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A Fox in the Peacock House

Nothing Can Kill Danny Trejo

The Machete Kills star has lived a million lives — from prisoner to boxer to addict to day player to leading man — and come back stronger every time

Danny Trejo has been stabbed, shot, maimed, crushed, hung, choked, decapitated, and blown to bits. He’s had hypodermic needles jabbed into his neck. He’s had a power drill run through his brain. He’s had an immolating crucifix speared into his vampire heart. Charles Bronson and Robert De Niro have killed him. Stone Cold Steve Austin and 50 Cent have killed him. Mickey Rourke has killed him twice.

In 2010, after nearly three decades of bit parts as brutal, doomed toughs, Trejo finally starred in a movie, as the title character in Machete, a mythical, mass-murdering executor of justice. In a couple of days, the gonzo sequel Machete Kills will hit theaters, cementing Trejo as just about the least likely Hollywood franchise star you can imagine.

Not that that’ll change anything. He’s 69 years old, the deep grooves and puffy lids of his cracked, cragged face a document of a life lived hard. And he’s still on hand to die for you.

Danny! Danny! Danny!” A hearty bunch of autograph-hunters and photographers clustered along the end of a blindingly lit red carpet call out for Trejo. It’s the opening night of Halloween Horror Nights, an annual haunted house event at Universal Studios Hollywood. And it is legitimately batshit.

Around the corner, there are the haunted houses. In front of the haunted houses, there are psycho clowns and mutant bears (and a Chucky). In the hands of those psycho clowns and mutant bears (and the Chucky) are axes and whips and chain saws. And in front of all that, roaming within a hundred science fairs’ worth of billowing dry ice, there are L.A. tweens in skinny jeans and Vans, screeching their hearts out. Not that you can hear them all that well, what with the explosion effects booming every 45 seconds. And yet Trejo pays attention. Before trotting off the red carpet he spins around to his full-throated audience, flips open his suit jacket to reveal a chunky, glitzy cross, and rears back to growl.

Trejo’s here to plug El Cucuy, a Mexican monster “horror maze” for which he provided the voice-over, and to walk through it for the first time. He leads a pack behind him: There are Universal tour guides, cameramen, a couple kids, a couple vatos, and one older gentleman with a perfectly smooth head save for a teeny, white-haired ponytail. Trejo’s unmistakable rasp pipes in over the speakers, narrating the spooky tale: “Once, there was a boy from a small pueblo … “

Through the maze, there are pumpkin-headed monsters in cages, birthday parties turned grisly murder scenes, oozing flesh, rotting guts, and all manner of ghouls leaping out from behind hidden doors, Legends of the Hidden Temple–style. And it was roughly after my fourth or fifth flinch when one of Trejo’s tattooed buddies shouted out, “Don’t be scared, homey!”

The night’s other order of business is the sci-fi and horror Eyegore Awards, a goofy little event whipped up to lure celebrities to plug their products. The ceremony is a breezy 45 minutes, and everyone’s aware enough to offer self-deprecating riffs. The screenwriter Leigh Whannell, here for the Insidious haunted house, grabs his Eyegore and cracks, “I’m Australian! I was planning on being shitfaced by now!” Bruce Campbell, pushing the Evil Dead attraction in a splendorous white suit, accepts his and announces, “I will hold down the finest papers with this.”1

When it’s Trejo’s turn at the podium, he takes his own shot at flippancy. “Some people are good at making scary faces,” he says, gesturing at himself. “I’d like to thank God for making this one.” The room cracks up. And then he slips in just a touch of earnestness: “The first half of my life, it got me in a whole lot of trouble. Then I bounced into Hollywood.”

Two days later, on a Sunday afternoon, I drive out to the Valley to visit Danny Trejo at home. It’s a quiet, unassuming neighborhood ringed by mountains and strip malls. Up the street there’s a pawn shop, a pupusa spot, and a dojo. Along the sidewalk, there are untended lots, dusty Nissans on bricks, and stacked mattresses. I ring the doorbell of the modest California ranch, and the place explodes with barks and yelps. Mario, Trejo’s tattooed, mustachioed bowling ball of an assistant, lets me in. On the couch petting one of his five dogs, the pint-size Penny Lanes, is Trejo.

He wears black shoes, white socks, black jeans, that big cross, and a shiny ring. His belly has swelled and softened since the early days, but the muscles in his neck are as taut as ever. He wears his jet-black hair in a ponytail today, which he often massages back with both hands. Up close, and just at the base of the hairline, you can catch the slightest hint of underlying gray. He is shirtless, and will not make the slightest move to put on a shirt — nor the slightest hint that a shirt is somewhere nearby, if he even wanted to put one on — for the rest of the afternoon.

