Whether you know him from projects like Heat or Con Air, or possibly his many collaborations with Robert Rodriguez for Desperado, Spy Kids, or the Machete series, there's no actor quite like Danny Trejo, both on-screen and off. His acting career didn't start until much later in life, having served time in prison before abandoning drugs and alcohol and becoming a mentor for others who struggled with addiction, but the actor has scored more acting credits in his Hollywood career than many others earn over the course of a lifetime in the industry. Trejo's life is chronicled in the new documentary Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo, which is available now On Demand.
The film gives fans an in-depth look at Danny's transformation story. Viewers will get to know Danny and his early life dealing with severe problems and prison time turned Hollywood red carpets, tacos, donuts, and philanthropy. With over 400 film credits, Danny is one of the most recognizable character actors ever, Hollywood's consummate tough guy, an LA icon, and one of the kindest you'll ever meet.
ComicBook.com recently caught up with Donal Logue, one of the documentary's interview subjects and one of Trejo's closest friends of two decades, to talk about the impressive legacy of the actor, their seemingly divine connection, and what he most admires about the actor.
Header photo courtesy of Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for US-Ireland Alliance/Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
A Lot of Lifetimes
ComicBook.com: You're writing a book about Danny, are promoting this documentary about Danny, and you recently mentioned you were hanging out with Danny. The big question is: can you ever get sick of Danny Trejo?
Donal Logue: Not at all. In fact, we've been friends for 21 years ... Danny's my best friend and, yeah, I can just hang endlessly with Danny and Mario and Mikey. He lives in a bachelor pad with dudes and likes it that way. We'll just work and get stuff to eat. He has two kids with Maeve, Gilbert and Danielle, who are in the documentary, but Maeve had two sons who live with Danny who are teenagers, and he's just trying to get on them about doing chores or doing a little exercise or whatever and it's fun. And COVID has made us this pod where there was nothing better to do. Not better to do, but it forced what we wanted to do anyway. We'll work for a while and then we'll watch John Wayne.
When everyone is social distancing, it's great to find any friends who you know are being safe and quarantining and they can count on you to be safe and you can count on them so you can all quarantine together.
Danny went out a lot and was careful with masks, but he's just done endless food donations and food-bank work. They talk about it in the movie, but having been with him, known him for decades, it's what he does all the time. One night I went, because there was 5,000 people at this convention before COVID hit, it's a big recovery convention and he spoke, he was the keynote speaker, and of course he's the best public speaker I've ever seen, but it was being broadcast, streaming worldwide. And then the next night, I met him at this rehab for teenagers, and he sat down and he did the same thing for 10 kids who were in a residential rehab program. That's who he is and he'll do that seven nights a week.
I'm familiar with Danny's work, so I was surprised while watching the documentary and getting an hour in and realizing we hadn't even started exploring his acting career, which speaks to how much he's accomplished.
That's interesting because we just wrote the book. I mean I literally just finished notes on the first draft that's going to the publisher and it's another project where there's so much of the movie is not about ... it takes so long to get to Hollywood. In a way, the Hollywood stuff is interesting, but it's not what his life's about. It's not a documentary about an actor and their Hollywood stories. Because, as they showed in the documentary, he was 41 years old in 1985.
He had lived a lot of life and he got sober at 25 in prison, and so that last year in Soledad after he got out of the hole, he still had one more year in prison. When he was turning himself around in prison, then he had all those years being a drug counselor, etc. outside. He's had a lot of lifetimes.prevnext
As far as your own personal connection with him, and I thought this might have two answers but it could be the same answer, when did you first encounter Danny and when did you realize that this was a guy you were going to have a special connection with?
