Wednesday, March 28, 2012

In Character: Danny Trejo

When you think about it, Danny Trejo’s story is a perfect Hollywood Cinderella fable. The street thug who was addicted to heroin, locked up for 11 years and found redemption in the form of cheesy, B-action flicks. And while those action movies remain Trejo’s bread and butter (the dude has 228 credited films to his name, according to IMDb), he has proved that he can cross over into more serious genres with restraint and honest humor.

Below, you’ll see some of the roles Danny Trejo is most known for – the rapists and the crooks and the thieves – but, hopefully, you’ll also see that the man can deliver fine, serious performances of remarkable self-control.

Five Essential Roles
Desperado (1995)
He doesn’t speak, he doesn’t smile, he doesn’t compromise – he walks, looks badass, and kills people with knives. Nuff said.

When Robert Rodriguez cast Trejo as the silent, deadly Mexican contract killer, Navajas, neither had any idea that they were second cousins in real life. Now, Trejo is a staple among Rodriguez’s filmography. Everyone (literally… everyone) knows Trejo as THAT GUY, much of which can be credited to his brief but notable role here.

Heat (1995)
I always enjoy a director (especially one I admire as much as Michael Mann) who completely reshapes a character based on the actor playing him. Mann was very familiar with Trejo’s crime-laden past, so when he brought the actor onto his crime epic, he told him to essentially play himself. Keep your name, keep your charming personality, add input organically, and so on.

The result is Trejo’s first “normal” performance, a character that plays like a real person, not a hyperbolic action figure. It should also be noted that with Heat, Trejo proved he could exercise some serious acting chops when needed, as his cry for help while sprawled out on his bedroom floor marks one of Heat’s most emotional moments.

Con Air (1997)
Johnny 23
Who the hell can forget Johnny 23, the prisoner whose name is based on how many women he’s raped? (Although, it’d be Johnny 600 if they knew the truth).

A seemingly throwaway role in a seemingly throwaway action film, Trejo’s Johnny 23 isn’t much more than side screen fodder to marvel over, but he still manages to add a particularly high level of scum to the overall experience. He’s a slimy, pathetic convict, but one Trejo makes impossible to forget.

Animal Factory (2000)
Although Trejo has a brief role in Steve Buscemi’s rather good, horribly overlooked prison drama, mention should be made that he was one of the main people responsible for getting it made.

He had read the script, co-authored by his friend Eddie Bunker (who wrote the original source novel) and passed it along to Buscemi while he and Trejo were on Con Air. Buscemi, having worked with Bunker on Reservoir Dogs (Bunker played the small role of Mr. Blue) dug the material, and a movie was made. My point is, there’s a great amount of respect to dish out to a guy who transforms his stereotype from the go-to action badass to the go-to action badass/movie producer of passion projects.

In the film, Trejo plays an understanding member of a Mexican prison gang, and although he is outshined by Tom Arnold’s sadistic rapist, Mickey Rourke’s compassionate transvestite and Willem Dafoe’s bald head, Trejo deliverers solid work with the limited screentime he’s given.

Machete (2010)
While the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse was met with its fair share of detractors, I have yet to meet one person who didn’t enjoy the fake trailers within the two films.

And while I preferred the respective previews for DON’T and Thanksgiving the most (seriously, can someone please make these), Machete was the only trailer that spawned a glorious B-movie feature.

In the film, Trejo plays the titular Machete, a man who is out to exact revenge on the political assholes who tried to kill him. To do this, Machete does what most any revenge-seeker would do: says little, kills whoever gets in his way, fucks the wives (and daughters) of his enemies, and so on.

I have a certain amount of respect for movies like Machete – movies that are fully aware of how exaggerated and balls-out they are in their entertainment, and that never aim to be anything more. Machete marks Trejo’s first starring role, and while it’s a performance that carries a completely ridiculous film, there’s fun in watching Trejo and company owning up to the absurdity.

The Best of the Best
Sherrybaby (2006)
In Sherrybaby, that very little, very remarkable indie film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Trejo plays the very rarest of Trejo characters: a completely normal, straight-arrowed guy.

There’s nothing sneaky or hidden or ruthless about Dean, he’s a recovering addict doing whatever he can to help his suffering friend. There are many striking things about Sherrybaby, most notably Gyllenhaal’s criminally ignored performance, but what I’m most taken by is the fact that writer/director Laurie Collyer gave Trejo a chance to do something completely different. There’s a scene in which Sherry literally throws herself at Dean, and the whole time, I was expecting Trejo to rip her clothes off and do something horrible. But this movie is above that. Instead, he holds her, he consoles her, he understands her.

