Danny Trejo has lived a lot of lives during the 77 years — and counting — he‘s spent on planet earth. And he’s got enough stories from those various lives to fill an entire book… literally. The star of the contemporary action classic Machete recently published his first memoir, Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption and Hollywood, which charts his unlikely path from the mean streets of Los Angeles to the prison cells of San Quentin to the red carpets of Hollywood blockbusters.
It’s a journey that often depended on the kindness of strangers, and Trejo’s own compulsion to help someone in need. “Everything good that is happened to me has happened as a direct result of helping someone else,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment in our latest Game Changers interview. (Watch the video above.)
As a young man, Trejo too often got the wrong kind of help from the adults around him. The youngest of 11 kids, his parents largely left him to his own devices, and he found the attention he craved in his uncle, Gilbert Trejo. “When I was with my Uncle Gilbert, it was like life was cool — life was great,” he remembers. “I didn’t know he was addicted to heroin.” The elder Trejo soon got his 12-year-old nephew hooked on drugs as well, and also shaped him into a fighter. “I would rather fight than argue. … I would sock somebody first. And that’s what Gilbert taught me how to do. He was the biggest part of my growing up, really. He was an armed robber and a drug addict, and that’s what I did.”
That way of life put Trejo on an inevitable collision course with the California prison system. Much of his early adulthood was spent in and out of jail, where he further sharpened his fighting skills. Trejo was finally knocked out of that life following a prison riot at Soledad State Prison, which set him on the path to sobriety. After leaving jail for the last time in 1968, he dedicated himself to counseling other addicts — a career path that directly led to his first acting gig.
“I was working with this one kid trying to get off of cocaine, and he was a production assistant on a movie,” Trejo recalls. That movie was 1985’s Runaway Train — starring Jon Voight and Eric Roberts — and like many film sets in the ’80s, it was rife with cocaine. Trejo joined the film as an extra, and instantly caught the eye of author, actor and fellow former prisoner, Edward Bunker, who had a small role in the movie. “He said, ‘We need someone to train one of the actors how to box,'” Trejo explains. Soon, he was giving boxing lessons to Roberts and wound up facing off against him in the ring in a key sequence. “My whole life changed there,” Trejo says of that game-changing experience.
Once Trejo started working in movies, he never stopped. Since 1985, he has amassed over 400 credits in feature films, as well as shorts and animated movies. In the early portion of his career, though, he was only offered one type of role: convict. “I didn’t even know I was being typecast — I just knew I was making money,” he says. “I was going with what I got. If you’re looking at me, it’s going to be tough to be the leading man and get the girl. It took me a long time before I started getting roles.”
Slowly, but surely, Trejo built a reputation in and around Hollywood, and forged connections with key collaborators, including Robert Rodriguez. After appearing in the director’s 1995 Hollywood debut Desperado, he and Rodriguez planted the seeds for what eventually became the 2010 action favorite, Machete, Trejo’s first star vehicle after 25 years in the business. “When I did Machete, I almost broke into tears,” he says. “I swear to god, this was unreal.”
In recent years, Trejo has blazed a new career trail as an L.A. restauranteur. He currently owns eight eateries, including Trejo’s Tacos, Trejo’s Cantina and Trejo’s Coffee & Donuts. And he’s always looking for ways to help the new generation of Latinx actors. “There’s a lot more Hispanic actors [now],” he notes. “I think we’ve got to get more executive producers, and more people with money to make more Latin-based movies.”
“The Latinos with the money don’t want to start making movies,” he continues. “So stop crying about there’s not enough Latinos in cinema. Let’s get some money together and make a movie! We’ll make it all Mexicano, and maybe bring two people who aren‘t color. C’mon, you be our token white guys.”