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.
So how did you get into films?
I was a drug counselor and one of the kids I was working with called me at 11 one night and asked if I could come down to his job because he said there was a lot of blow around. So I went down and, as it turned out, the kid was working as a PA on a movie set. It was the film Runaway Train with John Voight and Eric Roberts. You have to understand that this was 1985, and on movie sets you could walk into production and cocaine lines were right there on the table. It wasn't even hidden. It was unbelievable.
So I'm there and this guy comes up to me and asks if I'd like to be an extra and I was like, 'an extra what?' And he said, 'Can you act like a convict?' I thought it was a joke. I did 11 years in prison, so I said, 'I'll give it a shot.' (laughs).
What did you have to do for that movie?
They gave me this blue shirt to wear and so I take off my shirt and this guy sees my tattoo and comes over to me and says 'You're Danny Trejo.' I look at him and say 'You're Eddie Bunker.' We were in prison together. I had first met him in 1962 then met him again in '65 and then on the set of the movie. He was the screenwriter for the film!
So he says to me 'Hey, Danny, I can get you the job of teaching Eric Roberts how to box. It pays $320 a day' And I said, 'How badly do you want me to beat this guy up?" For $320 I thought they wanted me to kick some guy's ass. I'd do it for $50. But he said to me, 'No, no, no, this actor is really high strung. He might sock you. He's already socked a couple of people.' Eric was real high strung in those days. So I said, 'Eddie, for $320 you can give him a stick!'
So I started teaching Eric how to box, and Eric wasn't too sure about me (laughs), so he did whatever I told him to do. The director, Andrei Konchalovsky, who had a lot of problems with him just said, 'Hey, you be in this movie,' and the rest is history.
You've played a lot of inmates . . .
For the first few years of my acting career I never had a name (laughs). I was always, 'Inmate Number One' or 'The Bad Guy.' The first name I ever got was in the movie Death Wish IV with Charles Bronson and I was 'Art Sanella.' I loved it.
Where do you get the stamina to work so much?
I love the work and I stay in shape. You hear so many people saying, 'I'm so tired' but all they have to do is get up in the morning and take a walk. You've got to get the motor running. Those pipes start getting clogged up, so you've got to pump that blood.
Do you find that people in the street tend to give you a lot of space when they pass you?
Yeah, but I also find that I have to go out of my way to say 'Hello' to people because I don't look like a normal person walking down the street. I look like I just got out of prison (laughs). I have to remember that. People will see me on the screen and get an impression of me that I don't want them to have. I want them to think 'He's a really nice guy!' On Sundays when it's warm outside, I'll train at Muscle Beach with my buddy Craig Munson, who's a former Mr. World, just so kids can meet me and I can sign autographs. I don't want the kids to be scared of me.
Which is tougher—San Quentin or Hollywood?
Well, the difference is if somebody disrespects you in San Quentin, you stab 'em. In Hollywood, if somebody disrespects you, you move on to the next movie.
Machete is in theaters now