Danny Trejo: “The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ started a riot when I was in prison”

Nearly 50 years since he left "the hole", Hollywood's friendliest hard man reflects on a life of two halves

Not much fazes unlikely Hollywood hero, reformed criminal and one-time addict Danny Trejo. Certainly not coronavirus. “To me, lockdown’s kind of funny,” says the 76-year-old, letting loose the kind of throaty cackle that could move tectonic plates. “I did 18 months in the hole! So this is like time out in your house. I can go to my beautiful backyard. I got a swimming pool. I got food; in the hole you get a square of processed foods all scrunched together. The first three days you’re there you’re like, ‘I ain’t eating that crap’, but on the fourth day…”

“I did 18 months in the hole! Coronavirus is like time out in your house”

Trejo is talking to NME from his home in Los Angeles ahead of the release of Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo – a new documentary which looks at Trejo’s fall and subsequent rise – about the year and a half he spent in solitary confinement at California’s infamous Soledad State Prison in the late 1960s. Serving time for drugs and armed robbery offences, Trejo had been in and out of correctional facilities since the 1950s after taking his first hit of weed aged eight before getting hooked on heroin at 12, then feeding his habit by holding up stores in and around Los Angeles with his lawbreaking Uncle Gilbert who he idolised. “All the other guys always had t-shirts with sweat on them and khaki pants with paint on them because they were workers, but Gilbert always had pressed clothes and a nice shirt and a lot of money,” remembers Trejo. “He always had a big roll of money with a rubber band and that impressed me a lot more than the construction worker guys!”

Danny Trejo
Credit: Universal

After a large-scale prison riot in which officers were hurt, Trejo – who was known across California as one of the toughest, scariest men in the state’s penal system thanks to his unbeaten record as a champion boxer – was thrown into solitary confinement. Things looked bleak. “They were gonna send us to the gas chamber so I remember making a deal with God and saying, ‘if you let me die with dignity, I will say your name every day, and I will do whatever I can for my fellow man’,” recalls Trejo of the moment he turned his life around. But when Trejo’s life could have been over forever, he was granted a reprieve. “I thought it was just gonna be like a couple of years [in the hole], and then they were gonna kill me but God fooled me!”

“There are two types of people in prison: predators and prey”

Trejo’s terrifying prison experiences form the backbone of the documentary. “There’s two kinds of people in prison,” explains Trejo. “There’s predators and there’s prey and you have to decide which you’re gonna be every morning. And you might decide you’re going to be a predator, but someone else has decided you’re going to be prey. It’s probably the most tense place you’ll ever be.”

Trejo has served time in America’s most notorious institutions. “I got kicked out of San Quentin and they sent me to Folsom,” he explains, incarcerated there at the same time as a young Merle Haggard, who would go on to become one of country music’s biggest names, turning his life around after seeing Johnny Cash play one of his infamous behind-bars gigs. “We ran in different circles,” says Trejo of Haggard, who he knew of but wasn’t friendly with. “We had some amazing talent. Prison is like a warehouse of talent but also a warehouse for insanity.”

Danny Trejo
Credit: Universal

Trejo’s decade in jail sounds deeply harrowing, a place where he witnessed murder and daily brutality. If he could go back now and do it all differently in order to live a normal life, would he? “I really love where I’m at right now,” he explains, suggesting that the struggle might have just been worth it. “And I know I couldn’t have got here if I was just a good guy, I don’t think I ever would have got here.”

“Prison is like a warehouse of talent but also a warehouse for insanity”

That was over 50 years ago now and since getting sober and leaving prison in the early 1970s, Trejo has been firmly on the straight and narrow, ending up as one of the most recognisable faces in modern movies along the way. Now he’s an A-list star in his own right, thanks to his role as Machete, a Mex-ploitation superhero created by director Robert Rodriguez, starring in 2010’s mononymous Machete movie after a mock trailer for the film appeared in 2007’s schlocky Rodriguez/Tarantino pair-up Grindhouse.

But the path to his eventual superstardom was paved with years of nameless bit parts, with Inmate #1 detailing his years of anonymous extra work, but a life every bit as dramatic and action packed as one of his films, of which IMDb credits him with a whopping 404 acting appearances.

Machete
Danny Trejo as knife-brandishing Machete. Credit: Alamy

Rather than hiking to Hollywood with a folder of airbrushed headshots and a dream, Trejo wound up in movies by accident. Paying off his debt to God, he became a drugs and alcohol counsellor for at-risk teens after leaving prison and in the mid-1980s was called in to help a cocaine-addicted cast member on the set of Jon Voight-starring thriller Runaway Train. But as soon as director Andrei Konchalovsky saw Trejo’s distinctively gnarled face and a torso decorated with intricate prison tattoos, he knew he had to have him in the movie too.

Cast as a tough guy boxer, so began Trejo’s unlikely rise to fame and a run of roles as intimidating hard-arses followed. It was in the 1990s though that Trejo’s real name finally became known, when Rodriguez cast him in blockbusters Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn. Memorable turns in Con Air, Anchorman and Badass followed and now he’s one of Hollywood’s most recognisable – and busy – names.

“If they want me to play the bad guy and the bad guy lives and gets the girl, I won’t do it”

With so much on his CV, we wonder, has Trejo ever said no to a role? Well yes, actually. “If they want me to play the bad guy and the bad guy lives and gets the girl, I won’t do it,” states Trejo, his moral compass always firmly in check. “The bad guy’s got to die or go to prison and I’ll do it.” He still regularly speaks to groups of juvenile delinquents about his life and Inmate #1 sees him returning to prison to share his experiences of getting clean. “When I go to talk, I tell young people I’ve never known a successful drug dealer,” he explains. “And they say, ‘what about Chapo!’ And I say Chapo was buried! [The notorious drug lord known as El Chapo is currently serving a life sentence]. All those guys are dead or in prison forever.”

