Interview Date: 03/11/2010
Run Date: 01/18/2011
You know who Danny Trejo is. He's the badass in "INSERT MOVIE TITLE HERE." Seriously, just take your pick. Most recently, Trejo has shown up in "Predators" and, in what qualifies as his first leading role (even if Trejo himself takes exception with that term), Robert Rodriguez's "Machete." In this particular case, however, the long-time actor was promoting his badass role in "Death Race 2" during our set visit in Cape Town, South Africa last year. Trejo spoke at length about how his time spent in prison as a young man contributed to the realism of this movie in general and his role in particular, and whether or not he considers himself a "car guy." Of course, we also found some time to chat about the iconic tattoo on his chest, his appearances on "Breaking Bad," and his buddies Bobby, Al and Quentin.
Bullz-Eye: So I’ve got to say, when we got the list of people we were going to be able to talk to, I sent it to my staff and they were like, “Sweet, Danny Trejo!” You were the big name. Our staff, our audience, is a big fan.
Reporter: You are the hardest working cult hero in the business.
BE: So can you talk a little bit about Goldberg and the relationship with…I know he’s Luke’s buddy in prison. Almost like Ian McShane’s role from the 2008 movie.
Danny Trejo: Goldberg is a Mexican Jew, and he’s just the best mechanic in the joint. So that’s how our relationship, you know…our relationship starts with a car that I’m working on. I give him the Mustang and go, “See what she’s got.” After, when he checks it, he knows this guy knows what he’s doing because I’ve got all kinds of trick shit in there.
DT: And that’s where we start and then we become pretty close.
BE: Okay. Are you in to cars personally? Was this cool to work on the cars?
DT: Oh yeah, we have a 1936 Dodge, a ’52 Chevy pickup, ’70 Cadillac Fleetwood and a ’76 Cadillac Seville.
Reporter: That’s a lot of badass cars.
BE: Yeah, absolutely.
DT: My ’36 is like in mint condition except for that we lowered it and put pipes on it. It’s got a sound system that pisses everybody off.
Reporter: Were you able to drive in the movie?
DT: Yeah, I drove the Mustang in the movie.
Reporter: Have you been to South Africa before?
DT: Yes, I did “From Dusk Till Dawn 2” and 3 here, right in Cape Town. So that was a blast.
Reporter: Do you love it here?
DT: I love it. I think God made Cape Town for himself and is pissed off because everybody found out about it. Maybe there’s a war going on because he’s vacationing in Europe.
Reporter: Obviously, in the past you spent time in Folsom and San Quentin. Were you able to draw on those experiences for this movie, in terms of almost like a technical consultant? Like would you tell Roel (director Roel Reiné), “It would be like this”?
DT: Absolutely. Me and Roel had discussed different stuff. Even me and Luke (Goss), he did a couple of things and I said, “Hey, your character wouldn’t do that. The guy that you’re portraying is a BMF (Writer’s note: that’s “Bad Mother Fucker,” if you’re wondering), you know. He’s not worried about some crazy guy.” He’s a brilliant actor, he listens.
Reporter: It almost seems like, well I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but maybe you would be like a father figure role because you have so many years in the game, so many years of experience.
DT: One of the reasons why mine and his character get along. That’s the relationship we kind of develop.
DT: You know, it’s like I’m the old con. I know everything there is to know about this joint.
Reporter: You play a lot of badasses all of the time. We’ve seen you in so many roles where you’re gun slinging, you’ve got knives. Are you a badass in real life?
DT: I’ve got kids. (Laughs) You know what I mean?
Reporter: Are you a strict disciplinarian with them?
DT: No, they’re the disciplinarian with me. My daughter kind of runs my life. And my son right now is getting ready to produce his little movie.
Reporter: Are you in it?
DT: Of course, that’s how he got his money. (Laughs)
Reporter: Are you doing all of your own stunts? Some of your own stunts? None?
DT: You know what, I like movies that will let me do things that are dangerous, but there’s a point -- and this goes to any of them actors that are lying and saying they do the dangerous stuff -- because the reality is the insurance company, they’ll say, “Wait a minute, we can’t afford that.” So they can put a mustache on anybody.
