Danny Trejo: 10% of the people in prison belong there – I was one of those

Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo proves redemption is possible, even on the most unlikely journeys. Gemma Dunn finds out more from Hollywood's go-to hard man

Actor and former criminal Danny Trejo, perhaps best known for his role in Michael Mann's Heat, in a scene from #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo

YEARS in the making, Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo outshines any Hollywood fiction.

The feature-length documentary – directed by film-maker Brett Harvey – offers up a raw portrait of unlikely action star Trejo, who left behind a life of drugs, armed robbery and hard prison time for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.

And with the 76-year-old giving viewers a first-hand account of his larger-than-life journey – supported by a cast of family, friends and big-name talent – it's little wonder it's being hailed one of the greatest transformations of human character ever put on screen.

It's certainly pleased Trejo, who today has joined us on Zoom. His mindset, he says, was to provide something that would be "great for high school students".

"Something for kids who might be going a little [off the rails] – nothing glamorous!" he insists, before adding: "This is all glamorous now, now that we've stopped all that. But when I go to high schools, I say, 'It's easy to be a big fish in a little pond, but be a big fish out here. That's the trick'.

"The kids listen to me, they like to hear it, and that's due to the movies; that's the platform that the good Lord has given me."

The probing portrayal certainly packs a lot in, from Trejo's childhood growing up in the "murder-obsessed capital of Los Angeles" to his teenage years spent as a heroin addict to stick-up artist, prison inmate, champion boxer, drug counsellor and, eventually, actor.

In total he spent 11 years flitting in and out of jail for various armed robberies and drug offences before, in the late 60s, changing his ways once and for all.

Decades later and the father of three has been sober for close to 52 years, and to this day continues to counsel recovering addicts and speak at state prisons.

He believes it's an honour that's been bestowed on him – to pay forward.

"In 1968 me and Ray Pacheco went to the hole [solitary confinement] for an insider riot," Trejo recalls of his time spent at California's infamously violent San Quentin State Prison.

"Some people were badly hurt, and they were going to send us to the gas chamber, so I made a deal with God. I didn't say, 'Let me go', because I didn't think we had a chance. I said, 'Let me die with dignity; I'll say your name every day and do whatever I can for my fellow men'.

"I was trying to play a trick on him because I thought maybe it would be three years and then he'd kill me," he admits, laughing. "But he kinda just said, 'OK'. And the DA rejected the case and basically I got out."

"So now I don't condemn anybody who doesn't want to help or anybody who doesn't want to feed the homeless or give anything," he continues. "Because they don't owe; I owe my life. I asked God a couple of days ago, 'How am I doing, man?' And he goes, 'You're almost out of hell, keep it up'."

He doesn't feel he paid his dues serving time behind bars?

"No, I still owe. I was supposed to go to prison, I honestly believe that," Trejo says. "Probably only 10 per cent of the people that are in prison belong in prison and I was one of those 10 per cent, and I got out. When the parole board let me go, they said, 'Hey, bring us back a life sentence would you?' And I haven't been back."

Other than to talk to inmates, of course – an act which can trigger emotion.

"It's the same smell, same feeling, same hopelessness," he says of returning to his old stomping ground. "Prison is a hopeless pit of tension and the minute you walk into it, you taste it, and you look around and you know.

"You're with a whole bunch of people who actually feel deep down that they've been thrown away, they're of no use," he continues. "So for me to just to go in there and help them do one day is a joy – because I'm going to walk out.

"I say, 'If you get anything out of my talk, God bless you, I'm glad. If you don't, it's OK, because at least I hope you'll do this one day'. And they'll all cheer because they understand. Because that's all you want to do in prison is just get the day over with."

On the side of Hollywood, Trejo – who landed his first break as an extra and boxing coach on Edward Bunker's 1985 action thriller, Runaway Train – has made a name for himself as the go-to-guy for movie hardmen.

Titles include Con Air, Deperado, Machete, From Dusk Till Dawn and, of course crime hit Heat, in which he starred alongside veteran Robert De Niro – the man he affectionately now refers to as 'Bob'.

He recounts his death scene in which he's shot by De Niro, stating: "That's the way everybody thought I was going to end up. I'd been shot at a couple of times and by the grace of God, he kept me around.

"It's funny because when I did that scene with Robert De Niro, I asked him, 'Hey, Bob, how do you want to play this?' And he said, 'Danny, I think you already did. I think you just have enough breath to tell me to kill you'.

"It was the best death scene of the decade!" he cries. "And after that, he did Machete for me and when I ran into him, he went, 'You, number one,' because we always talked about number one on the call sheet. I said, 'Can I get you some coffee, Mr De Niro?'"

As for recent work, Trejo has shot a move called From a Son, an intense family drama directed by his film-maker son, Gilbert.

"It was the most emotional thing I've ever done in my life," Trejo confesses, the premise focused on a father who embarks on an urgent search for his drug-addicted son. "God, he got me to just like sob and then I couldn't stop!"

Did making Inmate #1 have a similar impact?

"I lived it so there's no surprises there – but I was really happy with the way they did it!" he quips.

"Because making a movie there's a lot of steps that can make it or break it; there's lighting, there's editing, which is probably the most important thing in a film, and the way they edited it, it was just really beautiful. I'm really proud of what they did."

:: Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo is available on digital platforms now.

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