I've had the pleasure of chatting with Michael Peña on a couple different occasions before, and I'd be more than happy to talk to him many more times in the future, because each time you sit down with him, you know you're in for a real conversation as opposed to a series of canned answers that sometimes get regurgitated on a press tour when people are being asked the same questions over and over again.
This time, I was all set to talk to Peña about his supporting role in GANGSTER SQUAD. Peña plays Navidad Ramirez, a Mexican peacekeeper who is unable to find steady work in law enforcement due to his heritage, so he becomes a protege of sorts for an old gunhand played by Robert Patrick. I had a whole page lined up for him after doing my fair share of interview prep as usual, but all of that got tossed aside when topics like 30 MINUTES OR LESS and Jason Lee came up. At that point, you've just got to go with it, because a genuine chat winds up being far more interesting than a formal interview, so enjoy...
The Infamous Billy The Kidd - It’s good to see you again.
Michael Peña - I think I saw you last time... for END OF WATCH?
The Kidd - Yes.
Michael Peña - And before that... TOWER HEIST?
The Kidd - Ah, no. THIRTY MINUTES OR LESS.
Michael Peña - THIRTY MINUTES?
The Kidd - No wait, no, not THIRTY MINUTES... BATTLE: LOS ANGELES.
Michael Peña - BATTLE: LA. But not THIRTY MINUTES?
The Kidd - No, not THIRTY MINUTES. I talked to Jesse and Aziz for THIRTY MINUTES.
Michael Peña - Oh yeah. Those guys are a riot. I love that movie, dude.
The Kidd - It’s... you know what, it’s funny, it’s just one of those films where people who saw it dug it, and people who didn’t missed out on it.
Michael Peña - Well dude, it was funny because that movie... I always go for the script first, I’ve told you every time we’ve been in here. But it’s true, like, “Oh, I’ve gotta do this movie.” And that was one of the movies that I’m like, “Oh man, I’ve gotta do this movie.” And when it came out I’m like... A lot of it is luck and timing as well...
The Kidd - Well yeah... Especially when it’s not overly written so comedic. It’s in the performances...
Michael Peña - It’s in the nuances, yeah...
The Kidd - So, yeah. You have this character that’s, at that point...
Michael Peña - Crazy.
The Kidd - Well, totally different from the stuff you’ve done.
Michael Peña - Well that was also the reason I was excited. It was actually written for this big black guy to come in. That’s how it was written... And I asked my agency, “Can I take a crack at this?” And it was funny, because it came out and... Sometimes it’s different advertising or something that happens in life that people aren’t necessarily interested in a movie... But it made its money back, and it was good... Then it went out on DVD and video on demand and all that stuff and I remember going to Coachella, and then people were quoting me...
The Kidd - Really?
Michael Peña - I mean even on Twitter. Like right now. Literally I got like 30... When it just plays on cable or whatever, they’re like “The Satanic Hispanic, bro.”
The Kidd - It’s always amazing what home video... well not home video now... What DVD and Blu-Ray will do for a movie that’s underseen, and then all of a sudden will kind of... blow up.
Michael Peña - Yeah. Because that’s what happened with OBSERVE AND REPORT and now it’s like a cult favorite. That’s another... Coachella is always my... where I test it out at, you know? Depending on what movie you have... Now it seems to be that END OF WATCH is what people really enjoyed. But now I have GANGSTER SQUAD. And this is another one where I just wanted to be in the movie. It was tough because I just got through starring in END OF WATCH, but I was like, “Dude this is going to be a kickass movie.”
The Kidd - Well plus... It’s a total tonal shift to go from something...
Michael Peña - That’s another reason why, too. Because I think I literally busted my ass for END OF WATCH and... like... dude, that was one of the hardest... I worked so hard for that one. And then, this one, being a big movie, and being a more fun movie, but still really awesome and the script was great... That I was like, “Oh, okay, cool.” It was almost like a mini-vacation. Like, going around with Josh Brolin and Sean Penn and... Gosling is really funny... They all have their own sense of humor. Anthony Mackie is one of the funniest people alive.
The Kidd - I talked to Ruben earlier this week and that was one of the things he pointed out to me. He’s like... “Anthony Mackie is HILARIOUS.”
Michael Peña - Dude... He's like [Anthony Mackie impression], "Cut the check." Yeah, he’s a funny, funny dude. I would like to see him star in a comedy. I’d go watch that.
The Kidd - Yeah, especially now, he’s kind of built this very serious on-screen persona around him that... I think people aren't necessarily expecting something... Him to be so funny on screen, because you haven’t seen him do anything like that
Michael Peña - Yeah, but you know what’s weird? I did MILLION DOLLAR BABY with him, and we worked for two weeks and that guy had me rolling... That was... eight years ago? And y’know, that’s great, but that guy just hasn’t changed, and he’s gotten a lot of success. But anyway, he’s part of the Gangster Squad, too, so it evens it out. You know who’s funny, too? Giovanni Ribisi...
The Kidd - That would not surprise me at all. He did TED last year...
Michael Peña - Ohhhh! That’s right! He’s killer in that, dude!
The Kidd - And I remember watching him on MY NAME IS EARL...
Michael Peña - I did an episode of MY NAME IS EARL.
The Kidd - Yeah, which was a hilarious show! Because I love Jason Lee and it was a really interesting concept. I watched that one through to the end.
