Danny Trejo talks about being typecast, his past and the Mexican Mafia

Danny Trejo’s talks about his criminal past and becoming a Hollywood star

Video Transcript

DANNY TREJO: I opened a lot of doors, you know, when I started working with Charles Bronson and Val Kilmer and Robert De Niro. And, you know, it was, like, whoa. Now there's a lot of-- there's a lot more Hispanic actors.


NURYS CASTILLO: This book titled "Trejo, My Life of Crime, Redemption and Hollywood" really got to deep dive on your life, your battles of addiction, your time in jail, personal life, and movie career. We cannot talk about you being a game changer without speaking about your upbringing. Talk to me about uncle Gilbert and the significance he had in your life growing up.

DANNY TREJO: When I was with my uncle, Gilbert, it was, like, life was cool. You know, life was great. So he was sick. I didn't know it. I didn't know he was addicted to heroin.

And I was gonna be 13. And God, I remember he gave me a drop. It was, like, one of the most beautiful days of my life. I tried to stay that way.

He asked me if I had any problems. I don't know. I just didn't like the way I was growing up. I didn't like what was happening around me. I hated confrontation, you understand?

I would rather fight than argue, because I could fight, you know. But arguing, you build up to a fight. And so I would sock somebody first better. And that's what Gilbert taught me how to do.

He was the biggest part of my growing up, really. He was an armed robber and a drug addict. That's-- that's what I did.

It's funny. It was, well, do you mean he abused you? I said, no. Well, you don't think giving marijuana to an eight-year-old is abuse? You don't think giving heroin to a 12-year-old is abuse? I said, no, I thought it was sharing. I mean, who's--


NURYS CASTILLO: You've been in every jail in LA with all types of violent felonies. You're finally released from jail in 1968. Then you end up speaking at a cocaine anonymous meeting, and you meet this kid who shifted your future and began your extra career. How did that happen?

DANNY TREJO: Everything good that has happened to me has happened as a direct result of helping someone else. And I was working with this one kid trying to get off of cocaine. And he was a production assistant on a movie. He got me into trying to be an extra. So I walk on this movie set of a movie called "Runaway Train."

This guy looks at me, he goes, hey, want to be an extra? I said, extra what? Can you act like a convict? I thought, I've been in every prison in the state of California. I'll give it a shot.

And when I took off my shirt, I got a big tattoo on my chest. And this guy says, hey, you're Danny Trejo. And I go, yeah, you're Eddie Bunker. I knew this guy in prison.

And he said, Danny, are you still boxing? I saw you win the lightweight and the welterweight title up in Quentin. I go, no, man. I'm 40 years old. I don't fight no more. He said, we need somebody to train one of the actors how to box.

Now, they were giving me $50 for acting like a convict. And we laugh because we've been acting like convicts all our life for free. I said, what's it pay? And he says, $320 a day.

And so I started training an actor named Eric Roberts how to box. Eric respected me, so he would do whatever I told him to do. The director saw that and said, you be in movie. You fight Eric in movie. And then he goes, and you be my friend.

If you got a prison background, you don't trust people that say you be my friend, you know? But Andrey gave me a SAG card, and my whole life changed there.


NURYS CASTILLO: You go on to do more acting work, but the role seems to be all the same, inmate number one, or convict number one. Did it ever bother you being typecast as a Hispanic villain all the time?

DANNY TREJO: I didn't even know I was being typecast. And then I remember the first time I got interviewed. She said, Danny, don't you feel you're being typecast? What's that? I didn't really understand. She said, well, you know, you're being stereotyped as the mean Chicano dude.

I thought about it, and I said, I am the mean Chicano dude. And I got tattoos. You know, and she didn't know what to say, because I was going with what I got. You know, look at me, it's like I'm-- it's gonna be tough to be the leading man and get the girl.

It took me a long time before I started getting roles. In fact, the first role I got that I even had a shirt on-- because the director was like, oh, take off your shirt. And then he'd say, say something, like, prisony. And I'd say [SPEAKING SPANISH]. You know. And they-- oh, my God, Danny. Where did you study? You know, they-- it was like, they think-- I studied in San Quentin.

NURYS CASTILLO: Did you face any obstacles around that time as a Mexican-American but also as a convict?