Reporter: Do you want to, though? Are you trying to ask for it or are they like….
DT: No, because those stunt guys, they’ve got their mortgage to pay too. And it’s like if I’m a house painter, you know, I don’t want to go over and start fixing the car. I’m a house painter.
Reporter: The movie obviously looks like an unbelievable amount of fun, but I think it also has a message, obviously with America having more for profit prisons now and that trend is sort of growing in that way. Do you think it kind of sends any sort of message in terms of the way prisons are being run or am I overanalyzing it?
\DT: No, it’s a good question. And the problem with prisons for profit is that anybody that’s in charge of a profit making organization wants to make more profit. So what starts happening is you start finding ways and means to make more money. And the only people that will suffer is…certainly not the guards. And California…we pay our prison guards more than we pay our teachers. It’s one of the reasons you have so much crime, so much problems is because kids start out at a certain age because there is really no guidance at schools and that’s not schools’ fault. Our schools are…I think that we used to be one of the best in the world, now we’re like 13th or 15th or (something) ridiculous. But that’s simply, again, people in charge want more money. The prison union in California is the strongest union there is. As long as Schwarzenegger keeps making deals with them our…we have a three strike law there that is like the most ridiculous thing in the world because all that did was give the prison population a max. You see, it’s always full because people are doing life sentences. Kids 24, 25, 26 years old are doing life.
Reporter: From your knowledge, do you think the prison experience now is harder than it was, or easier maybe 30 years ago? Or do you think that’s a hard question to answer?
DT: I don’t think it’s harder, I just think it’s worse. You know, it’s worse. Living conditions, over crowded. So anytime you get overcrowded, you know, then you start pushing and shoving. You know, prison is the only place in the world where there’s only two types of people. There’s either predator or prey and you’ve got to kind of decide what you want to be.
Reporter: What were you in prison? Were you predator or prey?
(Writer’s note: You can imagine everyone’s surprise when this reporter actually asked Danny Trejo…to his face…whether he was a predator or prey in prison. The best part, though, was the way Trejo slowly turned his head toward the reporter in question, cocked his head, squinted his eyes and said, very calmly…)
DT: Think about that question.
BE: I’m surprised you even asked that!
Reporter: One of the theories is that if you get rid of the nonviolent…hypothetically, if drugs were legal and nonviolent drug offenders….
DT: Let me tell you something. Right now, if you took the nonviolent drug offenders out of California prisons, there would probably be about 50%...it would drop.
Reporter: Are you in favor of that?
DT: Of course, of course. Nonviolent drug offenders have to be dealt with in a different way. You have halfway houses, you have community based organizations. Because otherwise it’s, like, ridiculous.
BE: Going back to “Death Race” real quick, you’ve worked with a ton of great actors: De Niro, Pacino, Johnny Depp. Where does Luke fit in now with this because he’s rising in the ranks?
DT: I like Luke. I think Luke’s going to be a force to reckon with. He’s meticulous about his performances, but he doesn’t step on anybody. He gives you everything and he’ll tell you what he’s going to give you. And a lot of times when an actor will go to a director and say, “Hey look, I want to change this, blah, blah, blah, blah,” without telling the other actors. And then after he’s got the okay from the director, then he’ll come and say, “Hey, we’re going to do this.” Don’t tell him I said this, (but) Luke is classy enough to where he’ll say, “Hey guys, do you think it’s all right if I blah, blah, blah, blah, blah?” And it’s cool, it makes you want to continue that scene. Then he’ll go to the director.
BE: So speaking of De Niro and Pacino, can you talk a little bit about…
DT: (Smiling) My guys.
BE: What was the energy like on the “Heat” set? That had to be such an experience with those two guys.
DT: That was one of the high points of my career. You know, and just being there, working with De Niro, Pacino, Val Kilmer.
