“Too many people in the San Fernando Valley knew me for all the wrong reasons,” Danny Trejo writes of his hometown.
That was then. Now, Trejo’s face, riddled with scars, watches over California’s San Fernando Valley in a huge mural that pays tribute to the legend.
“In Hollywood, they give you a star that everybody can step on. In the Valley, they give you a mural,” Trejo, a beloved Los Angeles icon, says in a recent video interview with USA TODAY.
Trejo, 77, opens up about nearly every aspect of his life in a new memoir, co-written with longtime friend and actor Donal Logue, “Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood” (Atria Books, out now).
His memoir captures a different picture of the “Machete” and “Desperado” actor fans have grown to love (or fear), covering his 11 years in and out of prison, his road to sobriety, growing up in a Mexican-American household and the intergenerational trauma he’s endured, the ways fatherhood changed him, and his acting career and foray into the food scene.
Trejo, who was born in Maywood in 1944, spent time in juvenile camps before eventually being incarcerated in Soledad and San Quentin state prisons for possession of drugs, dealing and armed robberies. About one of his first nights in “California’s death row” in 1966, at age 21, Trejo writes: “I said, to myself, ‘Danny, you’re going to die here.'”
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But in 1968, Trejo says, he made a deal with God. “If you let me die with dignity, I will say your name every day and I will do whatever I can for my fellow inmate,” he says. “I said inmate because I never thought I was getting out of prison. By the grace of God, on August 23, 1969, they let me out. I kept my deal. I say his name 20 times a day and I help wherever I can.”
While still serving time, Trejo began attending 12-step programs and eventually became sober. After prison, he worked as a drug counselor.
If there’s anything he hopes readers walk away with, he says, it is the belief “that it doesn’t matter where you start, it’s where you end.”
His road to redemption, however, wasn’t linear. In and out of prison for over a decade, three things were constant in Trejo’s life: his uncle Gilbert (who, the actor writes, introduced him to a life of crime at a young age), the drugs and the women.
Trejo, who’s been married four times, is aware of his mistreatment of the women in his life. (“I loved them but how could I trust them?” he writes.)
“I’ve tried to make amends with the women I’ve been involved with simply because it wasn’t their fault, I was broken,” Trejo says.
The father of five proudly recalls his daughter, Danielle, now 31, schooling him on how to treat women.
“My daughter taught me more about how to deal with women than anybody in my life,” he says. Whenever he’d say something he didn’t think was “crude,” his daughter would ask: “How would you like it if (a man) said that to me?”
“Well, I’d kill him,” Trejo says he’d respond. “My daughter really helped me change my life.”
His son Gilbert, 33, named after his late uncle, also called his father out on his “toxic masculinity” on their drive home one night, which Trejo details in his memoir. (Trejo writes he was so shocked that he called Logue to ask what that meant: “Donal what the hell is toxic masculinity? Because it’s what Gilbert says I was raised with!”)
Trejo’s view of masculinity has changed since that car ride. “Masculine means you go to work, you support your family, you help out your neighbors — that’s masculine, that’s machismo. We got it screwed up, thinking we’re supposed to be warriors. No, we’re not, we’re supposed to be caretakers. That’s what masculinity means to me now.”
To him, the idea of masculinity is acts of service. “Everything good that has happened to me, has happened as a direct result of helping someone else,” he adds, “and that’s masculine — helping people.”
According to Trejo’s IMDb page, he holds 407 acting credits and has been “killed” onscreen more than any other actor (he got his start as an extra in the 1985 action film “Runaway Train”), but he didn’t always feel taken seriously by Hollywood peers. He writes of one instance where he found himself still walking the line between two worlds — “my past as a convicted felon and my new vocation as an actor.”
Nevertheless, Trejo demanded respect.
“I’ve called a few people to the side and told them, ‘Look, holmes, you don’t disrespect me because you don’t want to know what happens,” Trejo says. “And people understand, they’re like, ‘Oh wait, this is a real person. This isn’t a movie star.’ I hate being called a movie star.”
He’s a “working actor,” rather. “I’m looking for my next job,” he explains. “I get hired to act, no matter what, whether I’m the lead or the extra. That’s the way I like to keep it. I’m always friends with (everyone), all the extras.” Or as Trejo prefers to call them, “the background artists,” because “you couldn’t make a movie without them.”
And for Trejo, there’s no plan to retire from acting on the horizon.
“If I get any older I’ll be the grouchy abuelito (grandpa),” Trejo says laughing when asked if he’ll ever stop working in the film industry. “I love what I do, I do what I love.”
Naturally, with the life he’s lived, Trejo advises young aspiring Latino filmmakers and actors to “just keep going for that brass ring.”
“Don’t quit. Don’t let nobody say you can’t do it,” Trejo says. “Meet people, be as friendly as you can. In every situation you walk into, try to leave better. And that’s what I do, I don’t care what it is. I want to be a better person today than I was yesterday.”
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