Nothing about Danny Trejo is what you might expect, including his secret to success.
“Everything good that’s happened to me is a direct result of me helping other people,” says Trejo, 75, whose surprisingly compact 5-foot-6 frame—clad in all black, his long dark hair hanging loose alongside a silver cross necklace—is tucked inside a booth at the Hollywood hub of his booming taco business, Trejo’s Cantina.
His soft-spoken reflectiveness and fondness for high-fives belie a life that could have gone very differently: Born to Mexican-American parents in Los Angeles, Trejo spent most of his young-adult life in and out of California prisons for drugs and robberies. It was during that time and since then that he honed his boxing talents (a helpful skill in venues like San Quentin), got sober at 25, became a prolific character actor, and, from working as a youth drug counselor and motivational speaker, discovered how much he loves giving back.
Today, Trejo’s iconic craggy visage fronts eight Trejo’s Tacos locations across Los Angeles, and the eats are a hit: The Los Angeles Times named the rainbow cauliflower tacos on its 2017 list of 10 favorite recipes; the Cantina location serves around 500 diners a day on weekends; and there’s talk of expanding the business, which now includes a doughnut shop, outside California. (He’s also recently launched Trejo’s Cerveza, currently for sale at L.A.-area Whole Foods and Total Wine.) Somehow Trejo also still has time for acting: He’ll soon add 20-plus roles to his nearly 300-credit film and TV résumé, including a second Machete sequel and August’s Dora and the Lost City of Gold, in which he voices a monkey named Boots, a role Trejo says proudly “will give me a whole new audience.”
Fortune chatted with Trejo in early July about his food-mogul renaissance, his adventures in Hollywood, and how he learned to channel a misspent youth into a force for good.
Fortune: Trejo’s Tacos feels like an L.A. institution, yet it’s only three years old. What inspired you to get into the restaurant business?
Trejo: My mom was a gourmet cook. When I around 12, I’d say, “We should start a restaurant,” but my dad was like a Mexican Archie Bunker. “Hey, we’ve got a kitchen right there!” [Laughs] Seven years ago I did a low-budget movie called Bad Ass, and one of the producers, Ash Shah, noticed that I didn’t like junk food. I am pretty picky! A few movies later, Ash says, “Danny, you should start a restaurant.” He created a business plan for Trejo’s Tacos. My team said, “If nobody’s asking you to front 50 grand, seems like a good idea!” We opened, and it totally blew up. Two years ago we opened the doughnut shop, and we sell out by 2 p.m. every day.
Anthony Bourdain raved about your tacos when he filmed Parts Unknown here in 2017. What was that day like for you?
Amazing. He joked, “You’re Mexican and you have a cauliflower taco?” He loved it. At around five or six o’clock at night, you’ll see a lot families coming in here. One woman told me, “Thank God for this place.” The kids can be gluten-free, mom can be vegetarian, and Dad can have cow!
What’s your favorite thing on the menu?
I love the nachos with steak and two eggs on top for breakfast.
Your latest incarnation as a restaurateur is another twist in an already surreal career. To what do you attribute your staying power?
I have good people around me. The same agent for 25 years. I met my assistant Mario at San Quentin when I made a movie there, and he was a prisoner. He’s been with me for 15 years.
You were discovered while working as a boxing coach on the set of the 1985 Jon Voight movie Runaway Train. But it wasn’t until you were cast as the knife-throwing Navajas in your cousin Robert Rodriguez’s 1995 film Desperado that you started to play substantial roles. Is it true you didn’t know you were related until shooting began?
We first met when I auditioned in L.A. He said, “You remind me of the bad guys in my high school.” I said, “I am the bad guys from your high school!” Then we filmed in Acu?a, Mexico. My family from San Antonio visited the set. My Uncle Rudy says, “Who’s that?” I say, “Robert Rodriguez, the director.” He whistles at Robert, “Hey! Say hello to your second cousin Danny!” I was like, “What’s up, cousin? Make my role bigger!” But he didn’t. He said, “Danny, you can do more with your face than most actors can with dialogue.” I’m walking around with no shirt, all these tattoos, people asking for my autograph. Robert says, “They think you’re the star.” I said, “You mean I’m not?” Nobody really knew [lead actor] Antonio Banderas at the time. He was quiet—unlike me. [Laughs]
Robert went on to create the vigilante-hero character Machete for you. How did he evolve from a minor character in the Spy Kids franchise to fronting two, soon-to-be three features?