He grew up not far from here in Pacoima, when the neighborhood had grown rough after World War II. Trejo was 8 the first time he smoked weed. He was 12 the first time he shot heroin. His mother, Alice, was a warmhearted housewife; his father, Dan, a disciplinarian construction worker. And his uncle Gilbert, a dashing young man with a knack for chaos, was his mentor in debauchery. Six years his senior, Gilbert shared booze and drugs with Trejo and showed him how to rob.

“I remember giving my uncle a ride in my mom’s car,” Trejo says. “He’d say, ‘Stop here, lemme get some cigarettes.’ [He] comes out: ‘Go, go, go!’” While Trejo was idling, Gilbert would hold the places up. “I’d say, ‘You motherfucker! I’m in my mother’s car!’ But that was Gilbert. He could have $5,000 in his pocket and do a liquor store for $80.”

By 13, Trejo was sparring with Gilbert. “I was basically his punching bag,” Trejo says. “I had to learn to fight, or get my head beat in. He’d go” — and here Danny mimes a right hook connecting, splat, into a face — “‘Bang! ‘No, you gotta move!’” Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, a future world champion kickboxer,2 grew up throwing fists side by side with Trejo. “Danny never backed down,” Urquidez recalls. “He was a natural. He had a big heart, and a strong jaw.”

Gilbert’s lessons would come in handy during dances at the YMCA, where the real action could be found across the street at Mission Park. There, rival crews from all over the city would come to rumble — sometimes with fists, sometimes with knives and chains. The crews would hold football games, too, where the winners were due some cash, or maybe a case of beer. When sore losers refused to pay up, the games would snap into all-out brawls. In the street fights, Trejo quickly learned that it wasn’t technique that mattered. “People ain’t afraid of tough guys,” he says. “People are afraid of crazy guys. It don’t matter if you beat someone’s ass or not. If you try to bite them in the jugular vein, it’s like — ‘My god, this guy is trying to eat me!’”

They’d steal cars for fun, then they’d steal cars to pull bank heists. It used to be easier: Nowadays, response time from a triggered bank teller alarm is something like 30 seconds; back then, Trejo recalls, not without wistfulness, it was a downright cozy four minutes. They’d scout the places, arrive a day early, trip a nearby burglar alarm, then lay in the cut and observe how the cops swarmed in. The key was not to come in shoving guns in the guards’ faces, but to be calm and act with stealth. The less panic, the better.3 “I never got arrested for armed robbery,” Trejo says. “Mine was all drugs.”

Trejo’s criminal record was colorful — at one point, after a drunken fight, he stabbed a sailor with the edge of a broken bottle. It was lengthy, too: He was 15 when he was first busted. Quickly, he moved from juvie to the more stringent California Youth Authority. At 23, he hit the big time. He’d sold a dealer 4 ounces of heroin, $30,000 worth — only it was bags of sugar, selectively dabbed on the openings with the real stuff. The buyer was an undercover federal agent. Trejo was shipped to San Quentin, but not before stashing about $15,000 worth of the drug money in his mother’s backyard.

Danny Trejo San Quentin was probably the best one to do time in,” Trejo says, of the manifold California institutions he would visit. “Folsom was the older prison. You didn’t wanna piss anybody off, ’cause they were doing life anyway. Soledad: gladiator school. All young crazy kids trying to get a reputation. And I was the lightweight and welterweight champion of all three.”

Boxing has long been banned in prisons, but in the ’60s California pros in training would come in to fight inmates. Trejo, already known for his facility with his hands when he entered San Quentin, quickly became a top dog.

“For a trainer I had a guy named Joey Abasta,” Trejo says. “Legend in the penitentiary. He actually beat Golden Boy Art Aragon. Aragon was like the Oscar De La Hoya of the ’50s. The mob paid him to throw the fight but Joey was loaded. He was like, ‘Fuck this guy,’ and he fucked him up. Then parole violated him for associating with known mobsters and sent him back to the joint.” And here Trejo leans back, and as he often does, punctuates the anecdote with a long, throaty laugh: “He said, ‘Ahh, I got a couple of grand, and I got to slap the shit out of him!’”