For any Trejo fan, regardless if you’re only familiar with his action background, Sherrybaby is a must see. It presents a completely different side to an actor with seemingly little range.  It’s a quiet, tender and all-together remarkable performance.

Other Notable Roles
In Breaking Bad
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Reindeer Games (2000)
Spy Kids (2001)
The Salton Sea (2002)
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
Halloween (2007)
Breaking Bad (2009-2010)
Predators (2010)
Sons of Anarchy (2011)

Previous installments of In Character include:
William H. Macy
Campbell Scott
Kevin Pollak
Erland Josephson
Richard Jenkins
William Fichtner
Guy Pearce
Shea Whigham
Viola Davis
Gary Oldman
David Morse
Michael Shannon
Emily Mortimer
John Hawkes
Jeffrey Wright
Elias Koteas
David Strathairn


  1. Danny Trejo is one of my hombres. Dude is fucking cool. He can pretty much do anything and I'm glad you spotted his work in Sherrybaby because the dude has range.

    I also liked him in the Spy Kids movies because he gets to play the resourceful uncle who is also a badass. Another part I film I would like to mention that he's in is Blood In Blood Out where plays a top convict of this Latino group. It's a typical character that he plays but he does it so well.

  2. @thevoid99 Nice, glad to hear you're such a fan. He is good in the Spy Kids flicks, but the only one of those movies I remotely enjoy is the first one.

    Anyway, I haven't seen Blood In Blood Out, but if he's that good, I'll definitely give it a go.

  3. Great addition to the series! He is definetly one of these actors whom you can't forget - first because he is so characteristic and second because he appeared in so many productions, I mean the man even popped up in Desperate Housewives! For some reason I always prefered his character in Desperado than Machete, probably because being so mysterious and not speaking just fits Trejo the most.

  4. @Sati. He's everywhere isn't he? And that's one of the things that makes him so cool: he has one of the most distinctive faces in the movie business, yet he just pops up all over the place.

    I definitely prefer his Desperado character to his Machete character, but I still love 'em both.

  5. Alex, I totally forgot about his role in Sherrybaby. Nice one! The role that stands out for me is Heat. Like you say, he underplays the role and makes him a regular guy, which is why it works so well.

  6. @Dan Oh yeah, I love his Heat role. When De Niro asks the crew if they are positive that they want to take the bank down, and Trejo just goes, "Yeah man, whatever."


  7. Love Danny Trejo! Great write-up. He was excellent in all the movies you mentioned.

    He definitely helps out any movie.

  8. @Ty Ah completely agree. Really glad you dig him!

  9. Great article, I'm a huge Danny Trejo fan and love it when he shows up especially in Desperado and on various TV shows. He subbed in one show for Kevin Smith on one of his weekly shows and was absolutely brilliant, and told much of his early story regarding drugs and jail. I'm curious, how do you feel about Desperado overall?

  10. @BK Thanks man!

    Dude, I LOVE Desperado, I think it's one of the best action films to be made since its release. When Banderas and that guy are looking for weapons and attempting to shoot each other with empty guns, and Banderas just grabs the guy by the head and breaks his neck while yelling "FUCK YOU!" Fucking awesome.

    Desperado or Sin City are definitely my favorite Rodriguez flicks. Well, From Dusk Till Dawn also.

  11. Trejo is the man. Sherrybaby has been in my Netflix queue for ages, but I haven't had the chance to see it yet. Now I'm even more interested, knowing that Trejo is in it (as a normal dude, no less). Nice post, Alex.

  12. @Eric Thanks man. It's just... weird to see Trejo playing a kind, normal fella, but that's exactly what he is in Sherrybaby. A very brief but very memorable role.

  13. I think i need to watch Heat. Cause to me when i hear him referred to as a character actor i was kind of...confused. I haven't seen him play much else than badass, so i didn't think he had the versatility for that title. But it sounds like he demonstrates that versatility there.

    1. His role in Heat is definitely brief, but yeah, he's playing a role beyond his badassness. He's really good in it.

  14. If you really like Danny Trejo, you should check him out in the Playstation 2 video game- Def Jam Vendetta 2, where he plays himself, as a ruthless fighter......awesome!

  15. Replies
    1. Ha that does sound awesome. Now... if only I played video games...

  16. Does anyone know why Danny Trejo was not credited in HEAT?

    1. Not sure what you mean. He's listed in the end credits...