When you look at the face of Danny Trejo, you see the creases and hollows and pockmarks, the eye pouches like saddlebags, the badges of a life so well-worn that, at first, that’s just about all you see. Yet the more you look, the more you notice a paradox. For someone who has been around more blocks than most of us will ever know, Trejo is actually, beneath the fugly weathering, kind of a sexy dude — and, off camera, a funny, self-deprecating, and gruffly gentle one, with one of those light-up-the-room grins. That’s the drama of Danny Trejo: On camera, his look of sullen morose menace suggests the forces, as heavy as an anvil, that are keeping him from smiling. When you look into that face, you want to know what those forces are.
“Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo” is a compelling and heartfelt documentary that fills all of that in. Directed, shot, and co-edited by Brett Harvey, it’s a tale of crime and punishment, hope and despair, and addiction and recovery driven by Trejo’s sixth sense for how to express the humanity and amazement of his own story. Born in 1944, he was raised in Pacoima, a low-income, dirt-road Mexican-American neighborhood of L.A. that, at the time, was the city’s murder capital. He became a heroin addict at the age of 12, and by the time he was in his late teens his principal pastime was armed robbery; wielding a sawed-off shotgun, he knocked off every liquor and convenience store in sight. He grew into more or less what he looks like — the toughest motherf—ker you’ve ever seen — and spent the heart of the ’60s in prison, doing time in the infamous hellhole of San Quentin.
The documentary tells the fascinating, and moving, tale of how Trejo got off the road to ruin and became the unlikeliest of Hollywood character actors. In his black T-shirt, Crucifix pendant, and goatee, with his long hair tucked under a baseball cap, Trejo wanders around Pacoima, where he still lives, recalling his journey, and we also see him speaking to recovery meetings and groups of prisoners, which for him is a holy mission.
He’s a great raconteur, whether describing what it was like to pull up to the fortress of San Quentin (“You know that once you go in there, you’re not coming out…The minute the bus stops, the tension starts”) or discussing his prison tattoos, like the giant one on his chest, which his friend Cheech Marin says came from a tamale wrapper, or the one that spreads down his left forearm, which starts as a peacock and turns into a monster. It’s about the duality of existence, and that’s very Danny Trejo, who seems a mensch and, at the same time, with his killer gaze, one of the only people in Hollywood history who’s as big a badass as the badasses he plays.
It’s not just Trejo’s look — fearsome, menacing, with that thousand-yard stare — that has made him, in movies and television, such a legendary bruiser actor, with nearly 400 credits to his name. So has the voice: thick and low, musical in its toughness, poised between a gravelly growl and a whisper. It’s a voice that means what it says as much as the voices of Eastwood or Bronson, but also echoes every inch of the experience that formed it. It’s a voice burnished with hard time.
Trejo catches us up in his fractured family life, in the way he idolized John Wayne and also his father’s brother, Uncle Gilbert — who in photographs (long hair, pumped demigod physique) looks like a study of the man Danny became. He was the one who turned the young Danny onto drugs and crime. In San Quentin, Trejo describes the madness of being shut up with 4,000 men who were “insanely angry,” but this was also the era when groups like the Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican Mafia were on the rise. Trejo found his place, surviving by making himself into a champion prison boxer.
He emerged from the slammer on Aug. 23, 1969, having already decided that the first thing he would do would be to go to an AA meeting. He vowed to stay out of prison, and did, becoming a drug counselor. But it would be 15 years before he collided with his destiny. On the set of the oddball 1985 thriller “Runaway Train,” he was charged with looking after an actor, and one of the film’s screenwriters, an ex-con named Eddie Bunker, recognized him from San Quentin. Trejo was tapped to add flavor to the prison scenes (and to teach Eric Roberts how to box), and his aura of drop-dead authenticity was so compelling that the offers began coming in. For a couple of years, he played roles like Inmate #1, Prisoner #1, Gangster #1, but all that changed in 1987 when he got to act opposite Bronson in “Death Wish IV.” (As one of his sons recalls, “The year I was born was the year he had his first character with a name.”)
Early on in Trejo’s career, an interviewer asked him if he was afraid of being typecast, since “you’re always playing the mean Chicano dude with tattoos.” Trejo replied, with triumph, “I am the mean Chicano dude with tattoos. Someone finally got it right!” But as he began to work with directors who knew how to capitalize on his mystique, he became more than a feral-eyed walking exploitation punchline.
In “Desperado” (1995), the director Robert Rodriguez cast him as a knife-fetishist assassin who never spoke a word, and that silence gave him mystery. In “Heat,” released the same year, Trejo had a death scene with De Niro that was haunting, as if he were enacting the very fate that he, in life, had narrowly avoided. In “Spy Kids” (2001), his warmth and ebullience came through, winning him a whole new audience, and in the independent drama “Sherrybaby” (2006), playing the man who romances Maggie Gyllanhaal’s broken-down heroine, he had his first complex role — and just watch it, he’s fantastic. His track record was becoming legendary, as was the roster of all the people he’d been killed by on-camera (they include Mickey Rourke, 50 Cent, and Michael Myers).
Then, of course, there was “Machete.” Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse” trailer for a ’70s “Mexploitation” film that never existed was brilliantly done — so funny and real that for years people thought the movie was actually coming. So Rodriguez decided to make it, and when he did, he elevated Danny Trejo from fluke to myth. Everywhere he went, he was greeted in awed tones as “Ma-chet-ay” (one of those fans was Barack Obama), and you could see why: The character was a thug-hero concoction grounded, on some level, in the impossible darkness of Danny Trejo’s life. “Inmate #1” shows you how he turned that darkness to light.