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Boy You Don’t Know What A Bad Day Is

Interview

Office – So you’re in Austin right now, what are you working on?

 

Danny Trejo – Right now I’m working on From Dusk Till Dawn, the TV series for El Rey Network with Robert Rodriguez.

 

O – You work an insanely busy schedule, with tons of projects every year. You’re seventy now, has the thought of retiring every crossed your mind?

 

DT – Well, I was trying to figure out—when people retire they start doing what they love. I’m already doing what I love, so I don’t know what I’d retire to.

 

O – That’s a good thing, you’re lucky. Why stop what you’re doing, if you’re just going to be bored?

 

DT – I’d be bored to death! I mean I can go fishing any time I like, I can do whatever I want, so it’s like—retire to what?

 

O – People see you on screen and expect a certain character,

a character that comes naturally to you, and that you’ve nailed so many times—what’s a role that’s surprised you, a character that’s made you explore yourself a bit more?

 

DT – You know, I did a film called Sherrybaby with Maggie Gyllenhaal where I played her love interest, but I was kind of a nice guy, and her friend also. It wasn’t just Johnny-23, you know? I think that was probably the hardest role I’ve ever done, and as an actor it was the most satisfying, and rewarding. But I love Machete better. [laughs]

 

O – Did movies affect you profoundly as a child? Were there actors or characters that you were looking up to as a kid?

 

DT – When you talk about Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood—I liked the superhero guys, but the ones that didn’t have to wear tights, you know what I mean? I like the regular guys that just did what had to be done. You look at Charles Bronson in the Death Wish series, Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. Those guys.

 

O – They don’t need superpowers.

 

DT – Yeah, they find a way. Like MacGyver, you know? He’ll find a way to blow it up.

 

O – So even as a kid you admired those characters?

 

DT – Oh yeah.

 

O – You’ve talked about your uncle, who was a criminal, and how he got you into that lifestyle early on, and it kind of makes sense that you were attracted to it, since there is some overlap between those guys and your uncle, in terms of badassness, being able to wield a gun, and not get fazed by anything.

 

DT – Yeah, my uncle was a pretty tough guy, people got out of his way. That was cool. But any time drugs are involved in a situation, it’s bad. One of my key things when I’m speaking at high schools is, “It’s really simple. Drugs and alcohol will make any problem that you have worse.”

 

O – But you didn’t have this wisdom then—were your parents not aware of you getting involved with the drugs and crime?

 

DT – Well I don’t think they were available. I think one of the things I learned from my parents was how not to be. They were loving, but you’ve got to remember I grew up in a different era, when the most important thing in the world was to work. It seemed like my dad’s dream was for me to graduate from high school and come do construction with him, manly kind of stuff. College wasn’t even thought of, where I came from. College, what the hell? The mindset was kind of, if you don’t want to work you go to college. We had like two alternatives, you could be a drug dealer or a laborer.

That’s all I can remember. I didn’t know any lawyers, I didn’t know any doctors or businessmen growing up. I just knew guys that worked hard, or guys that dealt drugs.

 

O – There’s not exactly an inspiring amount of glory in either one, but I can see how the crime at least has some degree of excitement to it, especially when you’re young. So how did the crime escalate? If you started with your uncle really early, how did it get to the point where you were doing time?

 

DT – I first got into drugs, I started smoking weed with my uncle when I was eight years old. It was...1954? But you’ve got to remember, in every Mexican neighborhood weed grew everywhere. Anywhere there was sun and a dripping faucet, you’d throw your seeds and three weeks later you’d have a plant. It wasn’t hydroponic, growing this kind, growing that kind—but we always had four or five plants going somewhere. My uncle turned me on to grass, it was just part of the deal. Everybody around us smoked weed. The law didn’t reach us there. I would walk around the neighborhood, eleven years old, smoking weed. I knew to hide it from the police, you knew it was illegal but you didn’t know the price. 

“When you talk about Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood—I liked the superhero guys, but the ones that didn’t have to wear tights, you know what I mean?”

O – It didn’t have the same stigma in your neighborhood.

 

DT – Yeah it didn’t have the same stigma, or whatever. Then all of a sudden they started coming out with ‘Marijuana – The Killer Drug.’

 

O – Reefer Madness?

 

DT – [laughs] Yeah, ‘Marijuana Madness,’ the best cartoon I’ve ever seen in my life. What was funny though, is I was already smoking weed when I saw that in eighth grade, and I kind of thought ‘Wait a minute, that’s fucked up!’

 

O – So the drugs came before the crime.

 

DT–Yeah,wellthedrugscame,andthenthepettytheft.My uncle turned me onto heroin when I was about twelve, and you would just get money wherever you could. Any garage door left open meant there was something in there you could sell, trade, whatever. Then when I was about fourteen or fifteen, he introduced me to armed robbery.

