Whether audiences know him as the vengeful ex-Federale in the Machete franchise or in one of the hundreds of other movie and TV roles he is credited with including Navajas in Desperado, Johnny 23 in Con Air or as Tortuga in his two-episode-turn on TV’s Breaking Bad, veteran actor Danny Trejo has had a full career and an even fuller life.
In the documentary Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo, which hits VOD platforms July 7, Trejo, who was discovered on the set of the 1985 action thriller Runaway Train, takes a look back through his troubled adolescence, which landed him in and out of prison through the 1960s, including a stint in San Quentin, and explains how his reckless lifestyle led him to Hollywood.
During an interview with me late last month, Trejo, 76, talked about using his platform to give back to the community, why he works so much and when he plans to retire from making movies.
In the documentary, we really get a sense of how much you like to work and how much you like to cash those checks. Besides the money, what is it about making movies that you love?
What I really love about them is that they give me a great platform to spread the message and let people know that drugs and alcohol will ruin your life and education is the key to anything you want to do. With this platform, I can walk on to any campus and have everybody’s attention. I can walk into any juvenile hall and everybody wants to hear — not so much what Danny Trejo has to say — what the guy from Spy Kids, Heat, Desperado, Blood In, Blood Out [has to say].
You use the platform really well. What about film as an artform?
[Late actor] Dennis Hopper once told me that art was something you hang on the walls. I love movies because they’re entertaining. We wanted to do the documentary as entertaining but with a message.
Did you ever think someone would make a documentary about your life?
I never thought I would get out of prison. Nobody had any hopes of me making it through the 60s. So, here I am. This is like divine inspiration. Thank you, Jesus, for every year.
If you hadn’t found yourself on the set of Runaway Train in the 80s after you got on the straight and narrow, do you think you would’ve found your way to Hollywood eventually? If not, what do you think you’d be doing right now?
I don’t see how. I would probably still be a drug counselor. And I am. I’m still a drug counselor. That’s my first love. I work with drug addicts and alcoholics and guys just getting out of prison. But I do that now more on a public relations scale. We detox heroin addicts. I found a great place to find [addicts] in the movie business.
Since you’ve been in so many movies and TV shows, has it ever happened that someone you’ve worked with in the past comes up to you to say hi and you have no idea who they are?
Believe me, it happens all the time. I act like I know them — “Oh, yeah, what’s up?” — until they give me some kind of [clue like], “Remember, we worked on …” and I’m like, “Oh, yeah!”
Once when I interviewed you 10 years ago for the first Machete, you said you would accept a role in a movie for $100. Have you upped your minimum wage since then?
(Laughs.) They’ve upped it for me. I love to work. My agent knows that if I’m not working, then [I’ll] just take anything because I want to work. I did a low budget movie once as a favor for a friend and I ended up going to Paris twice, Venezuela, Brazil and Florida all in the same movie. It was awesome!
You seem like the kind of guy that would probably die the day after he retires.
Yeah, I kind of feel like that. If I retire, I’ll die. But what’s to retire from? People say, “Aren’t you going on vacation?” My life’s a vacation! I love doing this.
The last time you played a character without a name was in 2015. It was for a movie called L.A. Slasher. You played Drug Dealer #2. Drug Dealer #1 was played by Dave Bautista. Why was he #1 and you #2? Don’t you have seniority?
I don’t even know. I don’t remember the movie. (Laughs.) What was the name of the movie?
L.A. Slasher in 2015.
I don’t know that one. (Laughs.)
Would you still take on one of those nameless roles today?
My agent knows that I need to keep working. Otherwise, I’ll buy another old car.
What car are you working on now?
My ’65 Buick Riviera. It’s running perfect. I did the Jay Leno show (Jay Leno’s Garage) with that. Now, we’re working on a ’49 Chevy Stepside Pickup. Beautiful.