The story of Danny Trejos’ transformation from career criminal to action movie star is the stuff of Hollywood legend. For the first 40 years of his life, the LA native—Trejo was born and raised in Echo Park—was heavily involved in drugs (he first tried marijuana at 8 years old) and robbery, serving time in a staggering half dozen different California prisons, including infamous ones like San Quentin and Folsom. He got clean in 1969, eventually becoming a sponsor for teen drugs addicts. Which is how he ended up on the set of Runaway Train, a 1985 movie starring Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. Trejo got a call from one of the kids he sponsored, who was working as a PA on the film and needed help resisting the drug temptations on the set. Trejo showed up, and was immediately offered a job as an extra playing a convict. “I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever heard,” Trejo recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll give it a shot.'”
Since then, Trejo has literally never stopped working. According to IMDB, he’s appeared in or is currently working on 250 movies, TV shows and videos. (Tom Hanks, by comparison, has been in about 70.) He’s taken on every bad guy role imaginable—drug lords, murderers and thugs, gang members and prison inmates, tough dudes with badass names like Razor Charlie and Johnny Six Toes. He’s been in blockbusters like Con Air, Predators, Anaconda and Desperado, cult indies like The Devil’s Rejects and Mi Vida Loca, and even comedies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
His first leading role, in 2007’s Grindhouse, was just under three minutes long. He played a rogue assassin in a trailer for a nonexistent exploitation film called Machete. (“They just fucked with the wrong Mexican” the tagline promised.) A few years later, director Robert Rodriguez expanded Machete to a feature length. The critics mostly loved it (the Chicago Sun Times called it “Warped, violent, dark, funny, sexy”) and the conspiracy theorists despised it (radio host Alex Jones warned that Machete would inspire a “race war.”) This September, Trejo returns for the sequel, Machete Kills, and one thing is certain: more than a few baddies are going to lose their heads and internal organs.
I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous about talking with Trejo. Sure, it was a phone interview, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t reach through the wires somehow and throttle me. As it turns out, he’s entirely friendly and outgoing, the kind of guy you’d want to go drinking with, if only to hear all his incredible prison stories. He has a few.
My absolute favorite moment in Machete is when you slit open a guy’s stomach and use his intestines as a rope to escape from a hospital. How are you possibly going to top that with the sequel?
The sequel makes the first one look like a 10-year-old could watch it. There were various scripts, because me and Robert (Rodriquez) kept talking about it and coming up with ideas. I ride a rocket in the movie.
A rocket? You mean a jet pack?
No, a rocket. An actual rocket. I steer a rocket. This goes back to the old Flash Gordon days. And the amazing thing is, it doesn’t look corny. It looks like “Wow, this is real.” We’ve also got some big names in the movie. Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Lady Gaga, Michelle Rodriguez, Amber Heard, Vanessa Hudgens, Sofía Vergara…
I heard you have a fight scene with Lady Gaga. Were you impressed with her ass-kicking skills?
I was amazed. She seems so girlie in her videos, but wow, what an athlete. The things she does, I couldn’t even begin to duplicate. You try kicking someone in high heels. Everybody was so amazing. Charlie Sheen plays the President of the United States. And he asks Machete to do something, right? And Machete says “Nah, get yourself another man.” Sheen jumps up and yells, “I’m the President of the United States, damn it!” He was so believable that you could almost hear that song playing behind him. You know…. (Hums “Hail to the Chief.”) I would vote for him.
Both Sheen and Gibson have been arrested a few times, and both managed to avoid jail time. Between the two of them, who would’ve survived at a maximum security prison?
Probably both of them. Because they’re both crazy. You don’t want to fuck with them. I think Charlie would be one of the shot callers in prison. He’d have people doing stuff for him. And Mel, well, Mel may take a bite out of you.
He would? Did he try to bite you?
No, but I did a sword fight with him. Robert says “action” and I just threw my sword down. He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m not fighting William Wallace! C’mon, are you crazy?” Even Mel cracked up. Every day we were making Machete, you never knew what was going to happen. I had a love scene with Amber Heard. And Robert says, “Action!” And then, “Amber, why are you laughing?” And Amber says, “Because Danny won’t stop saying, ‘Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.'”
You had a love scene with Jessica Alba in the first Machete film, and now Amber Heard in the second? That’s insane.
I wish my life was like this! All I keep getting is divorced. [Laughs.] The last time when I kissed Jessica Alba, my three friends — Craig, Mario, and Max — were trying to kiss me! They were like, “You’ve got her residual lips on you.”
You’ve played a lot of bad guys in movies. Which probably makes sense, since you used to be a real bad guy.
Yeah. I like to think my whole life before getting into movies was just one long character study.
Is there anything from your criminal past that was so bizarre they’d never be able to put it in a movie because no one would believe it?
Some of my prison experiences were kinda crazy. I was at Soledad, San Quentin, Folsom, Vacaville, Susanville, Sierra.
How’s you survive that?
You have to keep this absolute sick sense of humor or you’ll go insane. You have to actually go insane to keep from going insane. Do you understand?
I was locked up all by myself in a cell for eight months. So I used to act out the Wizard of Oz. “Did you kill my sister?!” The whole thing. Literally. The Lollipop Guild, all by myself. And the guards would walk by and ask, “You an actor?” “Yeah, I’m okay…” And they’d be like, “Keep going.”
Wow. So you were a one-man acting academy?
Pretty much, yeah. I also did The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The old one, not the new one. The original.
From the 30s?
Yeah, yeah. I did the whole thing, from beginning to end. “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!”
And that helped?
It did. Because you’d go nuts otherwise. So you go crazy to keep yourself from going crazy. But then if someone stops, you’d have a perfect conversation with them. The insanity is your own, not theirs.