When Trejo wasn’t fighting, he was hustling. “My best friends in San Quentin were all murderers,” he says. “Fuckin’ Cookie: murderer. Fall, from Wilmington: murderer. Tyrone Wry: double murderer. I was the brains of the outfit. I showed us how to make money.” They’d corral young kids, offer them protection, tell ‘em pay up and you won’t be walking around with black eyes and broken arms. “The smart ones would say, ‘Fuck yeah.’ I was sending checks home to my mom.”

It was in the joint that he got his world-famous body art. The artist was Harry “Super Jew” Ross, a guy he knew from the neighborhood. The tattoo was a charra, one of the legendary fighting cowgirls of the Mexican Revolution. “We did the outline in San Quentin,” Trejo says, slapping the lady on his chest for emphasis. “Then I got kicked out of San Quentin. Harry says, ‘Don’t let anybody touch it, it’s my first tattoo!’ Four months later, he got to Folsom, and we almost did the rest of it. Then there was a big riot in Folsom and I got to Soledad. Harry says, ‘Danny, come on, I wanna finish it.’ Five, six months later, he came in, and we finally did.’”4

Mostly, what Trejo did on the inside was delude himself. “I saw people’s heads blow up,” he says. “Out of fear, out of paranoia. Bwaaaachh, completely go insane — bash their heads in the wall, cut their wrists, cut their throats. Dive off tiers. ‘What was wrong?’ ‘Ehh, he got scared.’ And even that you have to make funny: ‘Hey, look, he’s going home!’”

Years later, during the shooting of the documentary Champion, Trejo returned to his cell in San Quentin. It was an unnerving experience. He took his time explaining, making sure to get it right: “It wasn’t frightening. It was like — you’re reliving a bad dream, and you’re no longer able to hide the fact that you were scared to death. OK, you tell yourself, I’m the baddest motherfucker here! You know? I climbed to the top! Well, you go back, and you’re no longer able to lie to yourself. I was on top, but I was on top of a pile of shit.”

On Cinco de Mayo, 1968, after another prison-yard riot, Trejo found himself in solitary confinement at Soledad. He was desperate. If something didn’t happen soon, his life would be over. He prayed, vowed to change, to get sober. Later, he’d remember his first brush with AA. He was 15, and he’d accidentally walked into a meeting, just down the way from his house: The street was full of cars, and he thought he’d found a party to crash. “That was the first time I heard the curse of Alcoholics Anonymous. This guy said, ‘Danny, if you leave, you will die, go insane, or go to jail.’ And every time I got arrested, I would hear it — “Die, go insane, go to jail.’”

When he got out, in August of 1969, all his prison buddies were sure they’d see him back in sooner rather than later. And the temptations were there: Just a few months later, Uncle Gilbert was sprung from his latest bid and rolled up on Trejo in a brand-new Lincoln Continental with a couple hundred bucks and a quarter ounce of heroin. Trejo rebuffed the ride. Shortly after that, Gilbert got into a shootout with the police in Van Nuys and was locked up again. Trejo never went back to prison.

Danny Trejo The big, dark one, that’s John Wesley Hardin. The beautiful Rottweiler mix, that’s Cash. And this little one is Whisper.” We’re outside in the back lot, checking out the pups first, then the cars. Trejo walks me through a long garage — embroidered with the requisite bikini-girl pinups, a couple of the girls in sombreros — pointing out each classic. “That’s the ’52 Chevy pickup. But we put a 350 Chevy motor in it. It flies! This is the Cadillac Seville. In ’76, all the rich lawyers and rich doctors, when they made it, this is what they got. And this is the pièce de résistance: the 1936 Dodge touring sedan. Very, very rare.”

Trejo tells me a story about the car. He was out cruising one afternoon when an older man, brandishing his Auschwitz serial-number tattoo, approached and began excitedly explaining about how the Dodge Brothers, as a “fuck you” to their competitor Henry Ford, who was “really this anti-Semitic kind of dude,” made their emblem a Star of David. Trejo points out the Jewish symbol, beaming. “So I just love this car.”5

Then, the Machete bike. It’s a big, beautiful chopper colorfully decorated with the characters from the movie. Trejo hops on and poses, clearly amused this thing even exists, clearly amused this movie even exists. “Watch out,” he warns, cackling and pointing at the front wheel, where shiny steel blades jut out.

Danny Trejo, Desperado

Despite the mind-boggling workload — by rough estimate, he has appeared in nearly 200 movies; a couple of times, he cracked 20 in a single year — Trejo doesn’t hesitate to call Machete the greatest professional experience of his life.

