As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.
Fans know Danny Trejo for all the tough guys he's played in action movies like Machete and From Dusk Till Dawn. He's been cast as that kind of character since the start of his career — his very first role was as a convict in the 1985 film Runaway Train.
Trejo was perfect for the part. Before he was an actor, he was an inmate, serving time in prisons across California.
His crimes were committed to fund his drug addiction, Trejo says. Behind bars, he had a reputation as a fighter, boxing in tournaments in every institution he was in.
"Prison is all about status," Danny Trejo says. "If you're boxing, people are betting on you, so you automatically have a status."
When he was in Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, Calif., Trejo says, he was involved in a riot. It was alleged that he hit a guard in the head with a rock.
"So we got sent to the hole, and basically those are all gas chamber offenses," Trejo says.
"I just remember asking God to please let me die with dignity," he says. "And if he would do that, I would promise to say his name every day and help anybody I could anyway I can."
Trejo's charges were dropped because there were no witnesses willing to testify.
"Three thousand inmates, [and] they had no witnesses," he laughs. "And by the grace of God, I got out."
As a free man, Trejo dedicated his life to helping other people.
"I was a drug counselor, and one of the kids that I was working with, about 18 years old, he called me and said, 'Hey, I'm having a big problem down here, there's a lot of cocaine,' " he says.
So the former prisoner drove down to meet the young man. "He gave me the address to a warehouse, so I thought he worked in a warehouse," Trejo says.
As soon as he got there, Trejo realized it was a movie set. The film was Runaway Train, about two escaped convicts, played by Jon Voight and Eric Roberts.
After counseling the 18-year-old, Trejo was approached by someone from the movie set. The man asked Trejo if he wanted to be an extra in the film and if he was comfortable playing an inmate.
"I mean, I've been in every penitentiary in the state — it was kind of funny," Trejo says.
He told them he'd give it a shot. They handed him a shirt to wear, and Trejo pulled off his own shirt to change — a moment that led to his big break.
By taking off his shirt, Trejo revealed his prison tattoos, including one of a woman wearing a sombrero. Screenwriter Eddie Bunker immediately recognized it: Bunker himself had spent time in San Quentin State Prison, where he saw Trejo win a famous boxing tournament.
The screenwriter asked Trejo if he'd be up for training one of the actors how to fight.
"So I started training Eric Roberts how to box," Trejo says.
Director Andrey Konchalovskiy liked Trejo's style so much that he cast him in Runaway Train to fight Roberts in the ring — Trejo's film debut.
"It's like divine intervention," he says. "For me to meet Eddie Bunker on a movie set, it was amazing."
"When you talk about my big break, you know, I got a few of them in my life. Everything good that has ever happened to me has happened as a direct result of helping someone else," Trejo says. "Everything."
ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
Time now for the latest installment of our series My Big Break about career triumphs big and small. Danny Trejo is the tough guy in action movies like "Machete" and "From Dusk Till Dawn." His first role was playing a convict in the 1985 film "Runaway train" - He was perfect for the part. Before Trejo was an actor, he was an inmate doing time in prisons across California.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DANNY TREJO: I did drugs, alcohol, robberies, burglaries - whatever you had. Any way to make money when you're being pushed by a drug habit it's like you just don't care. Prison is all about status. Armed robber and your dope dealer, in prison, they have the biggest status, you know, goes down from there, you know what I mean? The boxer, the guy of your boxing - people were betting on you people - so you automatically have a status. I could box really good and so every prison I went to they would always - oh yeah, come on - I end up boxing, you know, I held lightweight and the welterweight championship in every institution I was in. There was a riot, and it was the (unintelligible) that I hit Lieutenant Givens in the head with a rock and so we got sent to the hole and, basically, those are all gas chamber fences. You know, I have a little reputation on the yard in prison so I just remembered asking God to please let me die with dignity and if he would do that I would promise to say his name every day, help anybody I could anyway I can. And was a DJ reject, had no witnesses it was no - 3,000 inmates they had no witnesses - nothing. (Laughing) And by the grace of God, you know, I got out and the, you know, I didn't look back. I dedicated my life to helping other people and I was a drug counselor and one of the kids that I was working with, was about 18 years old, he called me and said hey I'm having a big problem down here. There's a lot of - cocaine was like crazy, you know. So 11 o'clock at night I went down and I just started hanging out with him, you know? I was his support system that's it. He gave me the address to a warehouse so I thought he worked in a warehouse, you know? And I get there and he comes out - it's a movie set of a movie called "Runaway Train" with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "RUNAWAY TRAIN")
JON VOIGHT: (As Manny) You're going to get a job. That's what you're going to do you're going to get a little job some job a convict and get.
TREJO: I stand there, this guy comes up to me he says hey, hey do you want to be in this movie? And I says what do I got to do? And he says do you want to be an extra? And I said an extra what? And he says can you act like a convict? I says I'll give it a shot. I've been in every penitentiary in the state, it was kind of funny, you know? They gave me a blue shirt. I took off my shirt and he saw this big tattoo I have in my chest the, you know, it's like the most famous in the world. It's a Mexican lady with a sombrero. It's a charra - they were the ones that rode with Poncho Villa. This guy comes over and he says hey you're Danny Trejo. And I go, yeah. He says I saw you win the lightweight and welterweight title up at San Quinton it's a real famous fight. And I knew this guy, right. I say you're Eddie Bunker. I said hey, Eddie, what you doing here? He says Danny I adapted the screenplay. He says hey are you boxing? I said I train. He said we need somebody to train one of the actors how to box. And I started training Eric Robert how to box for the movie "Runaway Train." Me and Eric got along and the director saw that we got along. So he says, comes up to me - you find Eric, you'll be in movie, you fight Eric.
(SOUNDBITE FOR MOVIE, "RUNAWAY TRAIN")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Jab, punch.
TREJO: You know what, it's like a divine intervention, I think man. You know what I mean? 'Cause for me to me Eddie Bunker on a movie set is amazing. You know, when you talk about My Big Break, you know, I got a few of them in my life. Everything good that has ever happened to me has happened as a direct result of helping somebody else. Everything.
WESTERVELT: Actor Danny Trejo. By the way, he still works for a rehab center as director of patient relations. You don't have to be a movie star. We want to hear your story. Tell us your big break. We might just put you on the air. Send us an e-mail at my email@example.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.