Danny Trejo is a Mexican American character actor with a colorful past. The 66-year-old, spent time in prison during the 1960s, where he won the state prison titles in lightweight and welterweight boxing divisions. During this time he became involved with a twelve-step program, which he credits with helping him overcome his drug addiction.
After leaving prison, Trejo went on to become a drug counselor. His role as a counselor led to a chance encounter with an old friend from prison on the set of the movie “Runaway Train” in 1985. The film’s writer asked Trejo to teach boxing to the actors, and the director liked him so much that he included Trejo in the movie. This was the start of his career as an actor.
Trejo, who is known most recently for his lead role in the Robert Rodriguez’s action-packed “Machete,” stars in the direct-to-DVD prequel “Death Race 2,” which comes out today. I had the chance to talk to him Friday about his role in the film and about his thoughts on 25 years in showbiz.
Evan Crean: Tell me a little bit about how you got attached to Death Race 2. What was it that interested you?
Danny Trejo: Well, I read the script and I saw that it had “the three b’s” which are necessary for a good movie and that’s babes, bullets, and blood. It seemed action packed, and I love action movies. If you’re looking for drama, don’t invite me. I read the script, and we were set to film in South Africa…Cape Town, South Africa. The scenery in South Africa is gorgeous. I got there and I ran into Tanit Phoenix, and she was, she’s beautiful.
When you’re prepping for a role do you have a specific creative process that you like to go through? Are you the kind of guy who likes to stick to the script? Or do you like to improvise?
DT: I like to improvise. I play a prisoner you know, so it’s not that difficult.
I read somewhere that your nickname is The Mayor. Could you tell me a little bit more about how you earned that nickname?
DT: The Mayor, I got that when I was living in Venice, and they were having trouble with the gangs. The police would always call some of us that were older and well respected. They’d call us and say, “Hey, we have this trouble and this trouble,” and we’d kind of intermediate and stop some of the violence.
I also read that the movie “Heat” is one of your favorite films because it got you out of a lot of tickets. Why exactly is that?
DT: Now “Machete” is my favorite movie, but in the movie “Heat,” everything that the police did was tactically correct. The police really like that fact, that it’s how they do things. Al Pacino, who was the supercop in the movie, was just on it. So the police really love that movie. Every officer that I’ve talked to has a copy of that.
It [“Heat”] is a good one for sure. You said your favorite movie is “Machete,” and I know that you work a lot with Robert Rodriguez. I’ve heard that you guys are actually related. What is it that you like so much about working with Robert Rodriguez and did your relationship change at all after finding out you were related?
DT: We found out we were related when we were working on “Desperado.” We didn’t even know we were related. I had never even heard of him, since “Desperado” was his first big movie. When I went in to cast for it, he looked at me and he said, “You remind me of one of the bad guys at my high school.” And then I said, “I am one of the bad guys from your high school, give me a job,” (laughing).
In Mexico where we were filming it, my relatives came down from San Antonio, Texas to see me, and that’s when him and my uncle started talking, and then all of the sudden it was like hey we’re cousins. We’ve developed a great relationship, and the reason I like working with Robert, is that he doesn’t waste time. He’s not like a lot of directors that have to see what they want. When a director has to see what he wants, you have to do five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten takes. Robert knows what he wants so he just sets it up and shoots it.
He seems like the kind of guy that has a very distinct vision and knows what he wants when he’s working on a movie.
DT: I think he’s a big fan of movies. You have to be a big fan of movies to make great movies.
I would agree with you there. I feel like this might be an obvious question, and you’ve probably gotten it a lot, but I know Machete doesn’t text. Does Danny Trejo text?
DT: Nah, I don’t text. The only thing I can text real fast is “call me.”
(Laughing) I read somewhere that during the 90s that you would see yourself in movies, and you’d actually be surprised. You had forgotten some of the names of the movies you were in. As an actor do you go for quantity over the size of roles? Or what’s your approach?
DT: Well I like to work. And to me making movies is like any other job. You know a house painter, he just wants to paint houses, like “give me a house and I’ll paint it.” In my acting, you know I’ll play a tree if you want me to, but give me more money if you want fruit on it.
Do you have any directors out there you’ve always wanted to work with or any roles you’ve always wanted to play but have missed out on?
DT: Right now I’m getting ready to do a film with the rapper Kid Frost. It’s a movie about a Los Angeles Mexicano community. My son, Gilbert Trejo, he’s 22-years-old and he’s directing it. My son studied under Robert Rodriguez, so it’s gonna be a lot of fun, my son directing.
Do you think you’re going to get into any fights with him on set if he gives you some direction you don’t like?
DT: (Laughing) I don’t have to fight with my son, I just give him a dirty look. I’ve never even argued with a director in the 25 years that I’ve been in show business industry. I just understand that he’s the boss.
Your introduction to the film industry was teaching boxing on the set of a movie and that you had a career as a boxer. Do you still teach today or do you mentor any young boxers today?
DT: I still train, so I’ll help kids at the gym and stuff like that, but I’m not that really into boxing other than as a spectator. My introduction was that I was working a drug counselor, helping kids and keeping them off drugs. One of the kids that I was working with called me and said “Hey there’s a lot of blow down here, can you come out and hang out with me?” So I said okay, and went down there out of boredom, and I walked on to the set of a movie called “Runaway Train” with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts.
I happened to walk onto the set and run into a friend of mine, named Eddie Bunker, who I was in the joint with and was the writer. And he said, “Dan what are you doing here?” I told him I was hanging out with this kid, helping him stay clean. He said, “We need someone to train one of the actors how to box,” and so I said, “What’s the pay?” He told me it was $320 a day, and I said “So how bad to you want this guy beat up?” They had me train Eric Roberts how to box, so the director saw me, and decided to put me in the movie.
You talked a little bit about how you like to work frequently, do you see acting as a lifelong career for you? Do you ever think that you’ll retire or do you think you’ll just keep going?
DT: What acting is for me is the best hook I’ve ever had. My passion is talking to kids though. I love talking to kids in the juvenile hall and guys in the penitentiary. What acting has done is that, when you talk to kids you need to get their attention. It’s impossible though because they have none. When I walk onto a campus, I have their attention immediately for the films that I have done.
“Death Race 2” is available on DVD and blu-ray today.