Remembering his last years behind bars, actor Danny Trejo would sometimes sniff or rub his face with both hands, as if preparing for trauma half a century old.
Some of these stories have been told; many informed his extremely prolific work; and the most important are collected in his new memoir “Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood”. In conversation, like maybe on set, they flash on her face like involuntary tics.
“When I play this crazy, crazy person, I’ve been there, I’ve seen that,” Trejo said in a video interview from his home in Los Angeles. “I don’t want to be there. This place you can go to is very, very real.”
Legendary Hollywood genre actor beloved for his offscreen roles and selfless acts, Trejo took a hiatus from the business after visiting a movie set in 1985 to help someone on set who was struggling. against reestablishment of addiction. He had done it himself. Decades earlier, deep in the hole of Soledad State Prison, Trejo had promised God that he would help his neighbor every day if he could “die with dignity.” And he had become sober.
An assistant director stopped him that day on the set. “You have good eyesight,” said the crew member. “Can you play a convict?”
Funny question. He was taken to a police station for the first time when he was 10, he writes. From that point on, he spent years indulging in criminal chaos in the San Fernando Valley and across the state, roaming juvenile and state prisons and never expecting to come out alive. Could he play a convict?
As an extra on “Runaway Train” that year, Trejo stood out so well that he built a scene around him, showing off the boxing skills he had honed in prison. In no time, he began to appear in a proliferation of shows and films as an archetypal support figure: Prisoner, 2nd Inmate, and Tough Prisoner No. 1 are just a few of the roles he’s played since.
“I didn’t know I was stereotypical,” Trejo told The Times. “I just knew I was working. And I think being stereotyped for so long has allowed a lot of people to have jobs, so we just opened the door.”
Trejo’s face, famously mutilated by lived experience, offers an ideal expressive palette for the actor he has become; he can convey rage and humor like few other villains on screen.
In 1995, Trejo shared a gripping death scene with Robert De Niro in Michael Mann’s “Heat,” one of many demonstrations of Trejo’s strange skill at playing someone on the verge of expiration. “I have the record for death in the cinema,” he said. “It just means that I work a lot.”
Robert Rodriguez then gave him a signature role in “Desperado”. And in 2001, Rodriguez specially created for Trejo the role of Machete in “Spy Kids,” which later recurred in a spin-off series “Machete,” establishing perhaps the only character in movie history to straddle the genres of children’s adventure and grindhouse horror.
While the general arc of Trejo’s story is well known, many other formative details and wild intersections are first revealed in the book, co-authored with actor and longtime friend Donal Logue. The result is an often breathtaking personal narrative that is part of California’s great memories.
The reader is invited to take a deep dive into the culture of the neighborhoods as experienced in the Valley in the 1950s and 1960s. From an early age, he understands the true distance between the glitz of nearby Hollywood and its world of drug trafficking and unarmed violence.
But over the course of Trejo’s life, these worlds collide in stunning ways as well.
An episode of crystallization occurred when Trejo weighed in offers to appear in two films in preparation in the early 1990s. One was “American Me,” directed by Edward James Olmos; the other was “Blood In, Blood Out” by Taylor Hackford. Both sought to tell the story of the founding of the Mexican Mafia.
It was a sensitive subject. Trejo, with his imposing physique and years of service, would have been a good choice for either movie. There was a problem, however. The Mexican Mafia, or “Eme,” is top secret and notorious for its ruthless executions, according to federal affairs. Rumor was already circulating in the prison system that the “American Me” script was taking offensive narrative liberties – related to prison rape and Eme’s fraternal codes – that upset real-world gang leaders. The proposed film would also explicitly use the term “Eme”, another no-no.
Seeking to launch Trejo, Olmos arranged a meeting. Trejo showed up at Jerry’s in Encino as anyone could for a shoot in Hollywood, in business casual attire. Surprisingly, Olmos appeared in “a full cholo outfit,” Trejo writes, including a “blue shirt buttoned up and open down.” Trejo says Olmos tried to speak like a “street OG” throughout their meeting.
“It was all ‘theatrical’,” Trejo recalled of Olmos’ pitch. “And I said, ‘You’re not dealing with theater people here. You are dealing with people who get mad and show up in the middle of the night.'”
Sure enough, just before a second meeting with Olmos, Trejo got a message: Joe Morgan wanted to talk.
Joe “Peg Leg” Morgan, incarcerated at the time, was then the living gift of the Eme. “Joe Morgan doesn’t call people unless he tells them, ‘You are dead,’” Trejo said.
He took the call on the landline from his friend Eddie Bunker, an industry insider he had known from their time together in prison. Morgan got to work. He asked Trejo what movie he would make; Trejo said he leaned towards “Blood In”.
“I’ll never forget, ‘Oh yeah,’ said Joe Morgan, ‘The cute one,'” Trejo recalls, laughing. Morgan approved of the choice.
Thinking back to those early encounters with Olmos, Trejo reflected on his struggles to be treated as an equal among Hollywood’s elites. “I’ll tell you the truth,” he told me. “I don’t think Eddie Olmos has accepted me as an actor yet.”
Olmos did not respond to a request for comment on the passage. In the book, Trejo highlights his admiration for Olmos and his advocacy for the Chicanos in Hollywood.
Throughout the book, certain characters dominate, most notably his uncle Gilbert, the man who Trejo says introduced him to a life of crime from an early age. Logue, the co-author, said the different figures that filter in and out of the story each deserve their own chronicle. “If you dive down a rabbit hole on all these different characters that are in Danny’s book, you see how violence breeds generational violence,” Logue said. “Things will happen when we are young that will take us on this journey.”
One reader gets the impression that Trejo tempers what could have been harsher readings from many of these characters, including his parents. As the story progresses, the lives of her own children become a common thread.
Women are always present in Trejo’s book, from the very first lines. He candidly writes about his mixed record with spouses, recalling that someone pointed out that he is the type of guy who enjoys weddings, except for the marriage part. “I wasn’t good at drawing lines in my marriages, but I stuck to that line in recovery,” he wrote at one point.
Recovery, ultimately, is the driving force behind memories. Trejo, now 77, has over 400 credits, according to IMDb, a remarkable achievement for someone who could hardly have imagined a film career while praying in Soledad in 1968.
“Acting was nothing new to me,” writes Trejo. “I had acted to survive my childhood. I had acted like I wasn’t afraid when I was terrified. At Folsom, I acted to keep my sanity. hear my own voice. “