Riviera (Clamshell) and a '76 Cadillac Seville. And then there's the piece de resistance, a 1956 Chevy Bel Air — chop-top, lowered, everything. I love driving them around, and enjoying the gifts the good Lord's given me.”
Bad guys die
Trejo, known for playing some of the most deplorable villains the silver screen has ever seen, has often said he wants to make sure his bad guys send an valuable lesson.
“Bad guys die,” he said. “If they ever try to offer me a part where I'm the drug dealer, the armed robber and the killer, and then ride off into the sunset with my arm around Jessica Alba — No! I can't do that, man. It's completely the wrong message.”
Trejo is frequently asked how such a nice guy can play such vicious and ugly characters.
“When they say 'action,' the sky's the limit,” he said. “Believe it or not, I used to be a bad guy. Ordinary actors have to stay in character; I can't stay in character, because that character will send me back to prison. I'm glad when the director says 'cut,' because I can go play with my dogs,” he said with a laugh.
What lies ahead
Trejo has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, Harrison Ford, George Clooney, Charles Bronson, John Malkovich and Nicolas Cage. Despite his impressive catalog, there are still some names on his bucket list. Right at the top of that list is Alejandro Iñárritu, who won back-to-back Best Director Oscars in 2015 and 2016 for “Birdman” and “The Revenant.”
Meanwhile, Trejo has several other business ventures in the works. Early this year, it was announced he is planning on opening Trejo's Tacos, a restaurant on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles. He has said the restaurant is ready to open, and is just waiting on city permits. He also has his own brand of coffee, various merchandising ventures, and a line of ice cream sandwiches in development.
— Originally Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News, 03/01/16