October 15th, 2010. How does one write an introduction about spending an hour of his life interviewing Danny Trejo? I definitely don’t want to blow up Danny’s spot, but underneath the rugged exterior, he is an extremely compassionate person. Besides being on of the most feared bad guys in cinema history, he is also a humanitarian, dedicating countless hours to speaking with people (especially youth) about drug, alcohol or criminal problems. In his documentary Champion, Danny says he hopes to be remembered as somebody who helped, and after spending the time that I did with him, and seeing his sincereity first hand, I have no doubt in my mind that he will. But enough of the sappy shit. Danny would have probably cut me by now if I was saying this to his face. So without further ado…
The Danny Trejo Interview
(*Pre-Interview Note- Before starting the interview I tell Danny that I try to ask some different questions than he may be used to, to which he replies “that’s cool, but if I don’t like the questions…” and he picks up a knife on the table we were sitting at and makes stabbing gestures towards me. It was definitely done in a humorous way, but let’s be serious, this is Danny Trejo!!!! Even when he’s being funny he’s scary!)
TIS: After 25 years in the business, you’re still a completely humble guy. What do you attribute this too?
DT: I think it’s where I came from and the people I keep around me now. If you look at the people in Hollywood who are having trouble, they almost always have special interest people around them who are only making money from them, and don’t give a shit what they’re doing as long as they are still working. People like Paris, Lindsay & Tom Seizmore… but my friends, they don’t give a fuck. They’ll tell me “Fuck you, don’t be an asshole”. They’re just straight up. I’ve got, hmm, I don’t want to say real gangsters around me, but I’ve got people who’ve had lives, you know? My friends Craig, Mario & Max, they’re all ex-convicts, so if I get bitchy (laughing), they’ll say “Fuck you, were you that way in the joint?” So it was like having this life before I got into the movies which helped me understand that not everyone is supposed to get me a cappuccino, like they do on a movie set. People in this business honestly believe people are supposed to get them a cappuccino, and they often have no respect or manors. On a movie set things are geared to make you think you’re really the shit and everything depends on you… it’s all about you. The reality though, is that the movie business is a “we” business, not an “I” business. So I don’t give a fuck what kind of star you are, you need to realize that that extra, or that boom mic operator is helping your movie.
That’s what I find funny about Robert Rodriguez’s movie. He calls me the lead in Machete and I’m like, what the fuck? We’ve got Robert DeNiro, the lead-iest man in the world, Jessica Alba, the lead-iest lady, Michelle Rodriguez and Lindsay. Lindsay was a sweetheart on the set, the problem is that she grew up in this business, so she really believes everyone is supposed to do the same thing when she is in the streets, as when she’s on a movie sey and that’s not how it is. Shit, the paparazzi love her because they know their going to get a finger and sell that picture for a thousand dollars. Michelle Rodriguez, same thing. So leading man my motherfuckin ass. I’ll still run and get a cup of coffee for DeNiro if he asks me.
TIS: That wasn’t you’re first time working with DeNiro right?
DT: Right, I did Heat with him and he was totally cool then too. We treated each other with nothing but respect. You get what you put out.
TIS: You may be the most candid actor in Hollywood. The documentary Champion, which chronicles your life, goes in-depth about your rather colorful past (Danny interjects- “haha, San Quentin is colorful), covering your criminal history, drug addiction, and gang affiliation etc. It then goes on however to talk about your conviction to helping others through speaking engagements at penitentiaries and juvenile halls. Can you tell me about the importance of that in your life?
DT: Absolutely, you have to do that. Acting is just a job. I’m exactly the same as that lady bringing us coffee, and I have to remember that. My real job is helping others and you don’t get paid for that. Again, if you look at the people in Hollywood who are heavy partiers, they’re selfish, self-centered and egotistical. This business is made to destroy you. I’ve had trouble with stars before when doing karate movies and shit because all of the sudden they think they’re bad asses and are like “hey motherfucker, I grew up on the streets” and I’m like yeah, but two Broadway shows a week doesn’t count, bitch(laughter). That was pretty good huh?
