DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Before Danny Trejo became an actor, he was an inmate in and out of California jails, including San Quentin and Folsom Prison, for more than a decade on charges related to drugs and robbery. His unusual story is told in the new documentary "Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo," which tells of Trejo's path from prison to Hollywood.
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DANNY TREJO: My career took off immediately. It was almost like doing porn. Every time I walked onto a set, the first thing the director would say, oh, take off your shirt - because they wanted to see that tattoo. This girl was interviewing me, and she said, aren't you afraid of being typecast? I said, what are you talking about? Well, Danny, you're always playing the mean Chicano dude with tattoos. I thought about it. I said, I am the mean Chicano dude with tattoos. So it was like, somebody finally got it right.
UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: You never went to acting school or any...
TREJO: Well, I actually - I trained in - at San Quentin drama arts.
UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: Yeah.
BIANCULLI: Since landing his first movie roles in the 1980s, Danny Trejo has never lacked for movie or television work. Right now, during the pandemic, he has two dozen films that are awaiting release, in post-production or in some state of filming. The character Machete, the tough-guy Mexican federale in the "Spy Kids" movies, was written specifically for Trejo, who went on to star in two "Machete" action films. On TV, he's made guest appearances on everything from "Desperate Housewives" and "Baywatch" to "Sons Of Anarchy" and "Breaking Bad," where he showed up in two episodes playing a Mexican cartel drug runner named Tortuga who was being interrogated by the DEA - interrogated, but not intimidated.
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TREJO: (As Tortuga) Hey, white boy. Better learn your espanol. This ain't Branson, Mo., know what I'm talking about? You know what? I'll teach you. (Speaking Spanish). It means, let's make a deal.
BIANCULLI: That character arc didn't end well. Tortuga was decapitated, with his head mounted on a living tortoise. Danny Trejo, however, has thrived. And now his story is being told in the new documentary about his life. Terry Gross spoke with Danny Trejo in 2018.
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TERRY GROSS: Danny Trejo, welcome to FRESH AIR. In movie roles, you're famous for being really tough and very menacing when you need to be.
GROSS: Was that an asset for you in prison? Was - is that something...
GROSS: ...You knew how to use when you were in prison?
TREJO: Absolutely. There's two types of people in prison. There's predator and prey. You have to decide every day which you're going to be. And it's that simple.
GROSS: So how did you turn yourself into a convincing predator so that you wouldn't be prey?
TREJO: Have you ever seen me?
GROSS: (Laughter) Yes I have. That's a good answer.
TREJO: I'm here to tell you. So like, that's how I got in the movies, you know, like...
TREJO: But you go to prison the first time because now it's so easy to go to prison your first time arrested. And so now when you go to prison, all of a sudden, you have not been brought up in this lifestyle. So if you were in juvenile hall, in youth authority and then in prison, that means you went to prep school. You went to graduate school. Now you're in the university. And you know how to behave. You know what to do, what not to do. If you're there for the first time, you're walking around - ask a guy, can you help me? Hey, buddy, can you tell me where the pool is? So it's like all of a sudden, you're lost. You're not in your element.
GROSS: So you came up through the system, so you knew.
GROSS: You knew what to do. OK, so something that really helped you in your later life as an actor - it helped get you into acting - is that you became a lightweight and welterweight champion in prison. So...
TREJO: Yeah, boxing. My uncle started boxing in Golden Gloves, and I was his sparring partner - punching bag. And so I either had to learn how to fight or get my head kicked in. And he - you know, he taught me how to fight. So basically anything you're good at, you can use. Like, some people are real good at writing letters. Well, that's a way to protect yourself. Some people are real good at fighting. That's - you know, boxing, I think, kept me out of a lot of trouble.
GROSS: Why do you think you were able to give up drugs and stay out of prison eventually? Like, how old were you when that happened, and what was the turning point for you?
TREJO: Cinco de Mayo in 1968. Me, Ray Pacheco, Henry Quijada - I can say that because I think they were both killed in robberies. We were involved in a prison riot. I went to the hole and expected to go to the gas chamber.
