Danny Trejo didn't get his start the way most actors do. While the aspiring stars of the '60s and '70s were perfecting their head shots and making connections, Trejo was doing hard time in some of the worst prisons in the country. It wasn't until the ex-con was in his 40s that he got the break that would eventually lead to a successful career as one of the most recognizable character actors in the industry. Here, the star of the much-anticipated Machete talks about the big house, boxing, and how he has made a name for himself in Hollywood.
How often do you train these days?
I try to get to the gym three times a week, but when you're always on the move sometimes you have to do a little penitentiary workout — pushups, triceps, doing dips on the toilet and biceps on the sink and stuff.
When you do make it to the gym, what does your workout look like?
Well, for movies, it's mostly bench press, inclines, biceps and triceps. That's what you need for a movie.
No one's going to be looking at your calves, right?
Yeah (laughs), you know, when it comes to squats—man, the powerlifters are going to hate me for saying this—but squats are not the best thing for an older body. Leg presses are ok, but the squats are really tough on your back when you reach a certain age. So I do train my legs, but it's mostly machine work.
Is the pen where you got educated in working out?
Oh yeah. Yeah, I started out in juvy hall as a kid.
What did a typical prison workout look like for you?
We'd get to go to the yard and work with the weights—but my workout was mostly calisthenic because I was a boxer. A lot of running and stuff. But as you get older the knees can't take it as much so you have to change things around. Now I'm really into walking. Right now I'm out walking a rescued pit bull named "Miss Piggy" who's about 18 inches tall but weighs 90 pounds—completely obese. My wife Debbie started a rescue foundation called K9 Compassion, so we always have dogs around I can walk with. But with Miss Piggy, she can only go one way, so my exercise today is going to be carrying this 90-pound dog back! (laughs)
Where did you learn to box?
I had an uncle who used to fight in Golden Gloves. When I was 8 years old he was about 13 and by then he already was a pretty good boxer. I wanna say I was his sparring partner, but I was really his bunching bag (laughs). So I either had to learn to defend myself or get my brains beat in.
Did that come in handy in prison?
Oh yeah. Boxing, in jail, literally made me a celebrity. When you get in there and everyone knows you're a fighter they'll match you up with all the best fighters around. I was the lightweight and welterweight champion of every institution I was in back in the day.
How many was that?
Oh, there was San Quentin, Folsom, Soledad—those were the three major prisons there were back in the day. I was also in Sierra — I was in all of them at some point.
Do you still box at all?
I'll hit the bag from time to time but I don't box anymore. It's tough on the joints and I'm not a kid anymore. When I was young I had no problem getting smacked in the head — it was all about ego. When you reach your 60s though you don't need to prove anything anymore.
How did you make the shift in your life to get out of prison and into a productive life?
I decided that I would have to take drugs and alcohol out of my life if I wanted to get out of there. It was that simple. It was almost mathematical. I thought, every time I've been arrested there was alcohol and drugs involved. Every time. It was black and white. So it was clear to me what I needed to do. I got out of the pen in 1969 and cleaned up my act.