For Danny Trejo, acting was about more than fame — it was a way of surviving trauma, prison and death

Actor Danny Trejo has made a career out of playing bad guys and badasses, but his path to Hollywood could be a movie itself. He joined Q’s Tom Power to discuss his new memoir about surviving incarceration, finding sobriety, helping others and landing his first big film role.

The actor’s new memoir recounts his life story, from prison to redemption to Hollywood

Danny Trejo looks into the camera.
Actor Danny Trejo joined Q’s Tom Power to discuss his new memoir, Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood. (Gloria Hinojosa)

Warning: This story contains discussion about violence and abuse.

Danny Trejo, 77, has made a career out of playing bad guys and badasses in films like Desperado, Heat and Machete, but his path to Hollywood could be a movie itself.

Before becoming a star, Trejo had a difficult life. He suffered abuse as a child, became a heroin addict as a teenager and spent more than a decade in and out of prison, where he often feared for his safety. He opens up about his extraordinary journey in a new memoir, Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood, co-written with longtime friend and actor Donal Logue.

Trejo's memoir is available in both English and Spanish. (Atria Books)

"I think I just had to say, 'Wait a minute. The guy you see on screen and the guy you've seen in interviews, you know, it's not the whole picture,'" Trejo told Q's Tom Power.

For the actor, the writing process was an emotional one. He realized he had many painful memories that he had never spoken about publicly, but felt the need to share. "We're only as sick as our secrets," he said. "That's the one thing that I've always lived by."

Looking back on his life helped him come to terms with his trauma, including abuse by his family. Trejo remembers his father choking him awake at seven years old, but not quite understanding why. "I thought that was, you know, you were bad so you got smacked," he said.

At the age of eight, Trejo's uncle introduced him to marijuana and then heroin a few years later. "I didn't know that was abuse — I thought it was sharing," he told Power. "And the same thing with heroin.… But that's not the way kids are supposed to grow up."

WATCH | Danny Trejo's full interview with Tom Power:

Acting to survive

Trejo said he learned how to act long before his film career started. "Acting wasn't new to me," he writes in his memoir. "I'd acted to survive my childhood."

When it came to his relationship with his father, Trejo would act as if the abuse and neglect he experienced didn't hurt him. "I would act like I didn't care," he said. "Who cares? You know, I don't care. I didn't want that hug anyway. [It] didn't matter."

In the 1960s, Trejo was incarcerated in three different California prisons: Folsom, Soledad and San Quentin. Again, he found himself acting to survive.

There's two kinds of people in prison: there's predator and there's prey — and that's it.- Danny Trejo

"You're standing on the yard in San Quentin and you know there's going to be a riot and you're holding a knife in your belt and you're praying to God, 'Please don't let this come down,'" he recounted. "Yet you're acting not afraid. You're acting like, 'I'll kill anybody [who] gets near me.' And yet there's a knot in your stomach that's almost begging God, 'Please let's lock us up.'"

Reflecting on his 11 years of incarceration, Trejo said he saw his instincts change as he adjusted to dealing with other incarcerated people. He said in prison, the outcome of any argument is murder, and there's no such thing as a fair fight.

"There's two kinds of people in prison: there's predator and there's prey — and that's it," he said. "I would rather be on the top of a pile of shit than on the bottom, you know?"

Trejo's turning point came in 1968 when he was in solitary confinement at Soledad, where he anticipated the death penalty. That day, he made a deal with God.

"Dear heavenly Father, let me die with dignity," he recalled saying in his prayers. "I'll say Your name every day and I'll do whatever I can for my fellow inmate." The use of the word "inmate" was intentional, as he assumed he would be spending the rest of his life behind bars. 

But in a twist of fate, the charges against Trejo were dropped, and he was released. He decided to get sober and devote himself to helping recovering addicts by becoming a drug counsellor — something he still does to this day.

Catching his first Hollywood break

In 1985, Trejo visited the set of the movie Runaway Train to meet a young man who needed help with sobriety. Thanks to his tattooed appearance and gravelly voice, he was spotted almost immediately and given a role as an extra, marking the beginning of his new career.

On that same set, he was offered $320 a day to train actor Eric Roberts how to box. At first, Trejo thought he was being asked to beat Roberts up.

Since then, he's become one of Hollywood's most prolific character actors, with more than 300 credits to his name. He still embraces the spirit of giving back as a way of maintaining his own sobriety and showing gratitude for making it out of the prison system.

"There's hope. It doesn't matter where you start. It matters where you end," he said. "Everything good that has happened to me happened as a direct result of helping someone else. So the more good you put out, the more good you get. It's that simple."

Hear the full interview with Danny Trejo near the top of this page.

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Produced by Danielle Grogan.