GROSS: What were you accused of?
TREJO: Inciting a riot. And by the grace of God - I can remember saying, God, if you're there, if you let me die with some dignity, I will say your name every day, and I will do whatever I can to help my fellow man. And really I thought it was just going to be a couple of years. Then they were going to kill me. But it wasn't (laughter). It's like he fooled me and gave me the rest of my life.
GROSS: Was it hard to learn kind of emotional control, like, controlling anger and things like that coming of age in prison?
TREJO: Anger is probably something you don't have in prison. You don't have anger. You can't afford to get mad. If it is worth your time, then you go directly to rage. You understand?
GROSS: Wow, OK, yeah.
TREJO: You know, I can remember. It's like, I've watched attorneys argue, and I'm waiting for somebody to get socked, you know? Wait a minute. You going to sock him, you know? And - because in prison, you don't get angry, you know? You go directly to rage - whatever it is - because that's your defense. The bottom line to an argument is a murder. So if you say something to me that I think is an attack or belittling, I have to think, is this worth killing him over?
GROSS: It's quite an equation to have to go through all the time.
TREJO: Well, it only takes a split second.
GROSS: So when you got out of prison, you couldn't go from zero to rage...
GROSS: ...Because, you know, murder isn't the bottom line when you're - (laughter) it's not the way to settle an argument when you're out of prison.
TREJO: I - yeah, but it...
GROSS: Rage is not - you know, it's not always the most effective way of going about things, particularly out of prison. So how did you know - learn how to control that?
TREJO: I think I had a really good support system around me. And, you know, I think that's the main thing coming out of a prison - it's like, if you're by yourself, then you're still alone. And it's like I had a great support system, which was a 12-step program. And the people that I was around knew about about rage. They knew about the bottom line to an argument's a murder. So I just - was just real choosy about the people I associated with. I honestly believe that if you come out of prison, you need a support group and not a parole officer.
GROSS: So I'm interested in hearing your story about how you went from coming-of-age in prison to then being - you know, getting out, eventually becoming a youth drug counselor - work that you're still doing - and having a movie career. I mean, it's not like you were studying acting (laughter) while you were in prison.
TREJO: (Laughter) Well, you know, it's funny. But when people say, where did you study, I always think - standing on the yard in San Quentin, knowing that there's a riot coming, you're absolutely scared to death with every fiber of your body. You know - I might get killed right now. And you have to, like, pretend you're not. You know (laughter), you have to stand there and make everybody think you like it. You know, you can't even sweat. It's like you're standing there. You just got this smirk on your face, like yeah, yeah, we're going to do it now. Oh, yeah. And people around you see that and go, yeah, yeah. And then you just build everybody up. And then all of a sudden, there's no fear. It's all rage. And, you know, 10, 15 people enraged is a really powerful force.
GROSS: So you're saying you did learn how to act in prison.
TREJO: That's - yeah, how to act not afraid (laughter).
GROSS: Right. Right. So you didn't need to study the method or Stanislavski or anything to...
TREJO: No. Yeah...
GROSS: ...To find that out.
TREJO: ...I always joke about my acting coach, Juan Strasberg (ph).
TREJO: You know what? You're the only one that's ever laughed at that. When I always say my acting coach Juan Strasberg (ph), people think, oh, is that a (laughter)...
GROSS: Is that a person?
GROSS: Yeah. OK. That's great. So let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk...
GROSS: ...Some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Danny Trejo. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Danny Trejo - an actor, a drug counselor and somebody who spent his formative years in prison. And on screen, he's played a lot of very, very tough people (laughter), including in movies like "Machete" and "Desperado," and in the TV series "Breaking Bad" and "Sons Of Anarchy"
TREJO: "Spy Kids."
GROSS: "Spy Kids."
GROSS: That's right. So tell us the story of how you were first cast in a movie.
TREJO: OK. The way I got in the movie business - you know, I was running around, trying to be an extra. They used to give you 50 bucks for being an extra. I ran into a good friend of mine, a guy named Eddie Bunker, who was a great writer. And people don't know it. Eddie actually got famous because he could write writs in prison. That's one of the reasons why the Department of Corrections hated him because you...
