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The Hardest Man In Hollywood

by Alex Godfrey
3 September 2010

If you don't know Danny Trejo's name, you'll recognise his face. What a face. He's the one in Con Air, Heat and now Machete who looks like he'd kill you.

Danny Trejo: A Mexican-American, he grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where an uncle quickly introduced him to LA’s underbelly, getting him high on weed at eight years old, on heroin when he was 12, and took him along to an armed robbery when he was 14. A lot of burglaries and a few spells in juvenile hall followed for Trejo, who took up boxing, then lived in various Californian correctional facilities, got properly addicted to heroin, and was nearly executed before being reborn, first as a counsellor, and then an actor.

Robert Rodriguez had the idea for Machete in 1995, when he cast a relatively unknown Trejo in Desperado. The idea was for Trejo to become a sort of Latin Charles Bronson, said Rodriguez, who finally brought the character to life with one of the ‘fake’ trailers that accompanied the American release of his and Tarantino’s Grindhouse double-bill in 2007. Machete was the clear breakout. With Trejo as the multiple knife-wielding assassin and Cheech Marin as a badass priest, it was infinitely more grindhouse than both of the main features, promising an abundance of unabashed violence, gore, and incestuous threesomes. “They soon realised they just fucked with the wrong Mexican”, said the voiceover, and everyone who saw it wanted 100 more minutes. Finally, those 100 minutes have happened, giving Trejo his first high profile leading role. And Rodriguez’s success over the last two decades has enabled him to make the film with a supporting cast including Robert de Niro, Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal, Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez and Don Johnson. Which to my eyes and ears is the best cast of all time. Of all time.

Danny Trejo still lives in LA. Recently divorced, he’s had three wives and has three kids. When I called him up for an hour at the tail end of 2003 he was at home, tidying the house after his kids had a party. He said he was eating lots of honeydews.

How do you find LA these days? Do you think your life would have been different if you’d grown up there today?

Oh yeah. I’d probably be dead. It’s amazing, I don’t know how kids are doing it now. I have so much respect for any young person that is making it through life without getting into trouble because it’s almost impossible now, there’s so much going against you.

What sort of things?

Pressure, peer group pressure… there’s so many more kids, so many gangs. It’s insane. So I really respect kids who are doing well right now.

You must see a lot of kids who remind you of you when you were young.

Well I do a lot of speaking, tonight me and three of my friends are going to a homeless shelter to talk to kids. Last week I was at juvenile hall. It’s amazing that all of us were in the pen together. And I think, “Wow, what a change.” It’s almost a fact that the only way you can stay out of prison and stay off of drugs is trying to help other people. That’s it. That’s the only way.

When were you first in juvenile hall?

 

When I was 12 years old.

What were you there for?

I think assault. I was a real kind of angry kid. I threw a rock at some kid… hahahahaha! Actually I don’t even think that we were that angry, I think we were having a rock fight. Most people don’t do this, but we used to throw rocks at each other when we were bored. Playing war, but with rocks.

Can you remember how you felt at that age?

It was kind of tough, growing up. I can’t remember how I felt other than I had an attitude that I wasn’t gonna let too many people push me around. It’s funny, you know that programme Punk’d? I look at this thing and I get angry, because all they guys they’re doing that to are punks anyway! Do that to Mike Tyson! Or come over to my neighbourhood and do that shit, see what happens. It’s bad, because then kids try to do that to other kids, and then what happens is you do that to the wrong kid, who says “Wait a minute, I didn’t like that…” I watched this guy who was getting his car smashed, and I couldn’t believe it, I was saying “Come on, do something, pick up a rock!” The point I’m trying to make is, growing up I wouldn’t let people push me around. That might have been why I got in so much trouble.

Where did you get the attitude from?

Well the surroundings when you’re growing up in that neighbourhood, you’re either a pusher or a pushee. And I decided to be the guy that pushes.

Your upbringing, from what I’ve read, reminds me of that De Niro film A Bronx Tale.