Danny Trejo
Credit: Universal

Not just a groundbreaking film star – still less than 5% of Hollywood’s big hitters come from Hispanic backgrounds, despite the fact that they make up 17% of the US population – Trejo is also a philanthropic pillar of the community. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Trejo’s been giving out care packages to those who need them the most in his hometown of Pacoima, a working class Latino neighbourhood in the San Fernando Valley region of LA.

“I do whatever I can for my fellow man every day,” he reveals. “The people that I choose to call friends, if you look in the trunk of their cars they’ll have socks and thermal underwear because we give them to the homeless and we pass out food.” The week we speak he’s also been handing out packages of nappies to local families. “Every time we pass out food, mums will say, do you have any Pampers? You forget, kids use nine Pampers a day, and they’re very expensive.”

“Anthony Bourdain wouldn’t eat anywhere in LA, but he loved my restaurant”

Much of the food comes from Trejo’s own restaurant chain. Over the past four years he’s become something of a one man brand, with his own record label, beer, coffee and more. It all started with Trejo’s Tacos in 2016, which has since expanded into a donut stand and cantina which the late, great Anthony Bourdain blessed during a visit to Los Angeles on his acclaimed travelogue show Parts Unknown. “He said he wouldn’t eat in any place in LA but there, he loved it,” says Trejo proudly. Another fan of Trejo’s Tacos is close personal friend Marilyn Manson. “I called him and he said, ‘hey, I’m living on your tacos!’ He lives down the street from the one on La Brea, so he goes all the time.”

Manson is just one of the heavier musicians who have adopted Trejo as one of their own, alongside the likes of Rob Zombie and Slayer, who have cast him in a number of their music videos. So is Trejo a metalhead at heart? “Ha! I got to tell you something, I wasn’t really a big Slayer fan,” he confesses with an impish grin. “I’m [into] oldies; Mary Wells, The Beatles.”

Danny Trejo
Credit: Universal

Trejo’s loved The Beatles ever since hearing ‘Hey Jude’ rattling its way through the prison walls back in 1968, when it caused a glorious moment of mayhem. “It’s always real noisy and chaotic in the hole and this song comes on and you can barely hear it from the officer’s radio,” he remembers. “And the hole got quiet and quiet and quiet.” He pauses. “It’s not good when the hole is quiet. And then, (Trejo sings) “Judy Judy Judy Judy Judyyyyyy!” Sinks were broken! Toilets were flooded! We went just totally insane! That song was so beautiful it was worth a riot.”

“I met Barack Obama at a fundraiser – he recognised me from ‘Machete'”

Lady Gaga is another mate, pals with Trejo since she took on her debut film role in 2013’s Machete Kills, for which she was nominated for the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actress, but sadly lost out to Kim Kardashian. “God I love her,” swoons Trejo. “I have her pots and pans!” Pardon? “She was on the set of Machete Kills and she cooks her own food. She’s like me, she doesn’t like processed food, she eats very healthy. So they bought her pots and pans to have in her trailer. When she was leaving, I said, ‘Gaga. What are you doing with these pots and pans?’ ‘Well, I’m not keeping them’, she said, so I got them all!”

You know you’ve made it when even former president Barack Obama gets excited about hanging out with you. At a fundraiser in Austin, Texas hosted by Robert Rodriquez – and after security had at first denied him access – Trejo got in line to shake the big man’s hand. “We’re about four from the front and Obama, the President of the United States, goes like this: ‘I know you, you’re Machete!’” Trejo beams and grabs a framed picture of the pair, thrusting it toward the camera on his laptop so NME can take a good look. “The President!”

Danny Trejo
Credit: Universal

Unsurprisingly Trejo’s isn’t quite as fond of the current guy in charge. We ask if he’s a fan of Donald Trump. “Um…. hahaha. I don’t think he’s a fan of me, from what he’s shown, I don’t think he’s a fan of me,” sighs Trejo of Trump’s hostile attitude to America’s Mexican community. “He’s alienated everybody but his base, his group.”

Recently turning 76, is it time for Trejo to retire? There’s that laugh again. A couple of years ago, he and acting great Nick Nolte were sat around on the set of Adam Sandler Western comedy The Ridiculous Six waiting to shoot a scene. “Somebody comes in and says, ‘when are you guys gonna retire?’ We said, ‘from what? we’re playing cowboys with Adam Sandler!’” Frankly, when your job is as fun as Trejo’s what’s the point in ever calling it a day. “I’ll play an old grandpa, I’ll be a grandpa gangster!” he says pointedly, just in case any casting agents are reading.

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What you might be waiting a very long time for though is Machete Kills… In Space, the long mooted final film in the Machete trilogy. On April 1 of this year Trejo posted a mocked up film poster for the eagerly awaited film on his meme-packed Instagram page. Could it really be finally happening? No such luck. “April Fools!” he says with a shrug. “Robert Rodriguez went to sleep on that one. God, everybody in the world was waiting for that!” But with 28 Trejo-starring shows and films in pre and post production – not to mention the fascinating Inmate #1 – Danny Trejo will thankfully never be too far from our screens.

‘Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo’ is available on Digital Download now