After he put Uncle Machete in Spy Kids, Robert did the Grindhouse movies [with director Quentin Tarantino], and they needed fake movie trailers. One was for a Machete movie. At the premiere, everybody was like, “You have to do that movie.” Machete was the first Mexican superhero. I was almost in tears when I saw 8-year-old kids dressed like him on Halloween.
Of all the people you’ve worked with, when have you felt the most starstruck?
With Robert De Niro, when we did Heat. Then Robert [Rodriguez] somehow got him to do Machete! I see him on the set and he says, “Well, well, well, number one on the call sheet now, eh?” I was like, “Can I get you some coffee, Mr. De Niro?” [Laughs]
For what roles are you most often recognized when you’re out in the world? Seeing your severed head on a turtle in season two of Breaking Bad left quite an impression with fans.
Spy Kids. Machete. Anchorman. Bubble Boy. And every Mexican I know loves Blood In, Blood Out. For Breaking Bad, I remember my agent saying, “Danny, you’re going to have a Hollywood first: You’re going to go across the desert on a turtle.” I’m thinking it’s a cartoon, or a really big turtle? “Actually, no. It’s just your head.” [Laughs]
A lot of your roles lean campy, but you’ve also acted in serious films like Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Sherrybaby about a mother who’s a drug-addicted ex-con. When did you think to yourself, “Wait, I can actually act?”
I’m a drug counselor at a place called Western Pacific Rehab. A few years ago, my son Gilbert cast me in a drug-themed movie he wrote called From a Son. There’s a scene where I break down and cry. I’d never had to do that in a movie. I was thinking I’d do a John Wayne, tough-guy thing, but my son…shit, he’s so brilliant. He reminded me of stuff from when he was young. He showed me a picture of us from 1985, when he was a little baby. Then, I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t even cry at my parents’ funerals.
Did you surprise yourself in that moment?
Completely. I thought, “Wow, okay, this must be acting.”
Your son is named after your Uncle Gilbert, who you’ve said led you down a path of crime when you were a teenager. What do you remember about that time?
My dad came from a family of 11, and Gilbert was the youngest. He was only six years older than me. I had no siblings, so he was like my older brother. Unfortunately, he was also an armed robber and a drug addict. He showed me how to rob when I was 14. He gave me a sawed-off shotgun and put me in front of a mirror to practice. “Give me your money, bitch. I’ll slap you!”
Your first acting job.
[Laughs] Yes. We robbed an Asian grocery store together called Far East Market in Burbank. We had a revolver, but you had to hold it just so or it would fall apart. I go, “Give me the money! Give me the money!” The woman gives me $8 from the cash register. I grabbed it, and we ran down Lankershim as this guy comes out of the back, screaming, with a hatchet!
How do you feel now about the crimes you committed?
I feel regret. I’ve never been mean, but I’ve also never let anybody take advantage of me. In prison you’re predator or prey. My friend Cookie and I had a protection ring for young kids coming in, including for gay couples who’d been married on the streets. When I got out of the pen, I’d get cards from kids we protected. Their parents also said thank you.
Did your own parents live to see your success?
My mom did. My dad saw me get sober but never saw me get into acting. He would have laughed. Even my mom was like, “Get a job, mijo,” even after I’d worked with Robert De Niro in Heat! She did get excited when I was on The Young and the Restless in 2008. She had four of her friends over to watch, and they were like, “Oh, my God.” That was it. I’d made it.
Over the years you’ve appeared in dozens of commercials and ads—selling products from Snickers to AARP—and you’re now a spokesman for the erectile dysfunction product Giddy. What appealed to you about tackling that taboo subject?
We don’t talk anything in our society—condoms in high school, birth control. We definitely don’t talk about erectile dysfunction, especially in the Hispanic community. I don’t know a man who hasn’t experienced it. I think it’s like everything I do—teaching people to neuter their dogs, warning kids about drugs you need to show them you’re cool. You need a face like this to get through to them. Not so much as “Danny Trejo” but the guy from Spy Kids, the guy from Heat, the guy from Desperado. People think, “Okay, I want to hear what this guy has to say.”