BE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
DT: And Jon Voigt. Jon was a friend of mine. I did my first movie “Runaway Train” with Jon Voigt. But literally, when I did “Machete,” “Machete” is co-starring Robert De Niro.
Reporter: That’s so cool.
DT: De Niro…when I met him on set, right, I looked at him and it’s fucking Bobby De Niro. He comes up, “Danny, man, I’m so proud of you, man. I knew you were going to be…this is you. You’re the star.” And he’s so funny, he’s like, “Hey, I knew in ‘Heat,’ you had it, you had it.” I looked at him right in the eyes and said, “Can I get you some coffee?” (Laughs)
Reporter: (Laughing) So you never gave him acting suggestions on the set?
BE: “Bobby, why don’t you try this?”
DT: He’s amazing to watch. He is amazing. You know, when people talk about making it easy, I mean, he makes it easy.
Bullz-Eye: I just saw that you show up early on in the third season of “Breaking Bad.”
BE: Can you talk a little bit about that? I’m a huge fan of the show, our site is too. And I know previously, you had the brief appearance as the head mounted on the tortoise. Was it good to come back and…?
DT: Well they…you know, I think that was one of the highest rated shows that they had done…you know, episodes. So they called me and sure, I love doing…you know, I love working. And I think we shot that in Albuquerque? I’ve got a lot of friends in Albuquerque, and I’ve got a lot of fans there too. Anywhere I go, I’ll go to like a high school and talk, or to a juvenile hall and talk. So I got to go to a juvenile hall there and talk.
BE: Oh cool.
DT: I kind of like that. So everywhere I go, I just kind of like…and “Breaking Bad,” that’s a fun show.
BE: I have one question. I’m a huge fan of you. Like first time I saw you, I saw that tattoo on your chest and I was like, “That is a kickass tattoo.” What’s the deal with that tattoo?
DT: That tattoo was done in three different penitentiaries and it’s a hand tattoo with Indian ink and a needle. A guy named Harry “Super Jew” Ross did it, a guy that I knew since we were like 15 years old. And we were always in trouble. But I started that in San Quentin and Harry did the outline. And then I got kicked out of San Quentin and they sent me to Folsom. As I was leaving, it was almost like a scene from “West Side Story.” “Don’t let no one touch it.” I’m on the bus, “I’ll finish it.” So I got to San Quentin and I had this outline of this tattoo and then Harry showed up in Folsom about three months later. We did a little bit more and then there’s a big riot in Folsom and they sent me to Soledad. He said, “I’ll finish it,” so when he got to Soledad, he finished it up. It’s one of the most famous tattoos in the world.
BE: Oh yeah. Absolutely.
Reporter: Having done so many roles in 30 plus years, what genre or what role have you not done that you would love to do? Like, would you want to do a romantic comedy?
DT: Whatever comes my way. I mean, I did a movie called “Sherrybaby” with Maggie Gyllenhaal, which was as little dramatic, you know what I’m saying?
BE: You did “Spy Kids”, that’s….
DT: Yeah, that was fun. But you know, I did a movie called “Bubble Boy” that was like a comedy.
Reporter: With Jake.
DT: With Jake…no. Yeah, “Bubble Boy” was Jake Gyllenhaal. That was, like, funny. I did another one called “Delta Farce” with Larry the Cable Guy. That was, like, hilarious. Except for I could never walk into a bar that has a karaoke or they go “hey!”
Reporter: When you walk down the street, what are you most recognized as? What do people say, “Hey, you’re that guy from…” blank.
DT: “Spy Kids.” That was funny because we went to a high school over here by the…we were filming by the castle, you know, that castle built by the Dutch in the 1600s. And there’s a high school right next to it. And as I got off the bus, all of these kids started screaming. They were like 18, 19 years old and I’m going, “What?” And they’re like, “Oh my God, oh my God!” But they’re the “Spy Kids” kids. They all grew up on “Spy Kids.” And so it was kind of cool.
Reporter: What about adults?
DT: Adults is like “Con Air,” “Heat,” “Desperado.”
Reporter: “Con Air,” you were kickass in that.
DT: Everybody was.
