Most people in their 70s are enjoying their retirement, reading a book at home or relaxing at a quiet beach. Not Danny Trejo, who at 73 is still a badass, with a thriving acting career in film and television as well as six restaurants and a music label. In his spare time, Trejo is also a drug intervention counselor and is involved in numerous charities.
With such a busy schedule, you might think Trejo has drunk from the fountain of youth. In an exclusive interview with L.A. Weekly at the opening of his latest cantina/doughnut shop in Woodland Hills, he shared his secret for a healthy life.
“I feel great. I lift light weights, bench-press arms and legs and walk a lot,” he says. “I took a lot of carbs out of my diet and eliminated sugar. I like juicing vegetables. … I love celery and carrots. Throw an apple in there for sweetness. But no kale! I hate it!
“In fact, next I want to create an energy drink!” the L.A. native quips.
Trejo, who has appeared in more than 300 movies, is best known for roles in films such as Machete, Desperado and Spy Kids, all directed by Robert Rodriguez.
“I've been in so many, I don't even know the names of them!” Trejo jokes. “I just read the scripts on the plane.”
Louis Iga, who recently directed Trejo in Murder in the Woods, calls the experience “a dream come true.”
“Danny is truly an artist and master of his craft,” Iga says. “You would never believe he is the villain he often portrays in films when you meet him in person. He is the nicest person in the world and is amazing to work with. His entrepreneurship, passion for growth and perseverance inspires me and gives me the confidence that hard work pays off.”
Next up for Trejo: a movie called The House Next Door. “It's about vampires, with Mike Epps and Katt Williams and it is funnier than hell,” Trejo says excitedly. He also has a recurring role on The Flash, frequently is on Family Guy, hosts El Rey's Man at Arms and just did an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Not bad for a guy who once played Marcia Brady in a Snickers commercial.
Trejo's distinctive visage could well be one of the main reasons for the remarkable growth of his restaurant empire, which includes an ancillary business selling an assortment of Trejo-branded merchandise.
“Danny has a face that may scare grown men, but we made our Trejo['s Coffee and Donuts] building pink to show his inner beauty,” co-owner Jeff Georgino says. “That irony is what makes us real.”
In a rather fickle L.A. foodie scene, Trejo's growth is impressive.
From 2016 to the end of 2017, revenue from Trejo's restaurants has quadrupled, Georgino notes. “We want to run with that momentum over the next few years and focus on bringing Danny's branded merchandise to the mass market through retail. Things like hot sauce, beer and tortilla chips.”
From the day the restaurant opened, people would steal the hot sauce from the table.
“I was angry, but Danny said every time they open their refrigerator they would see it — best marketing ever. At that point, we knew we needed to get into retail products,” he acknowledges.
When asked why his businesses have had such success, Trejo says, “I think celebrities think they can just put their name on something because of their name and it will work. It will work once, because a fan might want an autograph and photo. But if the food isn't good, the customer isn't coming back.”
Trejo strongly believes that being a hands-on restaurant owner is important. “You got to be around. If you are a celebrity, don't open a restaurant in L.A. if you're going back to Miami. It just doesn't work.”
He sees the restaurant business as a labor of love. “You have to love the food, the people who come in and your staff. If I walk in and somebody has a frown, I will say, 'What's wrong?' This is one place where people do not want to hear your problems, they want their own issues talked about while they eat. Be mindful.”
“I've been in so many [movies]
Trejo's customers often come back three times a week, and he likes that the food is satisfying for every palate. “We have repeat customers, whole families and those who like a vegan/vegetarian or gluten-free menu. I have moms that say to me, 'I am so happy I don't have to cook three meals, thank you so much.'”
He continued: “Also, being in Hollywood, there are groups who want to eat out after a movie screening or play, and they want to find a restaurant that will be enjoyable to everyone. And our locations have that and people appreciate what we are trying to do.
“I am really really proud of Trejo's Tacos,” he says. “The food is all really good. I'm thrilled at the response we have been getting.”
