Danny Trejo got his start playing “Mexican bad guy No. 1” or “Tattooed inmate No. 2.” But after decades of bringing authentic menace to Hollywood films, Trejo has transcended the tough to become a movie star — for some, an icon even. And, OK, he’s still pretty tough, too.
Trejo is best known as the title character in Robert Rodriguez’s 2010 neo-exploitation classic Machete (a name that gets chanted at him pretty much wherever he goes these days). During our interview at Musso and Frank — one of his favorite L.A. haunts for breakfast — even the dapper old waiter and the parking-lot guy outside couldn’t resist.
But decades before he was turned into a Claymation character for Lipton Brisk Iced Tea ads or battled Kobe Bryant in The Black Mamba, Rodriguez’s short film for Nike, Trejo was a dodgy dude who spent years in L.A.’s prison system for robbery and drug-related offenses.
He got his signature tattoos in prison, the most famous of them a huge chest piece of a Mexican cowgirl that was completed with needle and thread by the same artist over two years in three institutions (San Quentin, Folsom and Soledad).
But prison also is where Trejo got clean and sober and decided to devote his life to helping others.
“Everything good that’s ever happened to me came out of helping others,” says the rough-voiced, amiable actor, 66, who was discovered after walking onto a set to offer drug counseling to a young production assistant. The film was Runaway Train, starring Eric Roberts. Trejo says the director saw him walking around and immediately came up to him, framing his hands into a square around Trejo’s famously rumpled mug.
“I said, ‘Hey, what kind of gang sign is that?’ ” Trejo chuckles. He ended up with a role in the 1985 film and also worked with Roberts as a boxing trainer.
The rest is hoodlum/hooligan/hit-man history. Trejo, who grew up in Pacoima and still lives near there, has been in hundreds of films since. He usually plays the villain or a gangsta, though the roles have evolved somewhat over time (he even played a good guy on Desperate Housewives).
His latest endeavor is sure to be his most shocking: He’ll be in the new Muppet movie, singing the classic “Mah-Na-Mah-Na” alongside a bunch of furry creatures.
Trejo’s also been working on the directorial debut of his son on another Badass movie, “about a vigilante Vietnam vet.” He is working on a new Mexican restaurant in Huntington Beach, to be called Trejo’s Place. He says Machete 2 is in the works as well.
Though threatening characters will probably always be his specialty, Trejo will keep getting work for years to come, because, he explains, he’s learned to keep the ominous antics strictly on-screen these days.
“I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to tear up his trailer,” he says. “Here’s a fact: The bottom line to any argument is murder. If me and you disagree on something and I refuse to give in and you refuse, it goes and it goes and it goes. That’s where it’s gonna end. I know what I’m capable of. So I just don’t argue.”