LOS ANGELES — If Danny Trejo’s aim had been just a little bit better, he would be dead and not starring in Machete Kills, the latest B-grade action movie from director Robert Rodriguez.
In 1968, during one of his incarcerations during the early years of his life, Trejo found himself in the middle of a prison riot at San Quentin Prison. He threw a rock that struck one of the prison guards. Had the stone killed the guard, Trejo would have been given the death penalty.
“In Lt. Givens’ report, he wrote one of the prisoners threw the rock. He didn’t name me. So, by the grace of God, I didn’t die. That’s when I dedicated my life to helping other people,” Trejo says. “Since then, every good that’s happened to me has come as a direct result of helping someone else.”
After leaving prison, Trejo began to counsel others and has continued to share his message that how you start in life isn’t how you have to end your life. One of the perks of becoming such a recognizable actor is that he can go to a juvenile hall or school campus and grab the attention of those who recognize him from films such as Con Air and Spy Kids.
“When I go to youth authorities, you already see 15, 16, 17-year-old kids with no hope. They already know they are going to spend the rest of their life going in and out of prison,” Trejo says. “So when I show up, and I’ve been where they are sitting, you immediately see the light of hope go on in their eyes.
“I tell them that education is the key to anything you want to do and any problem you have is going to get worse with drugs and alcohol.”
Trejo’s life took a major swing when he was 40 years old. The Los Angeles native was offered a job as an extra and boxing instructor (a skill he picked up in prison) on the feature film Runaway Train. He’s been a working actor ever since.
For a decade, Trejo appeared in a variety of TV shows and films, often playing one of the bad guys or an anti-hero. It was the 1995 movie “Desperado” that started his transformation from a tough-looking supporting player into an action film star. “Desperado” director Robert Rodriguez knew then he wanted to make a movie with Trejo as the star, but the right vehicle took years to find.
Trejo played Uncle Machete in the “Spy Kids” movies from Rodriguez and then created the knife-wielding character for a fake movie trailer in the 2007 release “Grindhouse.” Rodriguez and Trejo were told after “Grindhouse” that they should make a full feature on Machete, which resulted in the 2010 film and now the sequel.
He’s 69 years old, but Trejo shows no signs of slowing down. Along with “Machete Kills,” Trejo has 17 movies ready to be released, two more filming and four others getting ready to start. Because Rodriguez shoots at such a quick pace — “Machete Kills” was filmed in 29 days — there was little time to rest. That’s the way Trejo likes to work.
“I don’t want to go back to my trailer to sit and wait. To me, a trailer is like a cell,” Trejo says. “If you are a prima donna, you don’t want to be in a Robert Rodriguez movie because he’ll eat you up. His attitude is ‘Let’s get this done.’ Robert loves what he’s doing and his love just filters down.”
Whether he’s the star or a supporting player, it’s easy to spot Trejo’s distinctive face in films. Although he’s a man of great faith, deeply committed to his family and possesses a great sense of humor, his etched features and long hair can give come people the wrong impression.
“I was shopping in Albertson’s one day and I saw these two little old ladies looking at me like I was on ‘America’s Most Wanted.’ When I left the store, the police were waiting for me. The women had called them. The cops just laughed when they saw it was me,” Trejo says. “The little old ladies were scared to death of me. It was so cute.”