The Hardest Working Man In Show Business
When Hollywood is looking for a hard guy, the kind you wouldn’t want to meet in even a well-lit alley, they call Danny Trejo. You’ve seen his tough persona, you’ve seen his prison tattoos, and you’ve seen the distinctive lines on his face blown up on a big screen, but have you ever seen Trejo melt at the sight of puppies?
Danny Trejo is the long-haired, often shirtless, tattooed tough from a long list of films, including From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado, Con Air, Rob Zombie’s Halloween, Machete, and recently Bad Ass. When one envisions Trejo, images of somebody getting drowned, garroted, or hacked to death arise. But today, Trejo—the man, not one of his characters—is kissing a dog in Pacoima, CA, at an event for his animal rescue organization, K9 Compassion.
He may play rugged bad guys in most of his movies, but in real life he is nothing like those guys … well, not anymore. He is an open book when it comes to his troubled past, and he has no qualms talking about his time in prison back in the mid-’60s, his former drug abuse, and so forth. In fact, he himself has a Hollywood story, which began with him as inmate number something or other, moved on to him getting a shot as an extra in a prison movie, and marched forward to his name being placed on a marquee. And Trejo’s phone still keeps ringing. He has appeared in about a dozen movies within the last year: Recoil recently came out, Death Race: Inferno will be unleashed on us later this year, and he’s about to start filming Machete Kills, the sequel to the Robert Rodriguez flick that once again has him returning as the leading Mexican you don’t want to fuck with.
Offscreen, Trejo uses his powers for good. He made a turnaround from a very dark place, owned up to his mistakes, cleaned up his act, and started using his experiences to teach others, especially young kids, steering them onto the right path. He and his wife also founded their own animal rescue organization called K9 Compassion that, among other services, has a nationwide dog spay and neuter campaign (his audience differs slightly from Bob Barker’s).
At the event this afternoon, the ever-shirtless Trejo is all smiles and handshakes. His mobile spay-and-neuter unit is set up between a mural of him and the Restaurante El Indio. By the end of the day it will provide approximately 60 free procedures to companion animals—none of them done with a machete.
INKED: How did K9 Compassion come to be?
TREJO: My wife, Debbie—it was her idea. We’ve always been compassionate about dogs. I’ve always loved dogs. In Latino culture, we really don’t spay or neuter our dogs. They’re just pets. Part of it is [in a husky voice], “I don’t want a dog with no nuts.” It’s kind of a man thing. The sad part is, dogs that don’t get neutered can get testicular cancer. So you’re kind of like doing them a favor. Also, 90 percent of all dogs that are hit by cars are unneutered male dogs. They’re chasing females. My wife schooled me in why we have to do this. When you go down to Mexico, you see dogs just running wild. But wait a minute, man. It’s our responsibility. We called the dogs in out of the wild. We built the fire and brought them in—they’re our responsibility.
How long have you two been doing this now?
She’s been doing K9 Compassion for three or four years now. Spay and neutering, we’ve been doing for about six months. That came about when we went to Polytechnic High School. We talked to the kids and asked how many of them wanted to have their dogs spayed and neutered and they all showed up. The girls here are all volunteers from Polytechnic High School. They’re awesome.
What other hobbies do you have that people might not know about?
I love old cars. I got a ’52 Chevy. I got a ’36 Dodge Touring Sedan. I got a ’65 Buick Riviera. I got a 1976 Cadillac Seville, just all cherried out. I love pulling up in my beautiful Cadillac, and then all these old people go, “Oh, that’s beautiful.” Then I hit the switches and then Kaaaaaaa [he mimics the loud, crashing sound of a car dropping]. I love building them and working on them. There are a lot of celebrities who just go out and buy them. But we build them from the ground up.
Do you still keep up with boxing?
I train. I train to stay in shape but I can’t get hit in the face anymore. It hurts. I work out with weights. Usually about three weeks before a movie, I’ll just really hit it hard and get ripped up.
You’re also involved with high-risk youth.