Yeah. The one where De Niro’s the bus driver? Yeah. It’s amazing to me, because now with my kids, I’m like the bus driver, saying “Hey wait, that’s not the right way to go, kid.” But they kind of listen to me, because unlike the De Niro character in that movie, they know that I have really been there. When my friends and I go to speak, the minute we walk in, they know we’ve been there. We have their attention. I love that. When I was a kid, if you could get my attention just by walking into a room, I would listen. And I’ve been blessed with this acting thing now, so when my friends and I walk into a room, they go quiet and listen to what I’ve got to say.

“Robert Rodriguez had the idea for Machete in 1995, when he cast a relatively unknown Trejo inDesperado. The idea was for Trejo to become a sort of Latin Charles Bronson.”

When you were a little kid, were you just surviving on the street and defending yourself, or were you properly nasty?

I think that’s the way it starts. It starts with you defending yourself, and it goes from there.

When he was 18, and just fresh out of juvenile hall, Trejo was sent to a Youth Authority facility for two years for stabbing a sailor with a broken bottle, after a drive-in date he was on with a girl went awry. He later said he was “loaded”.

[Crime writer, ex-robber and friend] Edward Bunker said you were a bad drunk.

Terrible.

In what way?

Alcohol made me real violent, really really violent. But still, you start realising that it’s not the drug, it’s the person. If you’re a bad drunk, you take away the drunk and you’re still bad. I had to find God, I had to find remorse, I had to find all these feelings that normal people had. Feeling bad about hurting somebody. In prison, if you want something you just take it, it’s not right but it’s how you survive, just predator and prey, predator and prey. The choice is yours.

What kind of reputation did you have in jail?

I would say that it was good.

Meaning?

Doing whatever it was necessary to do.

In 1965, three months after his release, he was sent to San Quentin after selling four ounces of heroin to a a man who turned out to be a federal agent. Only it wasn’t heroin – it was sugar, with heroin smeared around the edge. He was 21.

Tell me about the sugar-heroin bust.

Yeah, I sold sugar to a federal agent. It wasn’t heroin, but I still went to prison. They were just so mad that… the agent’s name was Agent Enrod – I love saying his name in case he’s still a government agent, the stupid idiot. Hehehehehe! All I did was I sold him sugar. Just four little ounces of pure sugar. And he just couldn’t take the joke! Hahahahahahaha!

Were they just waiting for an excuse to put you away?

Yeah. Yeah. I did about five armed robberies, and they were so glad to get me on this drug beat they didn’t even file the armed robberies. So by the time we got to court and it was just sugar, they were so pissed! They gave me ten years. I did five.

While in San Quentin, Trejo honed his boxing skills, and became the California State Prison champion (lightweight and welterweight). He also got addicted to heroin, and got a huge tattoo of a curvaceous Mexican woman on his chest, administered via the end of a guitar string by a gentleman named Harry ‘Super Jew’ Ross. Well, Harry started it in San Quentin. He continued it a few months later when they were reunited in Folsom… and finally completed it in Soledad. That was where, in 1968, Trejo got involved in a riot, attacking, among others, a prison guard, and was sent to solitary, headed for the gas chamber (the guard wouldn’t testify, which saved Trejo’s life). In solitary, the previous inhabitant had smeared the message ‘GOD SUCKS’ on the wall. With his own shit. Trejo decided to change his life.

So what happened to you in solitary?

Three of us went in the hole. Cinqo de Mayo, 5th May 1968, I was 24. And that was when my life just turned. I’d already known about AA and NA and CA, and I just started getting on that. I’d always known about God. I remember my prayer, my prayer was, “God, if you’re there, everything will be alright – if you’re not, I’m screwed.” That was my prayer. And he was there.

How long were you there in solitary for?

 

From May 5th till August 23rd.

So you turned things around pretty quickly.

Well I think I woke up to the fact that I was either gonna spend the rest of my life in prison or I was gonna have to make some drastic changes.

I read that you acted out The Wizard Of Oz in there.

Yeah. It was just something to kill time with. You know you can only jack off and do push ups so often. So all of a sudden I just started acting out The Wizard Of Oz.

Is that your favourite film?

Yeah it’s one of them. And my favourite film of all time, that I also did, was The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, with Charles Loughton. I’d yell to the guards [does a Loughton imitation], “She gave me water!” Hahaha. I think of that movie and I start crying. Climbing around the bells, I did the whole thing.