Vin Diesel fell out of this movie Reindeer Games at the last minute while they were up there and about to roll cameras, and they desperately needed somebody and my name came up and they asked me. My firstborn was three days old, but at the time, my agency had dropped me. I needed work. I was in a tough spot and this was this big opportunity and so I had my now-ex, I had her down from Michigan and my mom up and my sisters up to help out and I was like, "I've got to go to Canada for 10 days." The first 10 days of the movie were up in this small mining town called Prince George, actually a logging, kind of prison town, and then I'd come back to California for a week and then we'd all go up to Vancouver together.
It was an incredibly hard decision to make so I went and it wasn't an easy one and it wasn't met necessarily well and I was just really lost and spun. I'd gone up to this town, it was snowy, it's really remote. I went by the opening night pre-shoot party and all these people were throwing down and, I'm like Danny. I don't drink, I don't do whatever, and so I did what I know to do, which is to find a meeting.
I went to a meeting in a church basement and there was about 25 guys there and they were all pretty much what they call First Nations, or what we'd call Native Americans. I scanned the room and his face stood out to me and he fit right in, obviously, that's his heritage. Then I stopped and I was like, "I think I know... I don't know him, I know him like millions know him." As Geronimo from Blood In Blood Out. "Oh, of course this dude's up here to do the movie." He shared stories about 1968 in San Quentin and this and that, and I was thinking to myself, "'69, I was born in '66, so, sh-t I'm older than him but he's lived a hard life so it makes sense."
So after the meeting, he came up to me and we started talking and I said, "You were born in '68." He goes, "No dude, I got sober in '68 in Soledad." I'm like, "How f-cking old are you, bro?" You know what I mean? This was 1999, so he was 55 at the time. Anyway, he was like, "What's your situation?" I was like, "I'm kind of going through this stuff." He's like, "I got your back, bro. I got your back." Then so many things happened in the next year or two that were insane. He kept an eye on me. He said, "You're staying close to me, this is how it's going down." When we got back to L.A. I was going through stuff and he was like, "Why aren't you calling me dude?" Then you call again and say, "Hey, you haven't called me back. The Mexicans are going to come looking for you, bro," jokey-jokey. But then the last time he called, he said, "Listen man, I ain't f-cking around. God's going to put you in my path."
I had gone to a film festival for The Tao of Steve in Santa Barbara and I came back and it was super rainy, conditions were terrible. I called my ex up and I'm like, "Look, man, the roads are terrible. I'm going to sit it out for a couple hours." She's like, "Get home." I was driving on the 101 and I started hydroplaning and I hit the wall and went across five lanes of traffic and I barely missed semis and all this stuff. Totaled my vehicle. I thought, "Am I dead?" It was gnarly. I saw this car through the rain pass in front of me. I was out in the middle of the freeway and there was a concerned face behind tinted glass and I got out and I looked up and the car had pulled off on the shoulder. A man steps out and it's Danny Trejo. We're not in L.A. I'm an hour outside of it.
I'm just like ... it's stunning. I said in shock, I said, "Danny, I was just going to call you." He points at me standing there in the rain and he goes, "I told you God was going to make me f-cking find you." I was like, "I'm a believer, there's something to this dude." Last year when he saved that baby in that wreck and it was on the news, it happens way more often than not with Danny, and it's just because he's, I don't know what it is. I'm a believer in the higher power stuff, as he is, and because there's a reason that ... we're here to help each other and if faith didn't fuel his story, there'd be none of his story beyond the part where he was taking and using and he was scary.
That's how we became friends and our children are friends. I don't mean to speak for other people because he says it himself a little bit, but in our business you make friends and they're not ... I don't mean to poo-poo this because you make friends really hard for a month or two months or whatever you're working on something, but life gets busy and you move on, but somehow he's been my constant since I met him 21 years ago. I think, for Danny too, because a lot of his old partners have passed. The Sam Hardy's and the George Perry's and Eddie Bunker, of course, and Dennis Hopper. At the end of the documentary Mario says, "That's okay, he's got us."