TIS: You have me scared (laughter, sort of). There is a very powerful scene in that documentary where you visit your old prison cell in San Quentin. You’re obviously very emotionally affected, but have trouble putting your experience into words. Now that you’ve had time to process it, can you tell me what your experience was like being back in that cell?
DT: I was a sad, angry, vicious person, and right now, I immediately start thinking about my kids, because anytime I remember that guy, I think about my kids. I never want my kids to see me like that. I never want my kids to see me willing to do whatever it takes to stay on top, like the decision to kill somebody being as easy as the flip of a coin, like just fucking kill him, you know? I never want to see that person. Like with arguments, the bottom line was always murder. Nobody gets killed when they’re happy. It always starts with an argument, or a debt. It starts with a simple thing like a pack of cigarettes, but then the mind takes over and you start to think the guy is trying to make you look bad and all of the sudden you’re willing to kill this guy over a simple argument, and that’s why I won’t argue anymore. I won’t argue with anybody. People try to argue with me and my first thought is, am I willing to kill this person? Because that’s the bottom line. So when people come at me they can’t win, they think they can, but they can’t. I’ll just walk away.
The old me, that person, he’s gone, and now I’ve got these three beautiful kids who are depending on me, though they’re actually not kids anymore. My daughter Danielle is 20, and she’s an actress. My son Gilbert is 22 and he’s producing a movie called Skinny Dip, with Franky Latina. He’s 22 and producing this fucking movie! I was 22 and sitting in San Quentin. So he’s producing a movie and it’s funny because he said hey dad, I got you a role, but you may have to audition, and I was like “you little shit”. Then there’s my big boy, Danny Boy, and he’s into electronics and used to do the guidance systems for missiles, but now works for me. And so life couldn’t be better. I couldn’t fuck it up with an argument, you know?
TIS: So I hear you have a punk rocker in your family, and you’re a self professed “punk rock dad”? Can you tell me a little about that?
DT: Haha, yeah. My son Gilbert used to have a band called The Dead Reagan Tour, which he and some friends started and were influenced by bands like Suicidal Tendencies.
TIS: Very cool.
DT: Yeah, so one day I drove onto the set of a movie I was working on and was bumping one of Gilbert’s songs. Unbeknownst to me, the director and producer were really into punk, so they came over to my car and asked if I was listening to Suicidal Tendencies and I told them no, that it was my sons band. The name of the song he wrote was “No More Meds”, which is about all the kids at school that the parents are putting on medication because they don’t want to deal with them. So we were doing a movie with Tom Seizmore’s daughter, and there was a scene where she was trying to escape from a hospital because someone was trying to kill her, and she was all medicated up, so they asked if they could use the song because it was a perfect fit, and it worked out great! Shit, I can’t remember the name of the movie though.
But then a bunch of the guys in the band were getting loaded and my son wasn’t into it so they broke up. It’s funny because I was literally like the roadie. I used to rent vans for the guys to get to shows and finally said fuck it, I’ll buy a bus. So I went and bought a Greyhound bus, problem was though, when I bought it, I put myself as the driver and that’s how it showed up on the insurance, so all of the sudden I was their driver/roadie. My son used to joke that his band had the only roadie that people would ask for autographs. We had such a blast though. I loved watching my son on stage. He’s really good. He’s actually writing a song right now. That fucker’s really smart. My Daughter is the same way. She’s training right now with a girl named Tanya Fairfoot, who’s a great little actress, and Danielle is just really doing her thing. She’s awesome.
TIS: Very nice. So while we’re on the topic of music, who are you listening to these days?