What did the guards think?

They thought I’d lost my mind, they thought I was nuts. I was oblivious to them, I was gone. In prison you go crazy to keep from going crazy. It’s like a controlled craziness.

“You know that programme Punk’d? I look at this thing and I get angry. Do that to Mike Tyson! Or come over to my neighbourhood and do that shit, see what happens.”

Do you remember the moment you decided to change your life?

It was right after that. I thought I could spend my life in prison – which is okay after you’re used to it. My friend right now, Gilbert Tewksbury, he did 38 years flat [for murder] without coming out, he was there when I was there, he’s my little cousin. So… but for the grace of God, there go I.

When he got out of solitary, he became a member of the Twelve-Step program. He got out of jail the next year.

You became a counsellor pretty quickly after leaving jail.

Yeah, I just decided to try to help other people. That was the only way.

Did you enjoy it back then when you started?

No. No, I didn’t even know how. All of a sudden you’re trying to be a nice guy, and you feel corny, like you’re faking it. You’re saying “Good morning” to people you don’t know, you feel like an idiot. Because usually you’re telling people to fuck off and die. So all of a sudden you’re trying to be this other person, and it’s kind of the way God wants us to live, to be happy, to bring happiness and joy everywhere you go. And I don’t want to beat a tambourine, but that’s the way I want to live my life. Everywhere I go I wanna bring some kind of joy and some kind of happiness.

How long did it take you to feel comfortable about wanting to do that?

Two or three years. Because people would ask you to do stuff and you’d really wanna say no but you’d have to say yes. To be a better person.

And how long were you doing this before you started acting?

I was still doing it when I got my first job, on Runaway Train in 1985. I went to Runaway Train because one of the kids I was working with was working as a production assistant on it. He thought he was gonna use because there was so much blow around that movie set. So he asked me to come down, and I went down and I was just kind of hanging out with him. And I ran into Eddie Bunker, who had written the screenplay to Runaway Train. I knew Eddie in the pen. And he asked me to train Eric Roberts how to box for the film. And I said “What you paying?” And they said $320 a day. And I said “How bad you want him beat up, man?” And they said, “No no, be careful, Eric’s real high strung, he might sock you.” I said “Shit, for $320, give him a stick. He can hit me all he wants.”

Was he high strung?

Oh yeah, Eric’s really high strung.

Was he tough?

No. So, they liked the way I was, the director liked the way I looked and the way I handled Eric. He came up to me and said (heavy Russian accent), “You be in movie.” I thought he was gay at first, because he kissed me on each cheek. I figured, for $320 he can have the kisses, but it ain’t goin’ no further. I told him and he laughed. But I’d never been around a European man, I’d never seen any of that shit. He was a wonderful man, and he really really helped me, he kind of showed me what acting was in front of a camera. Because all of us are actors, in front of guards, “I swear to God, your honour, I’ll never do this again,” all that crap, all of us are good actors. But do it in front of the camera, it’s a lot different.

So did you fall in love with movie-making there and then?

I fell in love with it. Especially when they handed me that first cheque. I worked for three weeks on that, daily. And I got that first cheque and said “Damn!” More than I made on most robberies! And then probably the first five years of my career I was ‘Gang Member Number One’,’Armed Robber Number One’, ‘Thug’, ‘Villain’… I figured as long as I was a number one, two or three I was okay. I never had a name. The first name I got was in Death Wish 4, with Charles Bronson. I was Art Sanella.

In 1993 you did Bound By Honor and filmed in San Quentin. How did it feel to be back there?

San Quentin was really a heavy experience for me, it was probably one of the heaviest experiences I went through in my life. When I walked back into San Quentin, I started hearing all that screaming, and all the actors got scared: here are 3000 guys screaming they’d love to go up in ya. Hahahaha! If you’re not used to it… I mean, a couple of the actors almost fainted. Me and my partner, a guy named George Pereira, who was with me in that movie, the first time he went in San Quentin was 1935 on a robbery and kidnap. And he did 10 years flat. So both of us had been in Quentin before, so when we went back there it was an experience but we knew what was gonna happen, they didn’t. You’ve got people screaming, “I want your baby sister!” Hahahaha… It’s best not to scream back!

