It Takes a (Reformed) Tough Guy to Play One
“I’m typecast, sure,” says Danny Trejo, the Mexican American ex-con who became character actor, a star of “Spy Kids 2" and “XXX.” “But typecast character actors are the only ones who work in Hollywood, man. People who gripe too much about it don’t work.”
Trejo laughs. And his wide, friendly, scarred face breaks into a huge toothy smile. “You go with what God gave you,” he says. “Man, I look like a bad guy. What can I say?”
The second half of that statement is the gospel truth, but the first half begs for a proviso.
Trejo, a young 58, wasn’t born looking bad. The scars, the tattoos, came from a rough first 25 years--very rough. The guy has been in movies for 17 years--"Runaway Train,” “Desperado,” “Heat,” “From Dusk Till Dawn,” “Spy Kids"--but Trejo has yet to be in a film that’s as interesting as his life.
His shirt is open, revealing a huge tattoo of a beautiful woman, with the names Debbie and Danielle tattooed above it.
Peacock tattoos adorn each arm. This is genuine prison wear for the OG, or original gangster, as Trejo puts it. Because that’s what he was.
“I was in and out of prisons, all over California,” he says of his first 25 years. “Robbery, drugs, theft, you name it. Got out of San Quentin for the last time in ’69 and became a drug counselor.”
It was 16 years before his life entered a third act.
“I was working for Western Pacific Rehab in ’85, and I got a call from a kid, a client, who was in the crew of this movie, ‘Runaway Train,’ and was crying and about to use. ‘Come down and hang out with me, or I’ll do something I shouldn’t.’ ”
Trejo dropped what he was doing and visited his client.
“Never been on a movie set in my life. Turns out, another guy on the set was a writer on the movie, and he’d been in the joint with me in San Quentin or Soledad or Folsom, somewhere. And he asked me if I wanted to be an extra.
“The director asked me if I could act like a convict,” Trejo says, laughing. “I said, ‘Sure.’ I changed, and as I took off my shirt, they saw the tattoos.
“Then they told me that Eric Roberts had accidentally hurt a couple of guys in his big fight scene, and nobody would do the scene with him. I’d boxed in prison, and they asked me to train him and do the scene with him. Offered me $320 a day.
“ ‘He’s a little high-strung, and he keeps hurting people,’ they said.
“And I said, ‘OK. For $320, how bad do you want this kid beat up?’ ”
Trejo laughs long and hard.
“They said, ‘No, you can’t. He’s the star! He might sock you!’ And I said, ‘For $320, you can give him a stick!’ ”
This is a side of the screen bad man that we rarely see, a side that director Robert Rodriguez, who’d used him in “Desperado” as a villain, wanted to bring out.
“I wanted to use him as a good guy in the ‘Spy Kids’ movies, because you never expect that from him,” Rodriguez says. “And after having him in so many of my films, he’s like my good luck charm. Besides, he’s my cousin.”
They discovered they were related on the set of “Desperado.” Since then, Trejo’s been in most of Rodriguez’s movies, including “Spy Kids 2" and the upcoming “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.”
“Robert says I remind him of the bad guys in his school, who were really good guys at heart,” Trejo says. “I like that idea, a bad guy with some redeeming qualities.”
Rodriguez cast Trejo as Uncle Izzy Cortez, pal and gadget guru to his nephew and niece, the “Spy Kids” of the films’ titles. But Uncle Izzy also has another name: Machete.
“I love that character,” Trejo says. “Machete is a rebel uncle in the family, kind of mischievous. But you know that he has a past too. It’s probably not pleasant.”
He ticks off his favorite villains: “Navajas, the guy with the knives, in ‘Desperado.’ That good-bad guy I played in ‘Heat’ was great for me. People were cheering for the bad guys in that one.”
It was his past that director Rob Cohen was looking for when he cast Trejo as El Jefe, a deadly, machete-wielding drug lord in the spy thriller “XXX.” “The part called for a guy that, the instant the audience sees him, they laugh and go, ‘Of course, he’s the drug lord,’ ” Cohen says. “That’s what the characters are supposed to do in the movie, too: ‘Are you for real?’ You look at him and go, ‘OK, he’s Hollywood’s idea of a drug lord, an El Jefe.’ ”
“I love being in the middle of all this action,” Trejo says of “XXX.” “And they gave me a really memorable character to play. Hey, I saw this thing, and I got one of the biggest laughs!”
One thing Trejo doesn’t joke about is drug abuse. He’s not kidding when he says, “The other reputation I think I’ve gotten in Hollywood is of this guy who’s still a drug counselor, who goes, ‘You’re not smoking that on the same set with me, are you? You’re not using drugs, are you?’ I embarrass them.”
In other words, Robert Downey Jr. won’t be sharing a lot of scenes with Trejo.
“Honest to God, I think his people are scared of me and won’t let me be cast in anything he’s done,” he says. Trejo keeps his drug counseling skills sharp--"because, you know, there are people in the movies who use drugs.”
But he’s absolutely in love with his latest career. He is trying to produce a film that he doesn’t plan to direct or act in. And after his years in prison yards and cells, he relishes every day he spends on a set.
“Love everything about the movies,” he says. “I’d be a grip if they weren’t letting me act.”
Roger Moore is a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune company.