From prison to profits: Danny Trejo's secret — don't act like a movie star

Danny Trejo's recognizable, craggy face is everywhere in Hollywood. He has appeared in hundreds of films and TV shows over the last 30 years, ever since he was discovered helping out as a youth drug counselor on a movie set.

He's portrayed several memorable characters, but Hollywood has missed out on casting Trejo in an even better role: His own story.

"I started smoking weed at age 8," said the former star of "Machete" and "Bad Ass" before adding, "I went to juvenile hall so many times, I thought Mexicans were supposed to go."

Actor Danny Trejo.
Getty Images
Actor Danny Trejo.

How a guy went from being a child alcoholic and drug dealer who spent years in and out of prison, who then turned into one of the most sought-after and beloved actors in Tinseltown, is nothing short of miraculous.

Which is exactly the point.

"That's the biggest thing, especially in an acto, is ego," said Trejo. "E-G-O, edging God out. So if I'm running around on ego, I'm by myself, I've got no God, and that was a tough one."

Even in prison you need a high school diploma

Trejo's life of crime landed him in prison twice. While there, he met someone who encouraged him to live a life that was clean and sober. So after leaving prison for the last time more than 40 years ago, "before I did anything else, I went to a meeting," Trejo said, "and I started going to meetings, I started surrounding myself with people who had my best interests at heart, not theirs."

Trejo believes in what he calls "education over incarceration," admitting that he didn't get his high school diploma until he was serving time in San Quentin. An incident there made him recall his fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Findlay, who always nagged him about getting a diploma, telling him that without one, "You'll never amount to anything!" Trejo's initial reaction? "Shut up lady, I hated her!"

Yet once inside the legendary penitentiary, Trejo's friends encouraged him to apply for a prison job at the dry cleaner. His application was rejected. "My docket came back, 'This trade requires a high school diploma,'" Trejo said. "I swear to God I heard Mrs. Findlay say, 'I told ya, I told ya.' Even in prison you need a high school diploma!"

Movie stars suck

Trejo believes surrounding himself with the right people remains important. So is humility. "The whole world can think you're a movie star, but you can't," he said. "It's as simple as that, because the minute you think you're movie star, people start not liking you. Because movie stars suck!"

Still, fans treat him like a movie star, and he doesn't hesitate to pose for pictures or sign autographs, especially at Trejo's Tacos, the new restaurant he recently opened in Los Angeles. The actor — a well-known animal lover — describes the menu as "vegan friendly," though meat is served as well (he also revealed the best drink to go with a spicy taco is a cold glass of milk).

"My mom wanted to start a restaurant a long time ago," Trejo said, "but my mom came from an era where the woman worked in the kitchen, and every time she would talk about a restaurant, my dad would say, 'You've got a kitchen right there. Make something there.'"

Trejo said he told this story to crew members while on the set of "Bad Ass," when one of the producers suggested he open his own restaurant. The actor joked he could call it Trejo's Tacos. The producer didn't laugh. Instead, "he and his business partners came to me with a business plan."

You are not in control

Actor Danny Trejo
Getty Images
Actor Danny Trejo

Now the guy who spent much of his youth behind bars is a small businessman, a capitalist, an entrepreneur. Even so, he reminds himself to be humble. "It's really hard to tell an entrepreneur that they're not in control," Trejo said. "I wake up every morning, and I look at myself in the mirror, and I go, 'You're not in control.'"

Trejo may not be in control, but a life that was going nowhere has certainly turned itself around.

"I just want to be the best person I can be, and I want to leave any situation better than when I came in."