Don’t the insane-looking inmates last longer in prison?
Oh yeah, that’s a big part of it. Keeping yourself alive. Nobody cares about a bad motherfucker. But crazy? You really don’t want to fuck with them. That guy might stab me and eat me. [Laughs.]
I did an interview with Merle Haggard for Vanity Fair a few years ago, and we talked about San Quentin.
Oh yeah, he went there, right?
He did his time. And he had some amazing stories. He was telling me about a crazy inmate called Shitty Fred…
Shitty Fred! Yeah, yeah, I knew that guy.
You remember Shitty Fred?
Yeah. If you made him mad, all of a sudden you’d be smelling doo-doo on you.
So he was like the Hulk, but with shit?
That’s it, man. That’s it exactly. That little cocksucker would walk by and smear his hand on the back of your shirt and you wouldn’t even know it. And then all of a sudden you’d be like, “What the hell stinks?”
Did you have friends in prison? Guys who didn’t smear their excrement on you?
Oh yeah, a lot of friends. There was a guy named Tyrone. Tyrone was from my neighborhood, and we knew each other since we were 15-years-old. Me and him and a guy named Cookie, we had a little protection ring going where we would check new kids coming in. They would pay us and we made sure nobody would hurt them. It was really lucrative.
There were a lot of new arrivals willing to pay for that?
A never-ending supply. This was during the 60s, when young hippie kids were being sent to the joint. The government didn’t know what to do them. In ‘65, they used to bring them all over to the penitentiary. There were all these young kids that didn’t grow up in the street. They’re in an element that they don’t understand, that scares them a little. You get thrown into San Quentin, you’re in big trouble. Unless you get your hands on a knife.
Nobody’s going to mess with you if you have a knife?
No. You got to stab somebody so everybody knows not to mess with you.
Couldn’t you just punch them or something? Does it have to involve a shiv?
Listen, if I sock you, then you’re going to sock me back. You’re going to give as good as you got. But if I come up and stab you three times, I can walk away.
Because the other guy’s dead?
Exactly. By stabbing them first, you guarantee it’s never gonna be a fair fight.
You were an “Armed Robbery Consultant” on the Pacino/ De Niro movie Heat. What does that mean exactly? You gave the actors tips on robbing banks?
Basically, yeah. A lot of people think you go in and start shooting guns and bang bang bang. But that’s not how it happens. Not with the ones who walk away. The thing is, a good robber gets away with it. So you try to be as stealth as possible. I see pictures of guys going into banks today and robbing them and I always laugh. You don’t want to go rob a bank looking like a gang banger. You don’t want to rob a bank looking like a thug. You should look like a guy on his lunch break who just wants to cash a check. I see these guys going in banks wearing hoodies and that’s just plain stupid.
There’s a 2005 documentary about you called Champion, where you claimed you once robbed a liquor store with a hand grenade. Was that a joke?
No. I had a hand grenade.
You walked in and held up a hand grenade and said, “Give me your money or I’m blowing us all up?”
That’s pretty much what happened. Not the brightest idea. [Laughs.] When I went to the pen, I buried some money and guns and a hand grenade in my mom’s backyard. I had this place, it was like a four foot little cave in my mom’s backyard, and I always stashed stuff back there. It’s funny because when I was in the joint my mom wrote me that they were going to put a sprinkler system in, and I’m like “Ma! Don’t dig too deep!” [Laughs.]
I’ve got to ask about the tattoos. Specifically the one on your chest, which because of how often you’re shirtless, has been featured in hundreds of movies.
Oh yeah. It’s the most famous tattoo in the world.
I heard it was done over several years at various prisons.
Two and a half years, at three different penitentiaries. What happened was, I went to San Quentin with an old friend of mine named Harry “Super Jew” Ross. We’d been friends since we were like 13-years-old. We’d rob some of the same places down in the San Fernando Valley, and we both ended up at San Quentin on separate charges. So that’s where he did the outline. Then I got kicked out of San Quentin and Harry was like, “Don’t let anybody touch it! I’ll be in Folsom!”
He knew he was coming to Folsom?
Yeah. I guess he just had a feeling. [Laughs.] So about three months later, he showed up at Folsom and did a little more work on it, but then there was the big race riot in Folsom and I got sent to solitary. He was like, “Please, Danny, let me finish it.” It was his first tattoo. About six months later, he showed up in solitary too and finished it there.
It almost sounds like he kept committing more crimes just for the chance to finish your tattoo.
Yeah, maybe so, I don’t know. The funny part is, it was one of his first tattoos. Anybody who does tattoos, the more they do, the better they get. So he became a very respected tattoo artist, and he ended up hated this tattoo, even though it was the one that made him famous.
Everyone sees you playing the baddie. Tell us about your cuddly, huggable side.
Wow. [Long pause.] That’s a tough one.
Have you ever been alone in a room with a box full of kittens? And if so, has it gotten adorable?
[Laughs.] No, no, nothing like that. I think the closest I get to that type of vulnerability is with my kids. My daughters, especially. I’m so proud of them. Family is really important to me. I just get overwhelmed.
Do they like your movies?
They’ve all been very supportive of me. But, you know, everybody has different tastes. My mom, who passed away last year, she just wished I had a job.
Acting isn’t a job?
She didn’t trust it. I’d come home and say, “Mom, I just worked with Robert DeNiro.” And she’d say, “I know, but get a job.” Finally I did three episodes of The Young and the Restless back in 2008. A daytime soap opera! And it wasn’t even a big part. I was playing a bartender. But I came home and she was like, “I saw you on Young and the Restless! You made it!”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the June/July 2013 issue of Malibu Magazine.)