Once seen, never forgotten, Danny Trejo has perhaps the most familiar face in Hollywood, like tanned, ridged leather with a wonky handlebar ‘tache and eyes that’ll burn right down to your soul. A former drug addict, alcoholic and armed robber with years of prison in his chequered past, today Trejo is better know for memorable appearances in coming up to 250 TV shows and feature films, the latest of which, uncharacteristically for the action veteran, is festive comedy A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas.
“When you’re doing an action movie you’re surrounded by a bunch of Hollywood kids trying to act like gangsters,” says tough guy Trejo, 68. “They want to stay in character, be obnoxious and rough. Hollywood guys try to make you believe they grew up on the streets, and I tell ‘em, ‘Yeah, but two shows a night on Broadway don’t count!’ They’re not the streets I grew up on. Those guys are kind of funny, but not on purpose. When you do a comedy though, everybody’s trying to be funny. It’s a much nicer day.”
Back in Trejo’s jailbird past, a big screen career was way beyond his comprehension. “To tell you the truth, I never thought I’d get out of prison. I had a very bad attitude, a terrible temper and I didn’t play well with others. I was always in trouble and finally I realised, my life was my fault. I was to blame for everything. So I made some changes. Got alcohol out of my life. Then tried to help others too.”
In a rags-to-riches twist so classically Hollywood it beggars belief, Trejo recalls the moment that changed his life. “Back in the Eighties, there was so much cocaine in Hollywood, it was crazy. I was working as a drugs counsellor in 1984 and visited the set of Runaway Train to help somebody there stay clean. I ran into a guy who’d I’d been in the penitentiary with and he asked me if I still boxed. He remembered I’d won the lightweight and welterweight boxing titles in San Quentin. He said someone in the movie needed training. So of course I said yes.
“He introduced me to Andrei Konchalovsky, the film’s director. We’re still friends. Last month I went to Russia to his 75th birthday party. He called and asked me to come himself. I always give him credit for starting my career. He hired me to train Eric Roberts and I guess Eric was scared of me so he always did what I told him to do! Andrei liked that and put me in the movie.”
Konchalovsky aside, the director Trejo is most closely associated with is Machete’s Robert Rodriguez. “I first met Robert in 1994 when I walked into his office to test for Desperado. He looked at me and said, ‘Wow. You remind me of the bad guys in my high school.’ And I said to him, ‘I am the bad guys in your high school.’ He cast me straight away. Gave me the knives I used in the film so I could practise throwing ‘em.
“While we were shooting the movie in Mexico, my family came down from Texas to visit me and when they met Robert, we realised that he and I were second cousins! We didn’t even know it. We became friends and that’s when we started talking about Machete. Way back then. Robert said, ‘There’s this character who’d be perfect for you. We used the name in Spy Kids, then shot the fake trailer in Grindhouse (released in the UK as Planet Terror and Death Proof) , all the time working towards the first Machete movie. Now we’ve made two. Machete Kills comes out next year.”
The thrill of the shoot, says Trejo, is what keeps him on the straight and narrow. “The minute a director says action, for me, it’s an armed robbery in progress. I get the same rush of adrenaline, only this time it’s legal, and I get even better paid. Plus millions of people end up watching what you do. What an amazing thing to happen.
“I’ll tell you something else that I love about the film industry,” adds Danny, wrapping up. “I still try to help kids turn their lives around, and speak in high schools, juvenile halls and prisons. The hardest thing to do when you’re speaking to kids is getting their attention. Then when you’ve got it, you have to keep it. The blessing that I have is that when I walk onto campus, I have their attention, because they want to hear what the guy from Con Air, the guy from Desperado, the guy from Heat and the guy from Spy Kids has to say. Even the kids who don’t normally go to assembly want to hear what I have to say. So I have a chance to reach them, and help them to avoid making the same mistakes I did.”
Catch a special, extended version of our Danny Trejo interview in December’s seasonally sensational Blockbuster Magazine. If you’ve not downloaded the November issue yet, click on the links for the iPad, Kindle Fire and Android versions.