Trejo's Cantina recently unveiled a new dinner and full bar menu at locations in Hollywood and Pasadena. “Along with co-owners Ash Shah and Jeff [Georgino], we are always thinking about ways to expand the menu. We'll sit together and see what's doing well,” Trejo says.
Trejo is a straight shooter, appreciating people who speak candidly.
“l will bring in a few friends or family and have them order different items on the menu, and ask for their feedback. I never got one complaint. And they are not 'yes' people, they would tell me if this sucked! However, my daughter one time said she didn't like the horchata. I asked her what was wrong and she said it didn't taste right. So she actually went to the kitchen to improve it. And now it's delicious!”
The more you know
Trejo's Tacos recently opened at USC. “I'm so glad we're opening here at USC Village in South L.A.,” Trejo says. “I was raised all over Los Angeles. I used to ride the streetcars around Hoover and Jefferson, so it really feels like home.”
Education is an important mandate for Trejo. “When I was at San Quentin Prison, I was turned down for a job in the laundry because I didn't have a high school diploma,” he says. “Education is truly the key to anything you want to do.”
As a big Los Angeles Rams fan, Trejo has a Christmas wish. “I would love to open a Trejo's Cantina in their new stadium! It would be amazing to see my team go to the Super Bowl. And I would love the Rams to go to the Super Bowl! They are really doing great!”
Keeping it in the family
For all his acting, Trejo's favorite role has been as devoted dad to his children.
“My son, Gilbert, just wrote and will be directing a script and I am acting in it, which has been an incredible experience,” Trejo says. Called From a Son, “It's partly based on our family's history with addiction.”
Trejo had an epiphany working with his son. “I always thought my dad hated me, as he was always angry with me. But after working on this film, I didn't really realize that was my dad's defense against me. The pain a parent feels when their kid is using drugs is unbelievable. You wake up in cold sweats thinking, 'Is he dead?' Parents who have waited up for their kids will definitely understand this film.”
Gilbert has been clean for four years and Trejo is “very grateful” for his son's sobriety.
“He's great to be around. He will help me with the restaurant business and often goes on set with me as my assistant when I have to travel. I hate when people are in my trailer but I don't mind him, as he is not intrusive at all and he knows whatever I need. He gets to meet different directors, and I love having him with me,” Trejo says.
Because of their closeness, father and son have learned many life lessons from each other.
“What I've learned from my son, more than anything, is to admit that he's smarter than me. It's really hard for a parent to do that,” Trejo says. “In the past 15 years, there's no question that I can't ask my son that he won't know! Kids are becoming a lot more advanced and we have to listen to them.”
In being around his father, Gilbert has learned to be flexible and open, and to never make assumptions.
“It doesn't matter what somebody's preconceived notions about you is, it's completely up to you to set their impressions of you. It doesn't matter if somebody hears or thinks that, or makes up this huge assumption about who you are as a person — what you bring into the situation is representative of yourself,” Gilbert says.
Gilbert has seen many people make assumptions about his dad and his many tattoos.
“All of that is left shattered on the ground the minute he smiles, reaches out and shakes their hand.” Gilbert says. “To me that's a really important lesson in life: You meet someone briefly and they have this idea of who you are going to be. … That doesn't have to pigeonhole you.”
While he makes thousands of dollars acting, Trejo is just as happy giving food away to the homeless, helping veterans in need, and rescuing animals and just about anyone in need of assistance.
“I'm happiest when I can be of service. To be able to give back is very important. I live a blessed life.”
Trejo will be on a float with his rescue dogs for Pasadena's Tournament of Roses parade as a guest of the Lucy Pet Foundation. The float, called Paws for Life, focuses on animals that have saved or enhanced human life. It will feature four soldiers in uniform on each side of the float with their dogs who have suffered from PTSD.
“This is the biggest honor I have ever had,” Trejo says. “It's such a unique experience. I have the girls from my music label practicing Christmas carols in the backyard for this. We are all so excited.”
[Editor's note: Jeff Georgino's name was misspelled and has been corrected. Also, the character Trejo played in a Snickers commercial was misidentified. We regret the error.]