In a story fit for the big screen, veteran actor Danny Trejo has gone from wanted man to Hollywood leading man.
Great Gatsby scribe F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong about there being no second acts in American lives, and Danny Trejo is the proof. Blessed with more lives than a litter of kittens, 66-year old Trejo was a Los Angeles roughneck in the 1960s. He boasted a rap sheet 10 fenders long, with time served in every California penitentiary and a couple of intimate pas de deux with death. Then, all of a sudden, at the age of 40, something inconceivable happened: He became a movie star.
“If you look at me, you’re not thinking of Cary Grant or Brad Pitt. I look like the guy that took their money in high school. That’s because I was that guy,” Trejo says wryly, referencing his ravaged visage and a torso that looks like a graffito’s favorite wall. “I’ve just worked with what I’ve got, and it’s been working out.”
Indeed, it has. Trejo — who has been clean, sober and handcuff-free for four decades — has appeared in nearly 200 films and television shows. Granted, many of his roles have been minor and have borne descriptors like Tough Prisoner Number One, Bodyguard or Gang Member, but his screen presence is always powerful and alluring — even when he’s sharing a scene with Robert De Niro, as he did in Heat.
“I got a lot of years of on-the-job training, and I learned as hard as I could,” he says. “Acting beats fighting forest fires or breaking rocks, both of which I did in the joint. Angry Inmate? Sure, I’ll play that guy. I’ll play a tree if they want me to. Pay me more and I’ll figure out how to grow some fruit on that tree.”
Trejo’s second act began in the early 1980s, when he was working as a drug counselor — “My only chance at staying straight was helping other people in trouble,” he says — and got called to the drug-filled set of Andrey Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train. Within minutes of arriving, Trejo was asked to join the cast. “This guy comes up and says, ‘Can you act like a convict?’ I thought he was kidding. I said, ‘Yeah, man, I’ll give it a shot,’ ” Trejo recalls with a jovial laugh.
A fortuitous run-in on-set with actor and old prison buddy Eddie Bunker led to a job coaching Eric Roberts in the art of prison boxing — and then to a small role as Roberts’ opponent in the film. “They offered me $320 to fight Eric Roberts,” Trejo says. “They told me to be careful, that Eric really gets into his character, and maybe he’d hit for real. I said, ‘For $320, give him a stick!’ ”
Trejo’s good spirits and tireless work ethic have made him a go-to guy for filmmakers in need of, as Trejo describes his bigscreen wheelhouse, “a very bad guy who dies really well.” This month, he plays his first bona fide leading man as the titular Machete in a Robert Rodriguez epic of mayhem, mischief and murder. It boasts a star-packed supporting cast that includes none other than Trejo’s Heat co-star Robert DeNiro. “There ain’t no better than Bobby D, and he’s co-starring with me,” Trejo says.“He came up to me on the first day of shooting and he said, ‘Oh, man, Danny, I knew when we worked together on Heat that you’d get your shot at starring in a movie one day,and here you are!’ I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘Can I get you some coffee, Mr. DeNiro?’ I mean, Bobby D, man!”
It’s clear Trejo is genuinely grateful for his second act, no matter how unlikely it once seemed. “For a lot of years, my life was a tragedy waiting to happen,” he says. “Today, I prefer to call the first half of my life a ‘character study,’ and then the second half, it’s been like a fairy tale.”
It’s true: Bad guys do get all the best lines. Danny Trejo recalls a few of his favorites.
HEAT (1995) “ ‘My Anna is gone! Don’t leave me like this! Please, Holmes … ’ And then, well, De Niro shoots me.”
ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (2003) “Johnny Depp’s asking me, ‘Are you a Mexi-can or a Mexi-can’t?’ And I say, ‘I am a Mexi-can!’ ”
PREDATORS (ABOVE) (2010) “Alice Braga says, ‘We have to work like a team.’ And we’re all assassins, right? So I look at her real hard and say, ‘Does this look like a team-oriented group of individuals?’ ”