DT: I like R&B and oldies. I actually did a thing with Kid Frost who is a rapper, and I’ve done a lot with Baby Bash. I’ve got a singer and she’s going into the studio to do a song with Scoop DeVille, who is Kid Frost’s son. Her name is Alicia and she is going to be awesome. I also have a magazine coming out called My Mag, and I’m also opening up a restaurant called Trejo’s in Huntington Beach, which will have awesome Mexican food. I also have a film coming out soon called Vengeance.
TIS: I saw something about that online. Who else is in it with you?
DT: Jason Mewes, Baby Bash, Techn9ne, Diamond Dallas Page, Rashad Evans, Houston Alexander and 50 Cent. Fucking everybody is in it.
TIS: Wow, quite the lineup. Can you tell me how you relax in your free time?
DT: I love old, vintage cars. I’ve got a 1936 Dodge Touring Sedan right now and there’s only five of them registered in the world, and I absolutely love working on it. It’s gorgeous. Big G’s Automotive over in Inglewood is working on it for me right now. In fact, I forgot I need to ask them a question so I’m going to call them real quick.
TIS: Yeah, do your thing.
DT: (As he’s calling he continues on…) I’m building a Machete bike which is fucking gorgeous man. I wish I could show you pictures of it. (He then connect’s with Big G’s Automotive…and we continue after he’s done). Yeah so they’ve got the Dodge up on blocks right now. It’s going to be like a Limo. Very shiny black, and it’s going to be the Machete car. It’s going to have rhinestone Machete’s in the trunk and shit.
TIS: Nice, very bad ass.
TIS: You hold the honor of having the most recognizable tattoo in the world, as voted by International Tattoo Magazine. Can you tell me about the origin of your chest piece and what criteria ITM used to deem it the most recognizable tattoo in the world?
DT: Ok, so I have a friend Harry “Super Jew” Ross. We’ve been a great friends since around fourteen years old. We used to rob the same places down in San Fernando Valley. We both ended up in San Quentin on different charges and started it there. He did the outline, but shortly after I got kicked out. It was like a scene from West Side Story, because there I was, leaving on the bus in chains, and Harry is standing outside yelling “don’t let anybody touch it, I’ll be there!” and I’m yelling back “Ok, I won’t”. I went over to Folsom and about three or four months later, he showed up and we did a little more. It was his first big piece. About three months or so after that, there was a big riot in Folsom and they shipped me over to Soledad. Harry was almost finished with it and we had another West Side Story moment as I was leaving, “let me finish it Danny”, “ok, I will”. And so he ended up in Soledad and we finished it up there. From there he went back and finished his time in Folsom.
TIS: That’s an amazing story. And how did ITM decide it was the most recognizable tattoo in the world?
DT: Basically because of all the movies I’ve been in. That reminds me, do you remember the tattoo that George Clooney had in From Dusk Til Dawn?
TIS: Yeah, the one going down his neck?
DT: Yeah, well that was obviously fake, so I’d give him shit about it on the set and say, go ahead George, time to put it on” (laughter).
TIS: Nice, sticking it to him. Did you really rob a liquor store with a hand grenade?
DT: Hahaha, where did you get that?
TIS: You said it on your Champion documentary, unless I misheard you. *Note- I went back and re-watched the segment. Danny did say he robbed a liquor store with a hand grenade but in his defense, he was such a gangster, it has to be tough to keep all the thievin straight
DT: We had different weapons. We definitely robbed them with semi-automatics and other various weapons, but I’m not sure about hand grenades. I know I was caught with a hand grenade before. But shit, I don’t even remember. Who knows?
TIS: Any word on the Machete sequels, Machete Kills & Machete Kills again?
DT: Robert (Rodriguez) definitely wants to do them. The feedback, along with how well the movie has done vs. what it cost to make, makes it a given, you know? So it’s just a matter of when we’re going to do it, not if we’re going to do it.
TIS: Cool, so we can look forward to it in the future.
DT: Yes. Robert said if it makes five dollars he’d do the sequel, and It’s made a lot more than five dollars. I keep texting him “it’s made a lot more than $5”. We actually just finished doing the new Spy Kids movie.
