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