Here’s Why Danny Trejo Is the Definition of “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover”

Danny Trejo Serves Up Some Reality With Some Wisdom and a Smile

Written By: Caroline Thompson
Photographed By: Joe Magnani and Jared Schlachet
Styled By: Claudia Alvarado
Grooming By: Brian Bond

At 73 years old, Danny Trejo’s life has been one wild ride. From spending time at Soledad State Prison to becoming a boxing champion inside San Quentin Penitentiary, you can’t help but admire his resilience. Growing up in LA, he was exposed to criminal activity at a very young age, with his drug use beginning as early as eight years old. “Gilbert, my dad’s brother, really was the one who taught me how to be a gangster. He would come home when I was about eight years old and he and his friends would have fistfuls of cash from a bank robbery. He always had the coolest clothes and just looked so handsome. I wanted to be just like that,” he said.

After spending 11 years on and off in prison, Trejo faced a critical point in his life on Cinco De Mayo in 1968. He and his fellow inmates in Soledad State Prison incited a riot that ended with him facing three gas chamber offenses. “I asked God if he would let me die with dignity. I would say his name every day and I would do whatever I can for my fellow man,” Trejo said. “By the grace of God, the charges were dropped and I really tried to be a better person because I had made this deal,” he revealed.

After his release, Trejo completed a 12-step rehabilitation program and eventually became a drug and alcohol counselor for struggling addicts. “I was mentoring a kid in 1985 that had an audition and he knew he would be tempted,” Trejo said. “Around that time cocaine was everywhere, so he wanted a positive influence around him.” This twist of fate led to his incredibly successful acting career that landed him in over 100 movies.

From there, he became an extra, then a boxing trainer for the actor Eric Roberts. Eventually, director Andrey Konchalovskiy discovered that his talent deserved much more than just a behind-the-scenes role, and he then began his long-term trek to stardom. Time and time again, actors and actresses request his presence on set because of his positivity and genuine charm. “My friend Eddie Bunker would always say that the secret to my career is everyone that has worked with me wants to work with me again. He would always tell me not to think I’m a movie star. I saw how people talk about them when they leave and I never wanted to be talked about like that,” he added.

Even though he is consistently portrayed on film as the hardcore, inmate-type, don’t let the Machete star’s tough, tattooed exterior fool you. According to his son Gilbert, Danny Trejo is a gentle, kind soul that truly cares about his family, friends and fans. “My dad always taught me that if you’re nice to everybody, you’ve got nothing to worry about,” Gilbert said. “Everything good that’s ever happened to him is a direct result of helping someone else.”

Now that Danny Trejo has done it all in the movie business, it’s no surprise that he is getting his feet wet as a restaurateur. Growing up in Echo Park, he thanks his mother for his culinary prowess. “My mother…was such a great cook,” he explained. “We always joked about opening our own restaurant, but my dad was like the Mexican Archie Bunker and would’ve never allowed that.” After his mother passed away, Ash Shah, the producer of Bad Ass, approached Trejo with the idea to open a restaurant. Trejo first laughed at the idea and jokingly suggested the name Trejo’s Tacos. He brushed it off until after Bad Ass 3 had wrapped and Shah brought him a business plan. “It was the first time someone had brought me a business plan that didn’t require me to put down $50,000 up front,” Trejo said. “I showed it to my friend Mari and she told me I couldn’t lose.” From there, the two opened the first Trejo’s Tacos on La Brea and it was a massive success. He then set up Trejo’s Coffee and Donuts to appeal to LA’s sweet tooth.

His most recent venture is Trejo’s Cantina in Woodland Hills. This multifaceted restaurant combines his taco shop and donut cafe so you get the best of both worlds for breakfast, lunch and dinner. With six diverse locations already open all over LA, Trejo approaches his famous tacos the same way he built his acting career. “Any situation I come into, I want to leave better,” he said. “I see these celebrities open restaurants and businesses and just walk away, expecting for everyone else to run it for them. I test out all my food with five of my closest friends and tell them to give me notes on how to improve.”

Now that Trejo has his sights set on a tastier profession, you would think that his acting career would take a turn towards retirement. But Trejo is currently working on a project with his son called From a Son that tells the story of a drug addict and his father. “Every film like that starts out with a beautiful girl and the cartel, but this is what drugs actually do. It’s the real thing,” he expressed. “This is the first time anybody’s ever captured this side of me. Some of the shots you see, it looks like I’m about to cry. It’s shocking.”

You can also expect to see an inside look at his life with an upcoming film called Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo by director Brett Harvey. The name of this documentary is based on his acting career and the character he was always given as an extra on set. “Whenever I was cast in a movie, I would always get the part of Inmate #1 or Bad Guy #1 because of my appearance. My friend Eddy Bunker eventually told me that I needed to stop scowling at people and actually say hello every once in a while, which helped me soften up,” he laughed.

He has come a long way from the troubled child that was thrown into the California Youth Program at the tender age of 16. With all odds set against him, other Hollywood actors have a lot to learn from the Bad Ass and Spy Kids star. He explained, “I have an attitude for gratitude. I have been through it all and whenever I hear someone complain, I just think, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

Party Starter: Get Trejo’s Tacos catered at your next party! They provide the event planning, staffing, bar service and more.

Insta-Famous: Stay on top of all the specials and foodie deals via Trejo’s Instagram accounts @trejostacos and @trejosdonuts.

Bow Wow Wow: When he’s not on set or overseeing his restaurants, Trejo is spending time at home with his four rescue dogs. He has a soft spot for animals and advocates for spaying and neutering dogs to prevent overpopulation.

Native Knowledge: Not a fan of dairy? Trejo’s also serves vegan-donut options when you need something sweet, minus the animal products.

Danny Trejo

Photoshoot Location:
Trejo’s Cantina
21550 Oxnard St, Ste 125
Woodland Hills, CA 91367

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