 

O – That’s a big jump, from snatching stuff from a garage to pulling a gun on someone.

 

DT – You know, when you’re in that life, everything is kind of escalating, but it’s not really like “Oh my God, now I’m doing this!” You know what I mean? You’re just doing it. It’s the same thing I tell young people about marijuana. It’s not like “Oh God, if I smoke marijuana I’m going to shoot up,” it’s just you slowly graduate, you’re smoking weed, and then you want to get some stronger weed, and then one night a friend of yours don’t have weed but he’s got coke, and you know, all of a sudden you’re wrapped up in something like “Wait a minute, how’d I do this?!” People always ask me if marijuana is a gateway drug, and I tell ‘em I know for a fact that everybody I knew in prison that was arrested for heroin, for speed, for cocaine, for LSD, started with marijuana. So what marijuana does, it brings you to the gate. Whether you want to open the gate is up to you.

 

O – So the crime escalated gradually too? What about the first time guns were involved?

 

DT – It was part of the deal. My first robbery, I robbed the Far East Market in North Hollywood. Me and a guy named Richard Battles. We did it with a gun that didn’t even really work, it was a revolver, but you had to hold the top down, because if you let it go the cylinder would fall off. [laughs] I was holding the door, Richard had the gun, and he was yelling at the lady. At Far East, Chinese people—that’s racist, but they always keep a cigar box underneath the counter with the big bills. So Richard was saying “Give me the money, give me the money,” while I’m holding the door. He yells “Bitch, give me the money!” and she takes it out of the register and he goes “No, no, THAT one!” and he points, and the gun falls apart. [laughs] She chased us out of there, we got eighteen dollars out of the cash register. I know it sounds ridiculous, but we were running away laughing, thank God she didn’t have a pistol.

 

O – You were able to laugh that one off, but were there times during that period that you feared for your life?

 

DT – Oh yeah. A couple police chases, and I’ve been shot at... You know, when you hear “Alright Trejo, come on out, we have the house surrounded,” that’s kind of a shocker. You pay a price. I think one of the biggest crimes there is, is putting a kid in juvenile hall, simply ‘cause it takes the fear of jail away. All of a sudden he’s no longer afraid of that. I went to juvenile hall when I was young, so we didn’t know nothing. I knew guys at juvenile hall who were glad to be there, you know “Wow, we get socks!” I’ll never forget, one of my best friends was so excited to get real butter.

 

O – Were a lot of these guys in there for gang-related crimes?

 

DT – In my day the gang was a little different, there was no Mexican mafia, the gang was just your neighborhood. It’s strange, but what took all that away was drugs, once you started using heroin you didn’t care what neighborhood you were from, what mattered was where you could score the best drugs. So you got out of the gang mentality and just wanted to be a lone wolf. 

 

“You know, when you hear “Alright Trejo, come on out, we have the house surrounded,” that’s kind of a shocker.”

O – And you were an addict?

 

DT – I was a full-blown heroin addict from about fourteen to twenty-four, twenty-five.

 

O – Do you remember your first experience with it?

 

DT – Yeah, my uncle gave me a fix when I was twelve, and it was kind of downhill from there. It was something like tasting the forbidden fruit, you gotta keep coming back to it. It’s going to sound really weird, but whatever problems I had, heroin disguised them. It’s hard to say I had a lot of problems when I was twelve, but when my uncle gave me that fix I didn’t say “Oh my God, my inadequacies are gone,” I was just like “WOW.” It’s a euphoric feeling, and you didn’t think about your teacher, or your failure at sports, it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.

 

O – And you’d just dry out in jail?

 

DT –Yeah, that’s the only time I ever detoxed, is when I went to jail.

 

O – Seems like another way in which jail can almost seem desirable, as a place to get clean.

 

DT – A lot of people just run hard until they get busted. That’s what we did. Now, thank God, they have different ways to get clean. They have methadone maintenance, which I approve of, because what it does is it takes the criminality out of the drug use, and the criminality is what gets you locked up forever. Especially right now, they’re handing out time like bubblegum. My little cousin was a teenager when he went to the joint in 1979, I’m trying to get him out now. Gilbert Trejo, my little cousin, and now he’s fifty.

 

O – It must make you appreciate how lucky you are just not to be locked up. You’ve lived such a remarkable life, so what is it that brings you joy these days?

 

DT – You know, I’ve got five dogs that I absolutely love, my friends always come over, and then I have eight old cars that I love working on. I have a ’65 Buick Rivi, a 1936 Dodge touring sedan, that every time you look at it you think Al Capone’s going to jump out of it. One of the reasons I stay so grounded, and so happy is because when people talk about a bad day at work, I think ‘Boy, you don’t know what a bad day is. Try standing out on the yard at San Quentin with a race riot getting ready to go down.’ [laughs] You’re thinking, ‘God, I even like these guys and I’m about to kill ‘em.’

 

– END 

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