DANNY TREJO: You know what, it's funny. It's like, Edward Bunker. He said, Danny, the whole world can think you're a movie star, but you can't, and you have to disarm people immediately. I would be the first to say hello. And I'll raise my hand, hey, hi, how you doing? I got to let people know that I'm not the guy you think I am.

I've had a couple of problems with people, but I just pull them aside and tell them, you know what, look, homes, don't-- I'm not Hollywood. You know, don't-- give me respect, I'll give you respect. If you don't, you know, we're men. And they kind of, like, realize. Oh, OK, I don't want to get beat to death.

But now, you know, when I walk on set, even the big guys go, hey, what's up? What's up? How you doing? Oh, have you worked with Bob De Niro? Oh, no, you did? Oh, I've worked with Bob De Niro.

- The choices we made to survive got Mundo, JD, and me 10 to 25.

NURYS CASTILLO: What made you turn down "American Me" and do "Blood In, Blood out" instead where you gained major recognition in acting. The Mexican-American community loved you.

DANNY TREJO: I got asked to be in both, "American Me" and "Blood In, Blood Out." And I liked the script for "Blood In, Blood Out." I didn't like the fact that there were some things in "American Me" that weren't true and that were too close to home to the real thing. So me and Eddie Bunker, who was the guy that got me into the movies, right? And that I knew from San Quentin that knew the Mexican Mafia. We both grew up with the Mexican Mafia.

Had a meeting with Edward James at a place called Jerry's Deli in Encino. The first thing we ask him is, Eddie, almost-- have you cleared this with Joe? Joe Morgan, leader of the Mexican mafia, right?

He goes, yeah, yeah yeah. No, no, I got it. I got it covered. I seen him up in Palm Hall and blah, blah, blah.

I went home and I got a call from my cousin, Sal. And he called me and said, hey, Danny, do you know Joe Morgan? I go, yeah. He said, are you OK? Is everything OK?

Yeah, what are you talking about? Man, well, he wants to talk to you. And it's Joe Morgan calling me from Palm Hall. He said, hey, homes, I hear that you had a meeting with Edward James.

Now, he's in prison. That's how fast he learned. I didn't call him, neither did Eddie. But he learned I had a meeting with Edward James.

You're up for it? I go, I'm up for both of them. I'm up for "Blood In, Blood Out" too. He says, which one are you gonna do, Danny? And I said, I'mma do "Blood In, Blood Out," homes.

He said, Danny, you know you could do the other one. And we got enough respect for you. I said, hey, Joe, I'm not disrespecting homies I know.

So when Eddie told us that he had talked to him, it was a lie. You know, he got in a lot of trouble behind that movie. You can't disrespect nobody. And Edward did openly disrespect.

He won't accept it. He won't say, you know what? I was wrong. I was wrong. I did. I shouldn't have done that. But see, we didn't disrespect anybody from "Blood In, Blood Out." We didn't say that this guy got raped. We didn't say that this guy did this. If we're going to say something, it's going to be true to what happened.


NURYS CASTILLO: "Machete" was your first starring role. 25 years in the making. How did it feel? And what was going on in your head knowing you were able to play the first Mexican-American action superhero?

DANNY TREJO: It was just unbelievable. It was, like, you know what? I think even the people that didn't like me or didn't accept me as an actor, they said, well, he's a phenomenon, he's an ex-con. They had to say, yeah, no, this guy's for real.

Robert Rodriguez had told me about "Machete" when we did "Desperado." And we talked about it and talked about it and talked about it. And in "Spy Kids" we called him uncle Machete. And so when I did "Machete," I almost broke into tears.

In Halloween, kids came to-- and I look, they have the little painted mustache on and the little fake knife. Who are you? They go, I'm Machete. I-- I swear to God it was like-- you know, look at this. This is unreal.

NURYS CASTILLO: Do you feel like doors are opening more for Latinos in film now than ever before?

DANNY TREJO: Absolutely. I think we got to get more executive producers. We've got to get more people with money to make more Latin-based movies. The Latinos with the money don't want to start making movies. So stop crying about there's not enough Latinos in cinema. Let's put some money together and make a movie. And we'll make it all Mejicano and then maybe bring, like, two people that aren't of color.


Come on, you'll be our token white guys.