The director Robert Rodriguez first dreamed up the character in the mid-’90s when shooting Desperado, in which Trejo stole scenes as a silent knife-wielding assassin. The concept for Machete, Rodriguez explains, was a “badass federale who surprises you with all his skills.” In the first movie, as Machete leads a band of Mexican crusaders against nefarious anti-immigration forces, he proves as adept with flying motorcycle gunships as he is with pool sex. In Machete Kills, at the behest of President Charlie Sheen, the hero must pilot helicopters and tackle missiles on a quest to save the whole damn world.

Danny Trejo On the Desperado set in Mexico, Rodriguez says, “The whole town would surround [Trejo]. They just assumed, ‘That must be the star of the movie.’” Meanwhile, Trejo plugged away: He’d stand around during other people’s scenes, begging Rodriguez to throw him in front of the camera some more. “He’s the most enthusiastic actor I’ve ever worked with,” the director says. “And it makes you wanna make roles for him. He earned [Machete] back in ’94.”

The two paid homage to the character by naming Trejo’s character in Spy Kids Uncle Machete, then finally brought him to the screen in one of the fake trailers sandwiched inside Grindhouse. That actually led to enough forward momentum to make a movie. And now they’ve made another one. Trejo can hardly believe it. And he’s so geeked: “It’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s like a drug. You go in, you forget every problem you got.” According to Rodriguez, “Everyone calls him Machete now. Even his mom calls him Machete.”

When Trejo left Soledad in ’69, he linked up with the infamous boxing manager Howie Steindler6 and tried to launch a career. But the boxing commission took one look at his record and denied his license application, putting him on a two-year probation instead. He started a gardening business, he worked in a wrecking yard, and he did “smokers” — quasi-legal club fights held in bars or Elks lodges or, really, anywhere you could put up a ring — for $500 a pop. Already a hardened man in his late twenties, Trejo had little trouble running through the young punks he was squared up against. But if the other guy’s manager had a little more scratch to throw around, “Ehh, I’d fight him a good three, four rounds, and then” — he makes a deflating noise, like a bleeeeewp, then mimes a knockout, back onto his couch. “Tough way to make a living.” Eventually, he landed a gig at the Narcotics Prevention Project in Boyle Heights. “This was East Los Angeles,” Trejo says, “and all the guys at the time were kind of chicanismo. They were all wearing serapes, huaraches. I went for the job interview in a suit. They said, ‘Oh fuck, you got a suit! You be court liaison!’” He found he had a knack for telling the judge the right thing. “A lot of the stuff I learned in NA: ‘Your honor, one addict helping another addict is beyond parallel.’ That’s in the book! And the judge would say, ‘Oh, that sounds great.’ I’d come back with these guys that everyone thought was going to the joint. And we would work with them.”

Which brings us, at last, to Danny Trejo’s origin story. In 1985, a young recovering addict working as a PA on the movie Runaway Train found himself tempted by the rampant piles of cocaine floating around and called his sponsor for help. And when Trejo stepped on set, he was discovered. One of the screenwriters was the crime novelist and actor Edward Bunker,7 with whom Trejo had done time. Bunker had seen Trejo win titles in the joint, and quickly nominated him to train the star, Eric Roberts, for fight sequences. The job paid $320 a day. Trejo couldn’t believe his luck. It wouldn’t end there: After Andrei Konchalovsky, the famed Russian director and an early collaborator of Tarkovsky’s, got to know him, Trejo went ahead and nabbed himself a part in the movie.8 And then it was on.

For the first few years of his career, Trejo’s characters never had names: They were “Prisoner,” “Angry Client,” “Chink’s Gang Member.” His first role with a name was in Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, in which Charles Bronson mercilessly machine guns about a third of Greater Los Angeles. Trejo played Art Sanella, a drug-ring enforcer who meets a fiery death at the hands of a bomb disguised as a bottle of wine. The franchise was on its last legs at that point, and the special-effects department had to skimp: It’s hard to miss that, mere moments before the fateful red-wine explosion, flesh-and-blood Danny had been swapped out for an atrocious-looking dummy.

Danny Trejo

After that, Trejo put his head down and worked, worked, worked, piling up credits — Marked for Death, Carnal Crimes, Guns, Whore, Maniac Cop 2 — wherever he could, ecstatic to be able to provide for his firstborn son, Danny Boy.9

“I remember the first time anyone interviewed me,” he says. “It was this young Chicana chick out of college, real into la raza — ‘Danny, don’t you feel you’re being stereotyped? You’re always playing the mean Chicano dude with tattoos.’ So I lifted up my shirt and said, ‘What are you talking about? I am the mean Chicano dude with tattoos!’” Trejo understands why the interviewer took umbrage with the perpetuation of the stereotype of Mexican Americans as violent or crime-prone. But, back then, he wasn’t so far removed from that reality. And so the way he saw it, he’d carved out a niche that was keeping the paychecks coming in. He was proud of it.