And you filmed in the same cell-block you’d lived in?

Yeah, South block, that was my block. And all those inmates in the film, they were actually in the penitentiary, they were inmates.

I read that you help out with authenticity in a lot of your films, as a kind of technical advisor, because of your experiences with prison and crime.

Yeah, any kind of movie I’ve been in, most of the time, has crime or drugs or alcohol or penitentiaries, and I end up as a technical advisor. I bring authenticity sometimes just standing there. A lot of scenes, directors just put me in there for that. Because God has blessed me with looking like a tough guy!

“I did about five armed robberies, and they were so glad to get me on this drug beat they didn’t even file the armed robberies. So by the time we got to court and it was just sugar, they were so pissed!”

Do you think, when you were younger and when you were in prison, having such a tough face helped you out?

Well it definitely got me in trouble all the time. Now it’s a work of art. Andrey Konchalovskiy, the director of Runaway Train, was the first one to look at me and go, “Your face has character!” Character, I didn’t know what he was talking about.

1995 was a big year for Trejo. He auditioned, and got a bit-part, in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado, and the two discovered they were second cousins. Later that year, he also appeared in Michael Mann’s Heat.

What was it like for you to star in Heat alongside Pacino and De Niro, after only being in the industry ten years? You had that great death scene with De Niro.

You know what… I used to stare at Robert De Niro. And he asked me, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “You’re Robert fuckin’ De Niro!” Hahahaha! But let me tell you something. That guy’s straight up, believe me. I asked him to go to the penitentiary with me one day, almost as a joke, and you know what, he showed up and he talked to everybody there. And for him, talking in front of a group, he doesn’t like to do it, but boy, he got up there, Robert De Niro, and it was like, whoa…

What did he talk about?

Staying out of trouble, that sort of thing, just a few minutes, it was good.

Are you still a counsellor?

Yeah, I work for Western Pacific Rehab, owned by Dr Dorr. Me and him got together in 1975, and I’ve been working for him since then. I counsel anybody who has a specific problem, like just getting out of the penitentiary and onto drugs. And on movie sets I’m always bringing people over to do talks. There’s a real confidentiality thing, a lot of people want to know things but we choose not to tell. And most of them have to listen to me because I can beat ‘em up.

Can you still be intimidating, do you ever use that?

Yeah. You gotta remember, that was part of my personality for a long time. That, you don’t lose, you just try not to let it come out, try to tone it down. The first thing I do is say hello and smile. You gotta keep a smile on your face so people don’t think something’s wrong. But it’s really funny because I produce as well, I produced [Steve Buscemi's prison drama] Animal Factory, which was written by Eddie Bunker. I didn’t really get the credit I should have, sour grapes, sour grapes, but I put that whole thing together. I got everyone together and kind of took a back seat. But it’s really funny ’cause Hollywood is kind of an intimidation thing, some of these producers – and I’m like,”Wait a minute, I’m the master of that, are you kidding? Don’t ever stand up and come at me like that, sit down!”

Do you have regrets about your background?

People that I’ve hurt, physical stuff that you have to do, but you try to make amends with people and try to get on. But that’s the only thing that I’m ever sorry for. But as far as robberies and anything like that, meh. Hahahahaha! I got away with a lot.

Have you met ex-cons who’ve been inspired by what you’ve made of yourself?

Oh yeah. Yeah I get letters from all over the world. It’s amazing, it blows my mind. But we have a thing, I meet a lot of the guys who get out of prison and we go and hang out for a while. Those are my guys, these are the guys I know. You’d be surprised at how many of those guys are extras in movies now.

What messages do you leave kids with, what do you want them to go away with after listening to you?

Well first of all that crime doesn’t pay. You don’t become an actor by going to prison. Because a lot of people say, “Oh you went to prison and got out and became an actor.” It didn’t work that way. I died two or three times and then got out of prison, then did 17 years clean and sober, just working and being an honest citizen. Then I became an actor. So then they start to understand, there’s a lot of pain involved in all this stuff, and not just yours, other people’s. As long as I can convey that message it’s ok.

Machete is out now in the UK.

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