TIS: Nice, when’s that coming out?
DT: Probably around Christmas time. I also have a movie called Blacktino coming out, and one called Ranchero. I have Harold & Kumar’s Christmas, the third installment in that series coming out too.
TIS: Wow, you are definitely a busy man. How many movies have you done this year?
DT: Oh man, I don’t know. Maybe around 17.
TIS: Wow. So there is an amazing kill scene in Machete where you take 3 heads off at once? Did you have any input on that or other kill scenes ?
DT: That particular scene was all Robert.
TIS: Did you have any input on any of the other scenes or was it all Robert?
DT: Basically, Robert and I will just talk. If you come up with an idea, and Robert likes it, he’ll take it and when he’s done, there’s no way you’re not going to be impressed. Robert is just so brilliant. He is easily one of the smartest guys I know. I’ve done nine movies with him and I just love the way he shoots. He knows what he wants, so he’ll do it and get it. With other directors, they only have an idea of what they want, and then they’ve got to see it. So they’ll do eight, nine, ten takes before they see it. But with Rodriguez, he comes from an editing background, so it doesn’t take that long.
He has a book called Rebel Without A Crew and I see every director I’ve work with, who’s read it, utilizing time. While we’re shooting one scene, the other scene is already being set up. So as an actor, I don’t have a lot of fucking time in the trailer doing nothing, you know? It’s great because you keep the energy and momentum up, whereas with a lot of directors, you shoot and then you go back to the trailer and sit around on the phone or playing solitaire or whatever.
TIS: It’s cool to hear that after seeing his movies. It definitely explains a lot. So in closing, I was wondering if you could tell me about your understanding of God and the significance of that in your life?
DT: Ok, listen… There is no significance of God in my life, God is my life. I would not be, without God. I am supposed to be dead. In 1968 I was in the hole going to the gas chamber, but there was a divine intervention. And in knowing that, for me to get upset, or be mad, or angry, is like slapping God in the face. So here I am. I didn’t make a deal with God, because you can’t make a deal with God. He put me here to talk to kids and to talk to drunks and help addicts. He gave me this “job” which makes it a lot easier to get through to people. Let’s say you and I go on a speaking engagement, to a bunch of rowdy kids. When you go out there, the first thing you need to do is get their attention, which is basically impossible, and then you need to keep their attention which is also impossible because they have the attention span of a gnat. The most important thing to them is what is happening on Friday night or what girl their going to try and grab some tittie from, because that’s just their whole world. So then you have to show them you’re cool, which is impossible because our cool (sober people in recovery), is not their cool. The blessing that God has given me is that when I walk on campus, I’ve already got their attention.
TIS: That would be true.
DT: Yeah, you know what I mean? Maybe someone of George Clooney’s stature would too, but they don’t do this, they’d rather be saving motherfuckers in Somalia or Afghanistan or adopting babies from wherever the fuck. But right here, in the United States our kids are dying. They’re shooting each other and killing each other, but hey, let’s go save the kids in Somalia or some fucking place? This is the blessing that I’ve got It’s the blessing that he’s given me. It’s inspiring to hear teachers and principals tell me that I’ve done in forty five minutes, what they’ve been trying to do an entire semester. When people clap for me I say, don’t clap for me, clap for what God has done.
TIS: That’s so admirable. Being in recovery myself, it means a lot to hear that!
DT: Yeah man. Thank you!
TIS: So anything in closing?
DT: Yeah, I’m going to be in Salt Lake City at The Bay doing “The Machete Massacre” at their Haunted House. It’s the largest Haunted House in the country. I’m really excited about it! I’ll be there Friday Oct 29th – Sun Oct 31st. And that’s it. I’ve already mentioned everything else I have going on.
TIS: Right on Danny, thanks so much.
DT: Thank you man, this was cool!