Mario Castillo he met on the pile in San Quentin doing Blood In Blood Out, and then many years later when Mario got out of prison, after a few more stints, then they saw each other again and fell into each other's lives. He has Mario and Mario's son Mikey, and different people who help him with the life that is Danny Trejo because it's bigger than ... it's big, he's got a big world. But it's amazing. Because every day at his house it's like, especially because of Mario, there's a bunch of guys who have just gotten out of prison and are trying to reacclimate themselves to the world and he helps them.prevnext
The documentary helps show that side of him, his complex journey before being an actor and how much he has accomplished in so many arenas since that career started. And from my brief time talking with him, I got the sense that he genuinely just enjoyed having a conversation with me about anything.
He does it all. If you're sitting, trying to work on a book, he gave his phone number out to thousands of people over the course of the last how many years. They'll call him just to kid. He's like, "I met you in ... how you doing, bro? You staying in school? Good, let me talk to your mom. Is she doing good?" He does it because selfishly, in a strange way, and not selfishly, the beautiful selfish, by helping others he helps himself. I mean, he's helping others all the time. He wakes up, he says a 20-minute prayer where he talks about everybody in life he's thankful for, wants God to look out for, and he walks it.
That's why his movie career is nearly an extension of him really believing that ... when he said, "I will say your name, God, and help my fellow man," he believes that it was part of the more divine plan, in a way. God has a hilarious sense of humor. [He] somehow found this kind of weird career for Danny, that it's such an effective platform for him to reach more people to share his story of experience, strength, and hope.prevnext
The film itself will like shed some light on unknown aspect of Danny's character, but as one of his closest friends, what do you think his fans would be most surprised to learn about him?
There's so much, but I would say there's a couple things. I don't know where he gets the strength from. He touches upon, in the documentary, about liver cancer. Now he's cancer-free, but he also had an aneurysm. There's a couple of times, there were three times I can think of where he had what would be really, potentially just the worst kind of health news you could receive and where the prognosis is scary as hell and somehow he just never let anyone know, just kept doing what he was doing, even if he was just dragging himself through it. One thing that Danny really believes is that self-pity is a super tempting blanket, but it's utterly useless. He, even in moments of fear ... there was one time when he was coming back from Cedars-Sinai and he was dealing with the liver cancer and the chemo treatments, and he had a small moment in front of the mirror in his bathroom and he was like, "Why me, God? Why me? Don't I help your children? Don't I do your work? Don't I say your name like I promised?"
He walks out of his bedroom and on the TV right then in his living room is St. Jude's Children Hospital, the cutest little kid you've ever seen, saying, "And if you make a donation today we'll send you this blanket." He goes, "God, I get it." The next day he goes down to the children's hospital with a bunch of toys. Doesn't tell anyone, "Hey, I'm going through this, too" or whatever it is, it's just that he's had this great life and, "What am I thinking about? Why am I feeling sorry for myself and little kids get this thing?" That kind of strength is what really surprises me. Obviously I got to know him a lot better, having sat with him for his book and him telling me things that he never told anyone else, including his children. I know him so much better today than I ever have.
But it doesn't do anything but reinforce the message that came through in the documentary. He's spectacular. I've always felt this way. There are famous actors, for sure, but Danny's something different and his appeal is universal. And Gilbert, his son, showed me a mural someone had painted in some village in the Philippines and I'm like, "It makes total sense." That Danny Trejo has seeped into the collective consciousness in a weird way as something different than just an actor, an entertainer.
Speaking to that unique nature, I saw that he was a correspondent on an Animal Crossing-themed talk show, and I didn't think I was reading things correctly. Sure enough, he just really loves Animal Crossing and you never would have expected that.
You know what's funny? I think Gilbert knew, somehow, the guy who does it up in Vancouver, so I was there when Danny talked to the guy and they were like, "We can do this and we can do that." It's hilarious. He loves doing the cartoons and doing Boots on Dora the Explorer. He loved Spy Kids and he loves kids and he loves ... you can see from the documentary, one thing that you can't get across until you see it is just how disarming he is. I don't know if there's a smile or a laugh that's better in the world. He loves life, he enjoys it. He cruises around. He's got, right now, probably seven dogs with him, six who are tiny, five who are tiny, and he loves dogs, he just loves that stuff and his spirit. Does that make sense? Innocent spirits and souls.