GROSS: Oh, W-R-I-T-S. Like...
TREJO: Writs. You know, a writ to get you out of prison...
GROSS: Oh, OK.
TREJO: ...Like a writ of habeas corpus. He would charge people, and he would get their documents. And he'd look at them. And he'd go, hey, wait a minute. Oh, right here. They violated your blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And he would write a writ. Now, a writ has to be grammatically correct. It has to be written in the language of the court. So basically they've stacked the deck against you because nobody knows that stuff but attorneys. But Eddie knew how to do it, so people would pay him. He'd write a writ. You'd come back to court. And, he got a lot of people out of prison. I've known him for years.
And then when I ran into him on a movie called "Runaway Train" with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, he asked me if I was still boxing 'cause he had saw me win the lightweight and welterweight title up in San Quentin. And I was lightweight and welterweight title of every institution I was in. That was my uncle teaching me how to box. And so he said, are you still boxing? And I said, Eddie, I'm 40 years old. I don't want to get hit in the face anymore. I train. I'm in shape. And he says, we need somebody to train one of the actors how to box. And I said, what's it pay? And he said 320 a day. And I said, how bad do you want this guy beat up?
TREJO: You know, 'cause I - 320 a day? That was more money I was making a week. You know, I was a drug counselor, right? And he goes, no, you have to be real careful, Danny. Actor's real high-strung. He might sock you. I said, Eddie, for 320 a day, give him a stick. Are you crazy? I've been beat up for free, homes.
TREJO: And I started training Eric Roberts how to box.
GROSS: How did he do?
TREJO: He can't fight.
TREJO: And then Andrey Konchalovskiy had Eric pick...
GROSS: He was the director of the film.
TREJO: Yeah, Andrey Konchalovskiy was the director - very soft-spoken Russian, beautiful man, beautiful man. I mean, he was like - he wore those funny sweaters with the leather on the - you know, on the elbows...
GROSS: Oh, the elbow patches.
TREJO: ...And cardigan. And it just was real - always had these sweaters on and just soft-spoken. And he didn't understand. Eric was a movie star, OK? Now, movie stars yell and scream and walk to their trailers and stuff, you know what I mean? So Andrei couldn't really understand what was, you know - because like I said, you don't do that in Russia (laughter). And so when he saw Eric was listening to me as far as boxing and stuff, he came over, Andrei comes over and says, you be in movie. You fight Eric. And you be my friend - I'll never forget that - said, and you be my friend. Now, if you have a prison background, you don't like people to say, you be my friend. You know, 'cause - he just, yeah, nah (ph), you - you'll be my friend.
TREJO: And so - and then I'll never forget - then he leans over and he kisses me on one cheek, kisses me or the other cheek. And then he walks away. I told Eddie Bunker, Eddie, I'm going to train that kid for 320 a day. But if I'm going to be kissing that old man, I want more money. And I'll never forget, they had somebody cast. And I remember Andrei going, no, no, no, no, no, look. And he went to Eric's face and he goes - ah (ph). And then he went to this other guy they had cast, who looked a little like Antonio Banderas, go - ah (ph). And then he came to me and went, look - (growling).
TREJO: Contrast. Contrast. He kept saying, contrast. I didn't know if he was like, making fun of me or not. But he wanted contrast. So I got the job (laughter).
GROSS: Well, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
TREJO: Thank you. It's been wonderful. Thank you so much.
BIANCULLI: Actor Danny Trejo speaking to Terry Gross in 2018. Earlier this month, a documentary premiered about his life in Hollywood and his life before that in and out of prison. It's called "Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo." On Monday's show, our guest will be British writer and actor Michaela Coel. Her HBO series "I May Destroy You" is a fictionalized account of a sexual assault she experienced after his drink was spiked, and what it's like to experience flashbacks of an event you can't remember. Coel is the daughter of immigrants from Ghana and is a former born-again Christian. I hope you can join us.
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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with help from Mike Villers and additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.