DT: So many women said, “Make me 24.” One guy was saying, “Hey, my old lady wants to be 24.” Damn.
BE: So what’s it like working with Quentin Tarantino?
DT: He would be the bad kid in class, the kid who couldn’t sit still.
Reporter: Ultimate ADD.
DT: Well, hyperkinetic, you know what I mean? Like, he’s a ball of energy. I mean, you’ll see him at four in the morning and he’s exactly the same way he was at 10 in the morning. I mean, it’s like he’s unbelievable. Me and him partied together one time in Austin, and about 4:30 in the morning, he’s going, “Come on, they’re going to open up this club,” and we’re all going “Yeah, I’m going to bed.”
Reporter: What else in the future, like in terms of are you going to be shooting anything coming up or do you just take it one project at a time?
DT: Whatever comes my way. You know, I mean there’s always…I’m blessed. I’m really, really blessed. Thank you. You know, there has never been like a shortage of stuff I want to do. There’s been a couple of times I’ve said, “Hey, wait a minute, I’m tired. I want to go work on a car.” (Laughs).
BE: Awesome. Excellent. Well, thank you a lot Danny.
DT: Thank you.
Below, Will Harris chats with Trejo about “Death Race 2,” “Machete,” a Muppets movie and more in an interview conducted in January of 2011.
Danny Trejo: Will with Bullz-Eye, what’s up homes?
Bullz-Eye: Nothing much. How’s it going?
DT: I’m blessed here, man. I’m sitting in beautiful downtown Hollywood.
BE: Oh very nice. Well I suppose I should acknowledge first off that I have not seen the movie yet because they have not sent me a copy of the movie.
DT: Hey, let me tell you something. It is just like an adrenaline rush of action. It’s awesome.
BE: Awesome. Well I’ve seen the first one so…well I’ve seen the original one too I guess.
DT: This one kicks the first one in the ass.
BE: Wow! Nice.
DT: It’s unreal.
BE: So were you a fan of the original?
DT: Yeah, I had seen it and I liked it, you know what I mean. But when I read the script for the second one I was just like, oh, wait a minute. And then I get to play a character named Goldberg.
BE: You’ve got to like that.
DT: Yeah, we ain’t got that anymore.
BE: So what’s your history with cars prior to this? Are you a gear head at all?
DT: Cars…let me tell you something. I’ve got a 1936 Dodge Touring sedan; there’s only five of them registered, very rare. I’ve got a 1952 Chevy pickup, all cherried out with a B50 engine in it. And then I’ve got a 1976 Cadillac Seville that is absolutely gorgeous, you would die, except for it’s lifted all the way around, it’s got a huge sound system. It’s beautiful, I love driving that around. Then I usually drive a Land Rover; I have a Land Rover that I love.
BE: Okay. So what were your thoughts on the vehicles they got in this movie?
DT: They were awesome. I love them! I tried driving one…they’re, like, 10,000 pounds heavier than they should be, you know what I mean? They were like so much fun but driving them is a workout so the stunt guys…the stunt drivers in this thing got a workout. They were amazing.
BE: Well now I think I may end up talking to you again when the “Machete”…
BE: Exactly, yeah. But just in case I don’t end up on that final list, were you surprised when they told you they were going to make a full length version of the film? Or did they promise that way back when?
DT: That was the idea that Robert (Rodriguez) had when we were doing “Desperado,” He just said, “You know what, you’re perfect for this character.” And then when we did the trailer for “Grindhouse,” the reaction that we got from the audience was just so great that we had to do the movie.
BE: And how did you think it turned out? I mean, did you enjoy the experience?
DT: I loved it. I absolutely loved it. You know, it changed my whole life. I got people driving by my house yelling “Machete!” It was amazing.
BE: What was it like taking the center seat? I mean, you don’t necessarily get that many opportunities to be the leading guy.