I do that a lot. I speak at different high schools. I do everything I can to help youth. It’s one of the promises I made to myself and, I guess, to God—keep me out of trouble and I’ll do whatever I can. You know, I just presented Buzz Aldrin an award. It was funny. When he walked on the moon, me and 3,000 inmates at Soledad State Prison watched him. That was July 1969. We were all in front of the TV. I remember right where I was—it was amazing. I always say it’s better to shoot for the moon and miss than to aim for the gutter and make it. I can’t wait to tell my high school students that I met somebody who shot for the moon and made it.
One very recognizable and distinctive feature about you is all of your tattoos, especially the one on your chest. What’s the story there?
The one on my chest gets the most recognition. It was done by Harry “Super Jew” Ross. We did it in three penitentiaries. It’s hand done with a needle and thread, old-school. We started it in 1965, I think. We did it in San Quentin, Folsom, then Soledad. I had the outline done, then got kicked out of Quentin and then moved to Folsom. So he followed me. Harry “Super Jew” Ross, man. He passed away. He became a very good tattoo artist. So he hated this one because it was his first one. You know, because he got better. [Laughs.] But it also made him famous.
Is the woman with the sombrero someone you know?
No, it was just a drawing we came up with. At the time, I was doing forever—I wasn’t getting out of prison. It was ’65 or ’66. Chicanismo was really coming in. So I just put this great, big, beautiful Mexican lady with a sombrero on my chest. On top it has my wife’s name and my daughter’s name, Debbie and Danielle.
Were all your tattoos done in prison?
No. Only three of them were done in prison. I think I have nine.
Is one the most dear to you?
The one on my back—it has my three kids playing on Venice Beach with Jesus watching over them.
You have a few softer roles in your résumé, like your character in Spy Kids. In Rob Zombie’s Halloween, you actually played the nicest character in the whole movie. Do you have any dream roles or parts that you’d like to tackle that are the complete opposite of what you’re known for?
Nah, I just love the work. I love being on the set. Right now, I’m going to do a western in Romania. I’m doing Machete Kills, and I have Recoil, and Bad Ass is coming out pretty soon. They’re a lot of fun.
Can you give us a tease of the Machete sequel?
Robert Rodriguez told me about it. It is unbelievable. I just couldn’t believe it. There are certain movies that push the envelope. Scarface, Al Pacino, whoa—that really pushed the envelope. The Exorcist. And now, you watch Machete—it pushed it. I would’ve liked that movie even if I wasn’t in it. But Machete Kills is going to be unreal.
And it’ll be a full trilogy, so we have a third Machete. Do you think your character will make it all the way through and survive with a happy ending?
Oh yeah, it’ll be happy. It’s gonna be Machete in Outer Space. [Laughs.]
With your tattoos and distinctive look do you get recognized a lot?
Oh yeah. That’s part of the deal. And every morning I say a prayer: Dear Heavenly Father, please let me sign every autograph and let me take every picture. You know what I mean? Because those are my fans. Actors who tell me they don’t sign autographs, I say, “Well, you’re a piece of shit.” Because it’s somebody telling me they like what I do. That’s somebody coming up and saying, “I appreciate what you do, thank you.” I certainly don’t want to turn them away.
Since you play a lot of rough, villainous roles, do people tend to be intimidated by you?
Well, it’s my job to disarm anybody, immediately. I’m the first guy to say hello. I’m the first guy to say, “God bless you, how are you?” And that just disarms them. A lot of times when you play this bad dude in the movies, a lot of guys will look at you like, “Oh, you think you’re bad?” and immediately I’ll say [adopts a sweet voice], “Hello, how are you?”
What’s been the most rewarding moment of your career?
My passion is working with young adults, and high school kids. That’s the place where you can still turn and push them in the right direction. It’s hard to get a high school student’s attention—it’s really hard. The thing about me being in all these movies is when I walk onto a campus [snaps his fingers]—I have their attention. Before I open my mouth, they don’t care about me. They want to hear what the guy from Spy Kids has to say. The guy from Heat, Con Air, Desperado, Machete. They’re like, “Oh, it’s that dude.” And then they’ll listen. My message is don’t drink, don’t use, and education is the key to success. And spay and neuter your dogs!