From Drug-Addicted Convict to Hollywood Star

July 18, 2015

Danny Trejo has played over 250 badass villainous characters over the past 30 years in Hollywood. Indeed, it’s hard to miss him. Some of his top film roles include Trejo from Heat, Johnny 23 from Con Air, Navajas from Desperado, the sympathetic character of Isador “Machete” Cortez from the Spy Kids series, and of course the character Machete in his first major film role. Perhaps you might also recognize him from television roles in Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy.

But things were not always going so well for Danny. At the mere age of eight his revered armed-robber uncle introduced him to smoking pot, he was arrested for the first time when he was just ten years old, and he was introduced to heroin when he was twelve. During the 1960’s Danny was jailed at a number of Califorina prisons. “The only things that were available to me were either be a laborer or be a drug dealer. So I became an armed robber. It was a lot simpler,” Trejo once said. While serving time in San Quentin, Folsom, and Soledad prisons, Trejo became a champion boxer in the lightweight and welterweight divisions. After being released, Danny worked as a drug rehabilitation counselor and mentor to help people in their recovery programs.

While at a Cocaine Anonymous meeting, a young man had jotted down Trejo’s phone number; it turns out he was a production assistant, and one evening when the young man was working on the film Runaway Train in 1985, he reached out to Trejo as he was feeling tempted by the amount of drugs on set. Danny came to offer his support to the PA, and once on set, was asked by production if he was willing to be an extra to “act like a convict.”  “I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. I’d been in every penitentiary in the state. I looked at him and I said, ‘Well, I’ll give it a shot.'” As it turns out, the film’s scriptwriter, Eddie Bunker, was a fellow ex-convict who recognized Trejo from his prison boxing days, and offered him the job of training one of the film’s stars, Eric Roberts, to box in exchange for good sum of money: three hundred and twenty dollars a day. “I’ll fight Godzilla for three hundred twenty bucks,” Danny exclaimed. Trejo’s time on set later evolved into his first role as Inmate #1. As Danny once described this tremendous transition in his life:

“When you’re using drugs and doing robberies, it’s hard to distinguish whether you’re doing robberies to support you drug habit, or doing drugs to support you robbery habit. Those guys that flip on motorcycles–it’s like the same kind of adrenaline. It’s unreal. The only time I ever felt that was when I heard [Runaway Train director] Andrey Konchalovskiy yell, ‘Action!’ And then I was like, ‘Wow, here we are again. This whole adrenaline–‘ But this time I didn’t have a gun. I was like, ‘Wow. This is awesome.’ I just totally got hooked. I found my calling. And then when I got my check, I said…’Wait a minute. For the first half of my life, I went to prison for being a bad guy. Now they’re paying me to be a bad guy.'”

Since this breakthrough, among those with whom Trejo has worked is director Robert Rodriguez–who as it turns out, is Trejo’s second cousin. Despite playing so many tough-guy characters with his scarred skin, tattoos, and gravely voice, Trejo has been known to be one of the friendliest actors in the business, and has been described as a joy to work with.

“I am so blessed. I’m still scared that somebody’s going to wake me up and say, ‘Hey, we’re still in prison. Let’s go to chow.'”

Danny is a great example of a prolific actor who got into the business through his skill set of boxing as well as his intimidating look. What kind of skills do you have that might land you the next role? Make sure your Casting Frontier profile lists your up-to-date skills along with what level of mastery you’ve achieved in each of them. Remember, sometimes casting directors specifically look for beginners or intermediate learners for particular roles, so don’t sell yourself short.