DT: Well, you know what? The leading guy to me just means…it’s really hard for me to say I was the leading guy with Robert De Niro in the fucking movie (laughing). Do you know what I mean? So it was just this beautiful ensemble piece that, man…how blessed am I that Robert De Niro was in it? Jessica Alba, Lindsay Lohan, Michelle Rodriguez, Don Johnson. We got “Miami Vice.” We got Steven Seagal, Cheech Marin and it goes on. So we had this unbelievable cast. I don’t know how much of a leading man I was but it was awesome. So Rodriguez put this cast together that just gelled and it shows in the movie. Michelle Rodriguez, you know, damn.
BE: Well, you’re a guy who, when you’re on screen, a lot of times you have kind of a threatening aura about you. Which would you guess you have played more in your career…prisoner, drug dealer or killer?
DT: Well, you know what? The first five years of my career, I made a career out of being inmate number one (laughs). You know what I mean? Directors used to say, “What you bring to this movie is realism,” and I remember thinking, oh yeah, San Quentin, Folsom, Soledad. It was kind of a lot of fun.
BE: What would you say is your favorite project you have worked on that didn’t get the love that you thought it deserved?
DT: Oh God, I don’t know. I mean, I loved them all. You know, I love making movies. I love being on movie sets. My kids are involved in movies now. My son right now is shooting his own movie. He’s doing it all by himself. He went and got a…just like Robert Rodriguez, he went and got a camera and the cast and the crew. I’m backing him a little bit but he went and even raised money by himself. I’m just so proud of him. Gilbert Trejo is doing great! My daughter’s even in his movie. Dad’s got a role.
BE: Wow! Nice. Now, I read on IMDb that you were Eric Roberts’ un-credited boxing coach on “Runaway Train.” Is that true?
DT: Yeah, that’s how I got my start. I walked on to a movie set and Eddy Bunker recognized me from the penitentiary. I was lightweight and welterweight champion of every institution I was in. He asked, “Hey Danny, you want to train this boxer how to box?” I said, “What’s it pay?” and he said “$320 a day.” I said, “How bad do you want this guy beat up?” and he goes, “No, no, no, you’ve got to be real careful, he’s an actor.” So I trained Eric Roberts how to box.
BE: That’s pretty crazy. Imagine what you have gotten just from that simple act.
DT: Yeah, it’s funny because the director, Andrei Konchalovsky, he was a brilliant man and he kind of saw that I could handle Eric and Eric wanted to learn how to box so he hired me. So I would train Eric every day. So I was blessed, I was just truly blessed. But hey, ain’t nothing you can’t do with God on your side, buddy.
BE: Absolutely. So who have been some of your favorite actors that you have worked with? I mean, like, you worked with Bronson pretty early on in your career, I know.
DT: Man, I loved Charlie. I loved him. He was awesome. I think I’ve patterned my guys after him. He’s a tough, say nothing, kick ass dude. I’ve worked with De Niro. And Val Kilmer, I loved him as Doc Holliday. I don’t think there’s ever been any better acting. I just loved him as Doc Holliday. “I’ll be your Huckleberry.”
BE: So what’s the word on you and the Muppet movie? Are you indeed in there?
DT: Yeah, I’m supposed to be in the Muppet movie. That’s kind of cool. I’ll do that, you know. I’ll play a tree if you want me to and if you want fruit on it, pay me more money.
BE: (Laughing) And then I hear reports constantly of “Spy Kids 4.” I guess that’s finally in production though.
DT: Yeah, we did it.
BE: You did it? Okay.
DT: Yeah, that’s coming out, man. I have heard, “Look mommy, it’s the man from ‘Spy Kids’” in about 50 different languages. Every airport I go into.
BE: How weird was it to see the original kids all grown up? I mean, you probably see them every once in a while anyway.
DT: They’re all grown up. I see them…well Daryl, the kid from “Spy Kids,” he’s in “Machete.”
BE: Oh that’s true. I forgot about that.
DT: So it’s kind of cool. I think I’ve got to get going, partner.
BE: All right man, well, it’s been good talking to you. I’m looking forward to checking out the movie. Hopefully I’ll get it sooner rather than later.
DT: God bless. Thank you.
BE: Thank you. Bye-bye.