A decade of steady work later, Trejo had become a legitimate “That Guy” All-Star. In 1995, things got bigger: There was Desperado, the start of his long, fruitful relationship with his buddy Rodriguez, and Heat, where Michael Mann had him playing a bank robber named Trejo. The next year he was the Titty Twister’s undead bartender, Razor Charlie, in From Dusk Till Dawn. The year after that he was hanging with Ice Cube on the Amazon in Anaconda. Then there was Con Air, in which he played Johnny-23, a monstrous rapist with a little heart tattoo for each one of his victims.

On the Con Air set, Trejo recalls the machismo was on full blast: “You couldn’t spit without somebody trying to spit further. Pretty soon, you’d have a spitting contest.” Urquidez, who was the movie’s stunt coordinator,10 remembers a telling incident: “One day, one of the actors was joking with him. Danny comes up to me, he says, ‘Guy’s talking to me like some kind of punk. I’m gonna stick that guy!’” Urquidez pulled him aside quickly, afraid the old neighborhood survivor mentality would get someone stabbed. “I saw it in his eyes,” Benny says. “Danny was still hard-core at the time.”

But Trejo took a breath and calmed down, remembering a lesson he’d been learning slowly over these years: Hollywood doesn’t actually want tough guys. They want guys who can act tough when the cameras come on. His old friend Eddie Bunker always used to point it out: “These people do not get angry the way we get angry.”

From day player to “that guy” Hall of Fame to no. 1 on the call sheet, it has been an unlikely path for Trejo. When I ask him if he always aspired to star in a movie, he laughs. He never aspired to do anything other than to survive and stay employed: “In AA, they told me: ‘Just for today.’ And that’s all I work on.” At nearly 70, his profile has never been larger. Beyond Machete Kills, there are the stints on Breaking Bad (as the ill-fated Tortuga) and Sons of Anarchy, the upcoming Muppets sequel, the George Lopez sitcom he’s shooting right now. But really, he says, nothing has changed. In the next year, as he has for every year he’s ever worked in Hollywood, he will appear in a preposterously long string of movies — Bad Asses, Beyond Justice, L.A. Slasher, Vengeance, In the Blood, Redemption: The Darkness Descending, A Horse Story, Mucho Dinero — that you will, most likely, never see.

Trejo’s conversations are animated, riddled with sound effects and shadow boxing. He leaps up off the couch constantly — to let his sister into the house, to microwave his coffee, to act out Justin Bieber getting yelled at by Don Cheadle to sit the fuck down at the Mayweather-Canelo fight. The work, it appears, is his lifeblood. It keeps him limber.

These days, Trejo has no idea how many job offers he gets. His agent, Gloria, sifts through the deluge, plucks out three good ones a week, and hands them over. His first response, he says, cackling again, is always “Which one pays most?”

The money’s not really the point, though; the money’s only good as far as he can spread it around. On the payroll he’s got his assistant Mario, a friend he met while shooting Blood in Blood Out in San Quentin; his other assistant Max, a guy from the neighborhood he’s known forever; and, just recently, Max’s son Mikey, who’s now driving him around. Danny Boy is working as an electrician, but he’s coming onboard soon, too. Trejo just bought a three-bedroom house not far from here for his daughter Danielle. And his other kid, Gilbert, lives in Hollywood, where he fronts a rock band and produces movies.

Together, he and Gloria pick a role and jam it into his schedule, the specifics of which he’s only ever barely aware of. “I’m going to eight different countries with Machete Kills,” he says. “And I don’t even know when I’m leaving. I don’t even know which countries. I’m gonna go out and work on the cars, and when they call, I go.”

Hollywood blockbuster, student film, goddamn Yoplait commercial — you hit his day rate of $30,000, you’ve got a pretty good chance of hiring Danny Trejo. He doesn’t take vacations. He doesn’t take hiatuses. He works. And he promises it will be this way forever. Danny Trejo will keep dying until the day he dies.

“This is all gravy,” he says. “In 1968, I was on my way to the fuckin’ gas chamber. Now I got fuckin’ action figures.”

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Amos Barshad has written for New York magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad