Danny Trejo spent his youth throughout the 1960’s in and out of all the California state penitentiaries, but had gone clean and sober and straight after getting released in 1969. In 1985, he was working as a drug counselor when a young, recovering addict gave him a call asking for help, saying he was about to fall off the wagon from the temptations of cocaine all around him. When Mr. Trejo arrived at their meeting, he found himself on the movie set for Runaway Train. His appearance led to someone asking if he wanted to be an extra as an inmate in the film, but when he took his shirt off to change, screenwriter Edward Bunker recognized him from his prominent chest tattoo as a devastating lightweight and welterweight champion in prison boxing circles. Mr. Trejo quickly went from being an extra to being the boxing trainer for the movie’s star Eric Roberts, playing Mr. Roberts’ opponent in the final film.
Mr. Trejo has been steadily working ever since, although it took a number of years before he would get substantial lines and names other than “convict #2.” He racks up more credits in a year than many actors can achieve in five, and has performed on screens large and small in movies, TV, and video games. We were able to talk with Mr. Trejo via phone in advance of the release of Jorge Gutierrez’s The Book of Life on Blu-ray and DVD, where Mr. Trejo plays the the grandfather of lead character Manolo, still tough-as-nails even in the afterlife in the Land of the Remembered.
TOONZONE NEWS: You’ve done a few different voiceover roles. How do you view them differently from on-camera work?
DANNY TREJO: I think voiceover is cool because you can show up in your pajamas. You can just fall out of bed and show up. I like Jorge anyway, so me and him just got collaborative. We talked about this character. We came up with this guy, who was like, “I killed three bulls at once!” It’s hard to talk about this movie because I had so much fun doing it.
TOONZONE NEWS: I felt like Luis was a lot goofier and a lot more overtly comedic than the roles that you normally get to play.
DANNY TREJO: Yeah (laughs), that’s what I meant.
TOONZONE NEWS: Did you find that difficult? Talking with you, it doesn’t seem like you have a problem laughing or goofing around.
DANNY TREJO: No, no. I love it. I loved this role. I found out what this guy was about and I loved it. It was just a lot of fun getting out of yourself, being this happy guy who’s tough and mean but still warm and loving.
TOONZONE NEWS: I know it’s not common for movie voiceover to work with a lot of your co-stars, but I also read that Jorge Gutierrez tried getting some of the actors to record together. Did you get to record with any of your co-stars?
DANNY TREJO: Not really, because I was doing other stuff. I would have to fly in and have an hour, two hours, do what I was doing, but I didn’t want to miss this. My agent, Gloria, she had everything arranged. I’d fly in for an hour and then go back to what I was doing. A couple of times, I showed up when everyone was gone, they just stayed late so I could do it.
TOONZONE NEWS: What was the challenge for you in acting without anybody else around you?
DANNY TREJO: That’s when you really have to trust the director. I really trust Jorge, and he was just like, “this is the way you play it, and you go from there,” instead of just trying to do it on your own because you don’t know what’s going on around you.
TOONZONE NEWS: What would you say was the hardest thing about this role for you?
DANNY TREJO: Not laughing while I was doing it. (Laughter)
DANNY TREJO: I couldn’t stop laughing. I could just picture this guy. I think that was the fun in it. It was just a joy to come to work and do this stuff. This was a joyride the whole way. It was fun going to work, and working with Jorge. They’re like…they bring you into the family right away, so you feel right at home.
TOONZONE NEWS: It’s also a very different view of Mexico than what normally shows up in Hollywood.
DANNY TREJO: I’m really glad that this movie brought the Latin culture into the mainstream. It didn’t put the mainstream into Latin culture. Like, The Little Mermaid, that was a great, great cartoon, but you can’t just drop that into Latin culture. This one is rooted in Latin narrative culture, and now it’s people in the mainstream that are imitating that movie.
And the thing is, the Day of the Dead…actually, it’s the Day of the Living. We’re celebrating life, we’re not celebrating death. We’re celebrating a person’s life, and that’s what was awesome.
TOONZONE NEWS: How big was Day of the Dead for you when you were growing up in LA? Did you do a lot of Day of the Dead stuff when you were younger?
DANNY TREJO: On the Day of the Dead, if you go to East LA and you go to Evergreen Cemetery, you’ll see parties going on. You’ll see mariachi bands and people are celebrating their loved ones’ lives, not so much their death.
TOONZONE NEWS: Do you have a favorite scene in the movie, whether or not you’re in it? I know you work a LOT, so it might be difficult to remember all the stuff you’ve done over time…
DANNY TREJO: (Laughs) I just really enjoyed the movie. I enjoyed this whole movie. I loved the fact that you had two spots: the Remembered and the Not Remembered. For the people who are remembered, there’s happiness and joy, and then you have the people who aren’t remembered. So you gotta remember all the people who have passed and keep them in the happy place. Just celebrate their lives.
TOONZONE NEWS: You’ve done a lot of voice over roles in video games and in cartoons, but I think in a lot of ways, they’re what they’d cast Danny Trejo to do in live-action.
DANNY TREJO: (laughs)
TOONZONE NEWS: Do you find you can play around more in voiceover work?
DANNY TREJO: Yeah, the good thing about voiceover is that you don’t have to worry about facial expressions, and if you have an itch, you can scratch. I love doing it. It’s a lot of fun, but there’s a serious part of it. Like I said, you have to trust your director. Sometimes, actors want to take over, but I just realized that a director was hired for a reason, to direct, so I’ve got to trust his judgement.
TOONZONE NEWS: What are you working on next? I’m almost afraid to get the firehose of projects that are going to come out of you now.
DANNY TREJO: No, no (laughs). I’ve got Bad-Ass 3 coming out, and then I’m getting ready to work on The Green Ghost, and that’s in Austin Texas, and I’ll start that on the 20th. That’s going to be a lot of fun. I play this 600-year old priest (laughs).
TOONZONE NEWS: Still no word on Machete in Outer Space?
DANNY TREJO: Machete in Outer Space! Send a message to Robert Rodriguez, and say, “Hey, Robert, let’s get on it!”
TOONZONE NEWS: So if an actor were to walk up to you and say, “Danny, I just got cast as the heavy in a movie and I don’t know how to do that. What do I do?” So what is your advice on “How to be a bad-ass the Danny Trejo way”?
DANNY TREJO: First of all, I’d say, “You know what, listen to your director, because he knows what he wants.” Hollywood wants guys that can act tough. They don’t want tough guys, so all you have to do is find somebody that you think is tough and mimic them. But the thing that I would do is just work with the director. I don’t know…tough and a dollar will get you a bus ride, you know what I mean? Now, INSANE, that’ll get you a little more. People will move out of the way.
TOONZONE NEWS: Who do you think is tough in Hollywood?
DANNY TREJO: Oh, this guy Danny Trejo, everybody thinks he’s tough. (Laughter)
Toonzone would like to thank Danny Trejo for taking the time to speak with us, and to Sandy Sirirat and the rest of the team at 20th Century Fox PR for arranging the interview. Keep up with Danny Trejo via his official website, Facebook feed (en EspaĆ±ol), and Twitter account. The Book of Life is coming to Blu-ray and DVD on January 27, 2015; don’t forget to read our interview with the film’s composer Gustavo Santaolalla and keep an eye out for our upcoming interview with director Jorge Gutierrez.