Actor Danny Trejo came of age in the California prison system, doing time in a juvenile detention center as well as in San Quentin, Folsom and Soledad, on charges relating to drugs. He says that background prepared him well for acting.
"Standing on the yard in San Quentin, knowing that there's a riot coming, you're absolutely scared to death with every fiber of your body," Trejo says. "[But] you have to pretend you're not. You have to stand there and make everybody think you like it."
As an actor, he's made a name for himself by playing menacing characters on TV shows like Breaking Bad and in movies like Machete. He jokes that he's perfectly suited for the roles he's landed: "Somebody finally got it right! They're not using Marky Wahlberg to play the mean Chicano dude."
Trejo still returns to prisons to talk with inmates. His latest project is the documentary Survivors Guide To Prison, which focuses on injustices within the criminal justice system and highlights the cases of two men who spent decades behind bars for murders they didn't commit. The film is available for streaming on Amazon and iTunes.
On getting addicted to heroin at age 12
My uncle gave me a fix when I was about 12. ... In his defense, I got to say that I threatened to snitch on him if he didn't give me some. I caught him fixing and I said, "Give me some," and he said, "No." And I said, "Give me some or I'll tell." So basically he gave me some, and from there on I found, again, a euphoric area that I liked, that my brain liked, and I was off and running.
On experiencing violence and rage in prison
There's two types of people in prison: There's predator and prey. You have to decide every day which you're going to be, and it's that simple. The more intimidating [you are], the more people you have behind you. Because I never seen a fist fight in prison, you understand? It's so much easier to stab somebody and walk away — because if you get in a fight, if I sock you, you're going to sock me back, and then we're going to tussle and then [the guards are] going to shoot us. If I walk up behind you, stab you three times and walk away, I'm not going to get caught, and that is the idea: not to get caught.
Anger is probably something you don't have in prison. You don't have anger. You can't afford to get mad. If it is worth your time, then you go directly to rage. ... I can remember it's like, I've watched attorneys argue and I'm waiting for somebody to get socked. Wait a minute? You're not going to sock him? Because in prison, you don't get angry, you go directly to rage, because that's your defense. ...
The bottom line to an argument is a murder, so if you say something to me that I think is an attack or belittling, I have to think, is this worth killing him over? ... It only takes a split second.
On how he broke into acting
I was running around, trying to be an extra, getting some extra money ... they used to give you $50 bucks for being an extra. I ran into a good friend of mine, a guy named Eddie Bunker, who was a great writer and people don't know it. Eddie actually got famous because he could write writs [of habeas corpus] in prison. ...
I knew him for years, and when I ran into him on a movie called Runaway Train with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, he asked me if I was still boxing, because he saw me win the lightweight and welterweight title up in San Quentin. ... And I said, "Eddie, I'm 40 years old. I don't want to get hit in the face anymore. I train. I'm in shape." And he said, "We need somebody to train one of the actors how to box." And I said, "What's it pay?" And he said, "$320 a day," and I said, "How bad you want this guy beat up?"
$320 a day! That was more money than I was making in a week and I was a drug counselor, right? So he was like, "No, you gotta be real careful because the actor's real high-strung. He might sock you." I said, "Eddie, for $320 a day give him a stick. Are you crazy? I been beat up for free, homes." [So] I started training Eric Roberts how to box for the movie Runaway Train.
Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.