Saturday July 21, 2007
Not everybody’s life turns out like this," grins Danny Trejo. And he’s not joking. Today, he’s with his mother, out shopping at the Food For Less grocery store in the San Fernando Valley, and while we’re talking, two people stop him: one for an autograph, one for a picture, so she can "put it on MySpace, y’know?"
He’s a movie star now, but 40 years ago it was a different story. Trejo spent much of the 1960s in jail, careering through the California state penitentiary system, checking into some of its worst hellholes – Tracy (1963-65), San Quentin (1965-68), Soledad (1968-69) – and gaining some alarming scars and other, equally memorable body adornments along the way. Like, for example, the huge ink drawing of a Mexican woman on his chest that he proudly boasts was voted "Most Recognisable Tattoo In The World by International Tattoo magazine".
By the time you read this, Trejo, 63, will have something like 142 film credits to his name. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen them: neither has he. "I’ll be watching TV and all of a sudden I’ll think, ‘Hey, I’m in this!’" he roars. "A lot of times I don’t even know the names of them. I just show up. From 1985, when I first started, to 1990, I did a shitload of B-movies about prisons. They would always say, ‘Get that Mexican guy with the big tattoo.’ I’d show up and I’d have one line, like, ‘Kill ’em all!’ or somethin’."
This week, 22 years after his movie debut as an extra in Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train, a part he landed after fellow reformed criminal Eddie Bunker hired him as Eric Roberts’ boxing trainer, Trejo finally shows his lighter side in Sherrybaby. It stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a promiscuous ex-con and smack addict trying to come to terms with life on the outside. Trejo plays her drugs counsellor, a job he’s had in real life since cleaning up in the 1970s.
The presence of Mrs Trejo on this shopping trip prevents Danny from going into detail about the kind of activities that finally put him behind bars. However, he freely cops to smoking his first spliff at eight and graduating to heroin at 12. "Let’s just say my life was quite colourful!" he grins.
"Juvenile hall, youth authorities … I was in a lot of trouble. I grew up like the characters I’ve been playing. But would I do things differently? I honestly believe that circumstances create destiny, almost. There weren’t too many ways I could have done things. The only things that were available to me were either be a labourer or be a drug dealer. So I became an armed robber. It was a lot simpler."
It’s not hard to imagine Trejo as a badass. And he admits it: he was a badass. "Everybody that knows me now that used to know me back in the day says that I was just so intense ," he muses. "But when you’re carrying a .44 Magnum I guess you do become pretty intense. Was I blase about it? I guess I was, until something happened. And there was always something happening." The turning point came during the Cinco De Mayo prison riots of 1968, when Trejo found God in solitary confinement, where the words GOD SUCKS were written in the previous inmate’s excrement.
"I went to the hole with three gas-chamber offences," he recalls. "Me and two fellow inmates, we were on our way to the gas chamber. The prison guard we assaulted, he wouldn’t testify. Another person we attacked, they couldn’t find, and the other guy that was involved didn’t know who did it, so we skated, really."
Since his release in 1972, Trejo has kept his nose clean, juggling acting assignments with counselling work, but his acting life probably received its biggest boost when he turned up for work on Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado (1995) and, thanks to an attentive relative, found out that they were related: second cousins, as it turns out. "Robert told me that I reminded him of the bad guys in his high school," drawls Trejo. "I said, ‘I am the bad guys in your high school!’"
This relationship resulted in Machete, the fake trailer for the ill-fated Grindhouse movie that Rodriguez worked on with Quentin Tarantino. Released in the US as an ambitious two-films-in-one, Grindhouse was to be an authentic throwback to the violent, booze-stained cinemas of the 70s. Machete, though, was meant to be more than a joke; after shooting the trailer – which involved guns, knives and more than one naked, busty woman – Rodriguez was expected to shoot the film for real. So far, it hasn’t happened. "Tell Robert," says Trejo.
A chipper family man with three kids, Trejo seems far removed from his hard-ass image. So does he take it seriously now? Is this his craft? "Hell, no! But I’ve seen guys take this stuff way too seriously. I’ve had to pull a couple of them aside and say, ‘Listen, I will beat you to death , I don’t know who you think you’re talking to.’ They go, ‘But I’m in character!’ And I say, ‘Well, your character’s about to get his ass beat.’" He chuckles. "Like I said, I can’t stand rude people." * Sherrybaby is out on Friday