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From the Depths of Hell to Hollywood

Photo by Gregory Bojorquez

You’ve seen him onscreen — the weathered face with the brocha -style mustache, and, on his chest, the large tattoo of a woman wearing a sombrero. Mexican-American actor Danny Trejo has appeared in about 100 films, usually playing the perfect bad guy. But what you might not know is that behind this 61-year-old’s road-map complexion and tatted body is a reformed criminal and drug/alcohol-intervention counselor who’s devoted his life to keeping others from following in his footsteps. Danny Trejo’s extraordinary story is now the subject of Joe Eckardt’s documentary Champion , screening this weekend at the Hollywood Film Festival. The movie is Trejo’s cinematic memoir of the good and bad of his life in and out of prison — at times humorous (thanks to Trejo’s impish laugh), at times sad, but always inspiring and real.

“What I like about Champion is that it gives you hope,” says Trejo, looking very youthful with a black cap worn backward, a crisp white T, shorts, and bright white socks and sneakers, sitting on a couch inside the spacious Chatsworth home that his wife, Debbie, recently redesigned.

Born in the city of Maywood, in southeast Los Angeles, Danny grew up on the streets of the Temple, Echo Park and Pacoima neighborhoods. But the young Trejo was less influenced by the local gang life than by his uncle Gilbert, who taught Danny how to fight, but also introduced him to the life of drugs, guns and criminal activities (such as committing armed robberies with hand grenades) that resulted in Trejo’s incarceration in a series of vicious penitentiaries.

For most of the 1960s, Trejo found himself in the state of California’s worst prisons: Tracy (1963–65); San Quentin (1965–68), where he got his infamous tattoo on his chest; and Soledad (1968–69). “I was doing a lot of time,” he says. “It wasn’t like I was gonna be walking the beach of Santa Monica.” The new documentary features a harrowing return to San Quentin, where Trejo’s boxing skills helped him become the prison’s light- and welterweight champion, garnering him respect and striking fear in other inmates — part of the real prison psyche that Trejo explains on camera.

“I always cap on the rappers, the way they talk about the thug life,” he says. “The reality is that you got nothing in the thug life. Thugs are broke, homes. And I know — I was an armed robber, I was a thug. It’s a losing game, but we’ve glamorized it so much in song. What I love about the movies is that the movies don’t glamorize it. The movies show the brutality of prison.”

While in Soledad, Trejo hit rock bottom. On Cinco de Mayo, 1968, while all the Mexican inmates were getting drunk, a riot ensued. He was accused of assaulting prison officials and was sent to solitary confinement. There, he had an epiphany.

“I remember when I went to the hole,” Trejo says. “The last guy in there had written ‘God Sucks’ on the wall in his own feces. All my mind could think of was a prayer. The place where you could really feel alone is the hole, but after that prayer, I didn’t feel alone. I was in the depths of hell, and because I said that prayer, my life changed.”

In prison, Trejo got into Alcoholics Anonymous and successfully completed a 12-step rehabilitation program that helped him to leave behind his life of crime and drugs. “I’ve been clean for 37 years, but without AA and NA [Narcotics Anonymous] I wouldn’t be here. Just like without God I wouldn’t be here,” he says.

He made parole and began working as a drug counselor at Western Pacific Rehab (where he is still part of the staff), when a chance visit to the set of the film Runaway Train opened up the door to yet another new career. Danny was offered a job as an extra, playing a convict, but when he took off his shirt and showed off his tattoos, he heard a familiar voice: “Hey, homes.” It was Trejo’s old pal, career-criminal-turned-author/actor Eddie Bunker.

“I met Eddie Bunker in 1962, when my uncle bought a robbery from him. I met him again in about ’65, in San Quentin, where he had seen me fight.” (Champion contains one of the last interviews given by Bunker before his death in July of this year.)

Bunker remembered Trejo’s boxing and offered him a job training actor Eric Roberts. When director Andrei Konchalovsky also saw Danny’s talents, he offered him a more prominent role in the film, thus beginning his long film career. “Without Eddie I wouldn’t be in the film business, because, first of all, he taught me about intimidation [on the set]. He was the one that told me, ‘Danny, you can’t look at people hard. You got to be soft, homes,’ ” says Trejo, who, together with Bunker, went on to produce the Steve Buscemi–directed Animal Factory. In addition, the two starred together in the upcoming Nice Guys, for Champion director Eckardt.

When he began appearing in such street films as Bound by Honor (Blood In Blood Out) and Mi Vida Loca, Trejo recalls, “I was always Gang Member No. 1, or Thug No. 1 or Inmate No. 1. Some people would ask me, ‘Don’t you feel that you’re being stereotyped?’ And I’d say, ‘Look at me. I’m playing a convict. That’s what I’ve been all my life.’ I play the bad guy because the bad guy always dies, and that’s a reality.”

Trejo hit it big with Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado and then Michael Mann’s Heat (his favorite of his films), the latter of which paired him with such A-list actors as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Val Kilmer. Kilmer, Rodriguez (who’s Trejo’s second cousin), Buscemi and Dennis Hopper (who attended AA meetings with Trejo) are among those featured in Champion.

Now the father of three kids, Trejo has made it a point to volunteer his time and talk to youth about his personal philosophy: “Thugs are broke, gangbangers go to jail, and good people that don’t use drugs stay out of jail.” If anything, his fame has become a great teaching tool.

“Acting is the best hook,” he says. “What acting has done for me is that when I walk into a school, they all want to hear what I have to say. It’s almost like God made a deal with me: ‘I’m gonna get you in these movies, but you got to go talk at schools and juvenile halls.’ One of my purposes in life is to help other people.”

Champion screens Saturday, October 22, at 6 p.m. at ArcLight Cinemas, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. For more info, go to www.hollywoodfilmfestival.com.


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