Danny Trejo has no plans to retire.
The craggy-faced Latino action star spent decades in the B-movie trenches, inspired by ex-cons and bodyguards, tough guys and prison thugs — his real-life stints at San Quentin, Soledad, Folsom and California state facilities. Vacaville—before becoming a “Mexican Superhero” with Robert Rodriguez the scar series. But at 78, Trejo continues to cut his way through roles that are silly, schlocky and (occasionally) magnificent.
His 22 credits so far this year, a fairly average annual output for Trejo, include a couple of high-profile projects: Stronghold’s voice in Universal’s animated blockbuster; Slaves: The Rise of GruThe role of Rancor Keeper in the Disney+ Star Wars series The Book of Boba FettCaptions tell you everything you need to know about the characters along with their content at live-online fare: Vampfather, A Tale of Two Guns, Traitors, Wolf mountain.
“I’m the king of independent films, and I love it!” Trejo boasts, then downplays his average-guy screen persona with a booming smile. “I love doing them because in independent film it’s, ‘I pawned my car for this, my mom loaned me money for this.’ This is serious stuff. An independent film is more serious than a billion dollar movie.
Trejo has had small parts in big movies. Robert De Niro’s death scene in Michael Mann’s seminal crime drama the heat legendary, and he has appeared alongside the likes of Harrison Ford (Six days and seven nights), Antonio Banderas (Desperado) and peak box office Nicolas Cage (Con Air)
And it’s not that he needs the money. Born and raised in Echo Park, the LA native has smartly invested the proceeds of his long career in a series of successful business ventures, including Trejo’s Tacos, Trejo’s Coffee & Donuts and record label, Trejo’s Music.
But, in true AFM legend fashion, Trejo says he’ll never stop making movies. “I was sitting on the porch with Danny Glover Bad asses in the bayou,2 he recalls, mentioning one of the least-known of his 400-plus IMDb credits. “We see a 65, 70-year-old man sweeping the parking lot. Glover looks at me and says: ‘That could be us.’ So how can I complain? I have worked in my life. I put out the fire, I cemented it. I did the rubbish. I know what work is. Impersonating a gangster is not difficult. ”
You are definitely someone who has paid his dues in this business, moving up the ranks from extra to the top of the call sheet.
I remember when I first came across the call sheet. I didn’t even have a name. It’s just: “The Tattooed Man.”
When did you realize that acting was a real job?
It was on set [1985’s] runaway train. I met a friend [screenwriter] Eddie Bunker was my friend in prison. He remembered that I was the welter-weight champion at San Quentin. He said, “Danny, are you still boxing? We need someone to train an actor [Eric Roberts] How to make a box It pays $320 a day.
I was working as a pharmaceutical consultant, making $190, $220 a week before tax. So I asked: “How badly do you want to beat this guy?” From that moment my whole life changed. In the early years of my career, I was the “bad guy,” the “mean guy,” the “Chicano dude,” the “tattoo guy.” But I always made my $320 a day.
Do you feel typecast?
The first time I got interviewed by some girl right out of interview school, she asked me: “Don’t you feel like you’re being typecast as the average Chicano dude with tattoos?” I said: “But I’m a Chicano dude with a tattoo!” I am proud to work.
I think I’m the king of independent films and I love it! I love doing them. I did a movie with Harrison Ford, called Six days, seven nights, in Hawaii. Like three months in Hawaii. I probably worked 15 or 16 days. I get bored. In really high-budget movies, sometimes you sit in your trailer. I can’t be in trailers: it reminds me of a prison cell.
Who was the first person to see you as more than a “scary chicano with tattoos”?
Robert Rodriguez. We made a movie called Desperado. It was in Mexico. And no one really knew who that was at the time [the film’s star] There was Antonio Banderas. I was on set and everyone was asking for my autograph and taking pictures. Robert says: “Hey Danny, everyone thinks you’re the star of this movie.” I said: “You mean I’m not?” We talked and he said: “I’ve got this movie I’ve always wanted to do: the scar.” We talked about it and when we did [Rodriguez-directed] Spy Kids, I was Uncle Machete. Then they did Grindhouse  And we made a fake trailer the scar. And the minute we walked out of the theater everyone was saying, “You should the scar! It will be the first Mexican superhero.
How did that franchise change things for you?
After we finished I knew things had changed the scar. It’s Halloween and I open the door and there are little kids, Mexican kids, dressed like Machete, little fake mustaches and everything. It wasn’t Batman or Superman, he was playing this Mexican guy. This brought tears to my eyes.
Are you going to do a third the scar Image, rumor A speck in space?
Do me a favor, send Robert Rodriguez an email and tell him to stop freaking out and do it! He has two winners, but he is afraid of making a third.
After all your years in business, do you still get imposter syndrome?
Every day. I’m afraid someone will wake me up and I’m back in jail: “Dan, it’s chow time. You were mumbling something in your sleep about Robert De Niro. You know, I hear some actors complain on set. And I think: Have you ever tarred on a roof in 90-degree weather? That’s work. It’s playing cowboys and Indians.
You mentioned De Niro and this was your performance the heat A lot of people were convinced that you are a real actor. What did you learn from him in that movie?
I owe my performance in that film to De Niro. We are friends and he is just an incredible, beautiful person. I love his politics. We had a big death scene in that movie and I asked: “How am I supposed to play this? 2 I think I’m John Wayne, real macho, planning to do that. Bob – I’ll call him Bob – says: “I think you’re already dead and you There’s enough life left to beg me to kill.” That movie changed everything for me. I mean: De Niro, [Al] Pacino, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight. and Danny Trejo. I remember Bob doing an interview for the film and he said: “Danny has his own.”
After more than 433 screen credits, is there any role you still love to do?
There’s a movie I’m trying to make, called Valdez is coming. It’s a remake of an old western from the 70s, starring Burt Lancaster as a Mexican. Now I’m not saying Burt Lancaster’s equal. But I’m a real Mexican. I’ve got a real accent. And there is Viva Zapata!, a 50s film starring Marlon Brando as the real-life Mexican hero Emiliano Zapata. He was as big as Pancho Villa, but Pancho was fighting a revolution in the north, Zapata was fighting a revolution in the south.
That 50s movie is beautiful and Brando is a great actor, don’t get me wrong, but I wish I could have made a Zapata movie to show the Mexican kids we had heroes. We had real heroes who made a revolution with sticks and knives. My children are my real legacy, but if I had a movie legacy, I’d want it to be like that.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 4 daily issue of The Hollywood Reporter on American Film Market.