And he's hard enough to get ... his experience isn't going to be something that someone who's done hard time or something, they're like, "Well you don't understand what I've been through." He does. He gets it.
It's almost like a Curious Case of Benjamin Button situation. His life was hard and difficult and he went through really intense, adult things when he was young, but as more time passes, he just reverts to finding joy in more innocent, child-like things.
Absolutely, that's truly on point.prevnext
Do you have a favorite role of Danny's?
I'd say Sherrybaby because I remember workshopping that movie at Sundance and the writer-director Laurie Collyer saying, "You're friends with Danny Trejo, right? Because I'm thinking of him for this." It's like, "Wow, it's so right up his... this is who he really is," because so much [of his career] is the tough guy stuff. But then From a Son, the movie he talked about at the end that he did with Gilbert, his son, which is more who he really is and close to who he is. I love that about Sherrybaby. But you listen to Danny Trejo, even speak for an hour, in front of a crowd, no tough-guy movie part has ever been able to capture who he is, which is multitudes more than, a lot of times, who he gets to play.
Is there a dream project for you two to collaborate on?
It's funny because we've worked together a few times. I directed a movie and then in Grounded for Life and Knights of Prosperity, a couple sitcoms I was on, Danny was a part of and played parts in. But we are trying to think of something right now that we're working on that would be a job for both of us, one-hour drama television series. We're friends and partners in a semi-criminal enterprise. But just spending time with him is really precious. We don't lose sight of that because as you get older you just lose a lot of your friends, just the ravages of time, so any excuse to spend time together is really good.prevnext
Can you talk a bit about the book you're working on?
I'd written a novel before that was in and out of being somewhere and I'd been dipping my toes into this world. This was the first biography of someone, and so probably the next go-round would be easier, I would know more, but it took a lot of time and work, because I think Danny's so used to telling so many of the stories that it took more and more going around that story to start really digging and finding out the different layers to where it really gets into the nitty-gritty. And I can say that was where we really got a lot more into childhood stuff and his relationship with his parents and of course Gilbert, his uncle Gilbert.
I think that's really the most ... there were two things. When Gilbert's son Gilbert is released from prison at the end of the documentary, it's so emotional and I know Gilbert and his own story is so spectacular. I mean, here's a man who learned, from no education, he ended up learning super-advanced calculus on his own through textbooks. He learned how to program a computer without access to a computer in prison, in solitary. He is conversing on string theory. He fought in the SHU Wars in Corcoran where they had those ... did you see the movie Felon with Stephen Dorff?
So that was based on something Gilbert lived through, where prisoners were being set up for gladiatorial contests where there were bets and stuff like that. If he won his fights they'd let him be on the yard at night by himself and he would stare at the stars and his love for astrophysics was solidified. All the stories within the stories, but the death of Gilbert, of his uncle, it was happening when he was doing a movie called Penitentiary III, which was the first time he had a name [in a movie]. Death Wish 4 was the first time he played a non-Mexican character, Art Sanella, but before that, Penitentiary III was the first time his character had a name and Gilbert was out at Folsom, his uncle, and, yeah, it's so beautiful. But that was the stuff, the role of Gilbert in his life is so wild and the fact that Gilbert loomed so large in his life and in the California prison system and now Gilbert Trejo's son, his name is on legislation that helps people who are sentenced as juveniles to have access to the parole that they were supposed to have. It's amazing that Gilbert Trejo's a piece of legislation in the California law books. They gave Danny the name Gilbert Trejo on Heat and it's so cool.
He was hired on Heat to be an armed robbery consultant. He wasn't even hired as an actor.
Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo is available now On Demand.prev