If you don’t recognise his name, you’ll almost certainly recognise his face. Hollywood’s consummate mean looking Mexican, Danny Trejo, has the sort of experience-scarred noggin nobody can forget and only a mother — plus, oh, several thousands of adoring fans — could love.
A pair of seen-it-all eyes jut out from a mat of weather-beaten skin, which lies like a sun-baked doormat underneath a network of veins and blemishes that tell a thousand Tequila soaked, tobacco stained stories.
Words like “unconventionally handsome” don’t cut it. Trejo’s whiskey-n-ciggies, midnight-at-a-sleazy-bar countenance suggests a simple truth that becomes increasingly apparent the more you learn about him: he looks a lot like a tough guy because he is a tough guy. Or at least he used to be.
For decades, Trejo has been chalking up pay cheques off Sunset Boulevard and maintaining his hard man cachet in an industry known for revolving-door stardom and an ever present grab bag of bright young hopefuls, fading celebs, have-nots and has-beens.
The Internet Movie Database credits him with more than 200 film and TV performances. Trejo can’t confirm or deny that number because he lost count a long time ago.
“Sometimes after work I go home watch the TV and I’m watching a show and I go ‘wow, I’m in this! I don’t even remember it!” he tells me over the phone from LA, then bursts into deep, throaty laughter.
Trejo’s many roles include a force of nature Greek God-like turn in Robert Rodrigeuz’s gloriously pulpy retro revenge flick Machete (2012), in which he plays Mexican killing machine Machete Cortez (guess what his favourite weapon is?) whose already cranky disposition is exacerbated when he witnesses his family get butchered. A sequel, Machete Kills, is scheduled for release in late 2013 despite a potentially deal-breaking lawsuit.
There’s also Trejo’s turn as a vampire bartender in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), a decapitated exploding head on a turtle (naturally) in TV’s Breaking Bad, a grizzly convict in Con Air (1997) and an alien-hunting mercenary in Predators (2010), to name but a few.
Trejo’s life story is not dissimilar to the kinds of characters he plays. Born in LA in 1944, it would take him more than four decades to get his first taste of the city as it is widely regarded, for better or worse — as a place of celluloid dreams, celebrity and glitz and glam.
Trejo landed his first role (as an extra) in Runaway Train in 1985. He visited the set after being called by a man he met at a Cocaine Anonymous support group. The 68-year-old actor smoked his first joint when he was 8 years old, was using heroin by 12 and at around 14 started committing armed robberies with his uncle. He describes this to me as “just part of growing up. You know, all American youth.”
Well before Hollywood granted his life a happy ending — or at least one in which drugs and crime weren’t its cornerstones — Trejo spent most of the 60’s coasting through California’s most notorious prisons.
The story of how he managed to turn his life around is strange and compelling. In an interview published in The Guardian in 2007 Trejo made the bizarre claim that he found God in prison after an ex cell-mate wrote the words ‘God sucks’ in excrement on the prison room floor.
“That story is true,” he says. “But I always knew there was a god. I think when I saw that [the excrement] I also saw what the combination of me being cool and me being hard and me being a chump had gotten me. I realised that there had to be a better way. So my prayer with God, if you’re there, is this: tell me everything is going to be alright. And if you’re not there, well, I’m screwed.”
“I am a mean looking Mexican with tattoos! They’re not typecasting me as anything.”
These days Trejo balances an acting career as Hollywood’s go-to guy for tough looking Mexicans with part-time work as a counsellor.
“I speak about my experiences all the time, in high schools and juvenile halls and prisons. That’s what I do. It’s my passion,” he says.
“What the film industry’s done for me is it’s given me everybody’s undivided attention as soon as I walk in the room.”
“What I find is that all these young stars — the little rappers and stuff — they wanna try to be gangsters. All they do is get in trouble. So it’s like either you’re gonna be an entertainer or you’ll end up in the can.”
After decades of playing supporting characters and bit parts Trejo scored his first leading role in Machete, and the fit could hardly be better (the film found a place in my top ten films of 2012). Machete is a deliriously exploitative action fest inspired by a spoof trailer featured in the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez produced double feature Grindhouse (2007).
Trejo’s Machete Cortez is an on-the-run hard-ass who meets, greets, slices and slaughters all those who get in his path. Cortez is framed for the attempted assassination of a conservative political leader (played by Robert DeNiro) who runs for election on a platform exclusively occupied by a hard line stance on immigration, particularly control of the Mexican border. The political subtext appealed to Trejo.
“We’ve had that same problem (border control) for 50 years but the only reason it ever comes to the forefront is when a politician wants his constituency to think they’re doing something. So they bring up immigration. ‘Oh, look how tough we are’ and then when they get elected nothing ever gets done. What we did was bring it to the forefront and say: let’s do something with it. Particularly, let’s separate drug trafficking from immigration. They’re two separate things.”
Directed by Rodriguez and long time collaborator Ethan Maniquis, Machete is stuffed to the gills with stars. Trejo acts alongside Lindsay Lohan, Robert DeNiro, Cheech Marin, Steven Seagal, Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba.
“I kissed her (Alba) eight times,” he brags.”Then my friends wanted to kiss me. She’s unbelievable. It was like a kiss from god’s lips, right there.”
Whatever can be said about Danny Trejo, it’s obvious without looking too far that he’s as close to the real deal as you get. Mainstream Hollywood has always painted a picture of leading men needing to be pretty, handsome, something pleasant to watch. Actors like Trejo — who look like the mechanic, the plumber, the guy down the street — are rare exceptions.
“People sometimes ask me ‘do you feel like you’re being typecast as a mean looking Mexican with tattoos?’”, the straight-shooting performer says. “I say ‘I am a mean looking Mexican with tattoos!’ They’re not typecasting me as anything. I’m playing with what I got.”
When I ask how he prepares for his characters and how he arrives on set and gets into ‘the zone,’ Trejo again demonstrates his refreshingly candid knack for answering questions many of his acting colleagues use as springboards for long-winded and self-indulgent responses. His answers are, shall we say, curt.
“Me? I just turn up. I just do it,” he says.
“Hell, I’ll play a play a tree if you want me to. I’ll go and study a tree for a while. But if you wanna put food on me, you gotta pay extra.”
This interview was first published in Spook Magazine.