No. 1 Troublemaker
The guts and the glory (don't forget the gory)
"When I came to Austin to do Machete, I took two of my partners with me," says Danny Trejo, laughing at one of many seriously weird/cool memories. "They were old gangbangers from way back, you know? And there had just been a big [UT] football game. So everybody was giving the 'Hook 'em Horns' hand sign, right? And my partners were all like, 'What's up with all these people flashing all these gang signs?'"
Standing in front of me, he's not so tough. His eyes are wild, his hair whipping over his left shoulder, brandishing a pair of bloody machetes in his hands. A ratty belt of jailhouse shivs is visible beneath his leather vest, which, just for the record, is drenched in gore. He's leaping straight toward me – blades raised, mouth open in a permanent, hell-bound howl – and I'm screwed but good. There's no way out, no way in, nowhere to run, nothing to do but take the blade where it lands and spit out half a prayer as the steel cleaves through muscle to bone and beyond.
But no: This knife-fighter is 5½ inches tall. Lucky me. Trejo's Machete action figure will have to gut me another night. "Warning: Choking hazard – small parts. Not for children under 3 years," it says on the packaging. Like you'd need a warning.
Quoth the marketing: "Yesterday he was a decent man living a decent life. Now he is a brutal savage who must slaughter to stay alive." But why not add the coda that's conspicuously absent from the Plasticene bio? "Danny Trejo: the most famous character actor of his era." Since his unintentional debut in Andrey Konchalovskiy's 1985 breakneck blockbuster Runaway Train, Trejo has snagged parts in more than 200 films. Ninety-nine percent of 'em are stoic bad guy roles: Latinos with blades, maniacs without conscience, revengers with grudges and Glocks. It's the face, see.
Trejo looks an awful lot like the guy that's gonna slit your gullet should you happen to wander into the wrong alley when the moon's gone all slantwise and so forth. He appears to be kith and kin to Frank Miller's deep red avenger Marv, late of Sin City and its upcoming addendum. But unlike actor-cum-pugilist Mickey Rourke, Trejo doesn't need the green-screen doom sheen to raise goose bumps: He's got the devil's handsome down pat. Replete with a permanent, downcast snarl; coiled anaconda sinews for limbs; and the darkest sense of wide-screen charm this side of the other side, Trejo is the closest this generation is ever going to get to Rondo "The Creeper" Hatton. Even better, he's the real deal.
"Why does his face look that way?" It's a road map to his heart, kid. Here, have a black balloon and quit squalling so many queries.
Better to ask how he's managed 13 films in 2012 alone, either in preproduction, postproduction, or locked, loaded, and ready to screen. Does this manimal ever sleep?
"'A busy man has time to do everything,'" says Trejo. "That's a really cool motto that a friend of mine, Eddie Bunker, once said to me. I've always kind of lived my life by that. How can I call what I do 'work,' you know? I love my work! I'm getting ready to go to Romania to do a Western called Death in Tombstone! Going to Romania to do an American Western – how wild is that?"
Which brings us to Trejo's long-standing relationship with longtime Austin troublemaker Robert Rodriguez.
"He was the only one who had the right idea, who said: 'Wait a minute! This is crazy! If I have a $6 million budget, I have to spend $3 million on permits!' I just love how he had his own idea and just kicked Hollywood in the ass!"
Rodriguez fans – aka badass bilingual action audiences – have come to expect Trejo's glowering presence as a Troublemaker Studios staple, starting with 1995's guitar-slinging Desperado. Since then, the actor has become a cool killing fixture on the un-Hollywood Austin set.
"How did we meet?" Trejo anticipates. "I walked into his office during the casting for Desperado and he said, 'You remind me of the bad guys in my high school.' And I said, 'I was the bad guys in your high school!' He gave me that knife, and we started twirling it and that was it."
But it's more than that. Following the sanguinary trail of Trejo's 1993 film Blood In, Blood Out, "thirteen of my relatives [from California] came down to see me on the set [of Desperado] and my uncle Rudy, who just passed away, [realized] that Robert was actually my second cousin. I was, like, 'OK, cuz, make that little part bigger!' My uncle was really well-known in San Antonio – Rudy Cantu."
So he plays the tough guy, the badass, Rick Perry's nightmare scenario in his films, but if you've talked to anyone that's worked with Trejo, the word is that he's a two-fisted teddy bear. And we mean that in the best sense of the appellation. He may be covered with tattoos, a recovering substance-abuser, and have enough charisma to fuel multiple Mayan mystiques, but Trejo – a man who has his own action figure, mind you – is no longer Public Enemy No. 1.
It wasn't always so. An unsung master of deadpan comedy – witness the viral wonder of "Machete don't text!" – Trejo spent years in federal penitentiaries (Folsom, San Quentin) for robberies and various other offenses, some of which were set up – or "bought" – by future friend Bunker, who then ended up being played by Dustin Hoffman in 1978's Straight Time. It was in San Quentin that Trejo, already on his way to becoming a lightweight and welterweight champion of San Quentin State Prison, had his epiphany. "I've got a saying – 'I'd rather shoot for the moon and miss than aim for the gutter and make it.'"
"For years, I was cast as Inmate No. 1," Trejo says. "And before that, I was a drug counselor. I still am. That's the thing, you know – you can't just tell kids to 'just say no.' You have to give them an alternative. You have to give them something that's not boring to them, right?"
Like, for instance, the most recognizable tattoo in all of cinema? Yeah, you've seen it, emblazoned across Machete's chest as he uses some poor sucker's viscera as a makeshift zip line. The naked chick with the sombrero. Who is she?
"I started that in 1965," explains Trejo. "That is a prison tattoo. It was done with needle and thread. Just poke, poke, poke. A friend of mine, Harry 'Super Jew' Ross, started it in San Quentin. He did the outline there, and then I got kicked out and sent to Folsom, and Harry was, like, 'Don't let anybody touch it, it's my first tattoo!'
"He ended up getting kicked out and sent to Folsom, too, so we did a little more ... and then a little more ...."
Then there was a riot at Folsom, minus Johnny Cash, which led directly to solitary for Trejo, anarchy, his redemption and eventual release, cleanliness and sobriety, and, much later, his own action figure. Not a career path most would chose, but neither is Trejo a character actor whom once seen anyone is likely to forget.
So ... 12 movies in one year. This year, alone. What, if anything, does Trejo do on his alleged days off? How does Enrique of King of the Hill and the co-star of Jamaa Fanaka's legendary cinematic enigma Penitentiary III chill the hell out? Or does he?
"I work on my cars," says Trejo. "Right now, I'm working on a 1936 Dodge Touring Sedan, which is absolutely gorgeous. I've got a 1952 Chevy step-side pickup truck; a 1965 Buick Riviera, the clamshell, the one with the chrome lights; and then I've got a 1965 Cadillac Seville which is just cherry. They're all cherried out. I love cherry-ing them out. That's what I do to relax."
Danny Trejo will receive the Patrón Honorary Texan Award at the Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards on Thursday, March 8, at ACL Live at the Moody Theater. Tickets are still available; see www.austinfilm.org for more info.