Michael Peña - Yeah, he's a buddy. My girlfriend used to go out with this guy Steve Berra, who was like a pro skater, and I used to skate when I was a kid. So I’m like, “Bro! Dude, what’s up?” And the I met Eric Koston and Jason Lee... I forgot who he was signed to... But yeah, I knew Jason Lee and then he became an actor, and I was like, “Wow, this is awesome.” And he became like a really interesting actor, too.
The Kidd - Yes. He started out doing the Kevin Smith stuff early, and then he kind of found... He kind of plugged his way in and figured out what works for him...
Michael Peña - MY NAME IS EARL was such a departure from what he did... because he’s super real in the Kevin Smith movies and he’s all like... [Jason Lee impression] "My name is Earl."
The Kidd - Yeah, it was really white trashy, and not in a... not in a stereotypical way. There are things about it that will play to...
Michael Peña - It reminded me more of like a Coen Brothers... You know, like... RAISING ARIZONA was awesome...
The Kidd - Yes.
Michael Peña - It’s one of my favorite movies of all time.
The Kidd - It’s before Nicolas Cage went super crazy.
Michael Peña - Yeah. I mean we’re all crazy... It’s just... When are people going to realize that I’m crazy, y’know?
The Kidd - Let me... I know in terms of GANGSTER SQUAD you have all these... Well for me what kind of really made the film was this secondary group. Like you know you have Brolin, you know you have Gosling, who are... they get all the glory and they’re the muscle and everything... But what always makes or breaks these movies is the entourage. The outside guys. Because that’s where the personality comes from. Whether it’s Robert Patrick, or you, or Anthony Mackie, or Giovanni Ribisi, those are where the moments come where the film tends to pop. So can you just... I know you said it was a shift to go from END OF WATCH to something like this but I would imagine just professionally and personally that it would kind of be awesome to be on a set like this where you’re bringing in all these guys with Sean Penn and Brolin and Gosling...
Michael Peña - Right. Well the thing is, too... Well you’ve gotta remember, I had END OF WATCH, that I co-starred in, then I had GANGSTER SQUAD, because I knew that I was going to do CHAVEZ... starting that one. And I knew that was going to be a tough shoot. But Robert Patrick... super fun dude. And Anthony Mackie and whatever... And I think you’re right, and that’s why I want to be in these kind of movies anyway. I love starring in movies and stuff... who doesn’t? Well, actually, some people don’t.
The Kidd - They just want to do...
Michael Peña - No, they don’t like the pressure or they don’t like...
The Kidd - The attention and the spotlight and everything that comes with that?
Michael Peña - Yeah, maybe? Or maybe they just don’t like... some people love being character actors and just blowing it out of the park every scene, but when you’re starring in a movie, sometimes you’ve gotta... It’s just life? And then there’s certain scenes, like five or six scenes in the movie that you really pop. And some people just... some can’t do it or whatever. I don’t know if that’s true... But in this one, you’re like, “Okay, cool.” It just seemed like a real gangster squad. It didn’t seem like these guys and then the Gangster Squad. It seemed like a real Gangster Squad.
The Kidd - Yeah. It’s not just like, “Here’s the two stars, and here’s a bunch of guys in the background.” It’s like, “Okay, this guy will have his moment, and then this guy will have his moment, and this guy will have his moment.”
Michael Peña - Yeah. For instance like Ryan Gosling has that thing with Emma Stone, so that’s why they have their own storyline, but as far as the Gangster Squad? It felt like a real squad. At least that’s the way it read in the script. But it’s funny, because it’s kind of the toughest thing to do, to have like three lines in a scene, y’know? Because everyone had like three, four lines in a scene, especially when we’re all together, it’s like "Dadda da," then "Dadda da," then "Dadda da."And sometimes that dance can be difficult, so you need good actors... Oddly enough, some of it was even harder than END OF WATCH, where we were just yapping at the mouth. Like this one it had a lot of timing and just a lot of... give and go.
The Kidd - How did your training for other films help with this? Because you still have... not fight training, but you have to do a little bit of stunt work, the weapons work, whatever. Did it make it an easy transition for you, doing END OF WATCH and a lot of the other cop movies you’ve done in the past where you’ve handled firearms and stuff like that.
Michael Peña - You know, it’s weird, it felt like END OF WATCH was the first cop movie. Because... I portrayed a port authority police officer in WORLD TRADE CENTER. Never once pulled out a gun. I’m buried in the rubble, and it’s all about trying to stay alive. Here, like in END OF WATCH, we were in the streets, and I trained for five months for that thing, dude. Like every week... Over 30 ride alongs... And we actually believed we were police officers. And this one, there was hardly any training necessary. And plus, you’ve gotta understand, today they’re even like the athletes, they’re running with oxygen masks on so they can run longer, and it’s a little bit different training now than it was back in the day. I think it was a little looser back in the day, at least that’s what it seems like, but this is a different kind of movie anyway. This is a big fun.. It’s gritty and raw, but when I read the script I was like, “Wow, this is a big movie.” Even though every other scene isn’t a car chase or some action sequence, it just felt like a big movie. So I think you’ve gotta go into the projects knowing what you’re doing. If you’re trying to be super real, you’re actually detached from the project a bit.
The Kidd - I think thats one of the things that’s throwing people a little bit off about the film a little bit, I think... tonally it’s not something you’d initially expect. Some people are going in thinking it’s kind of like L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. And it’s nothing even close to that. When you sit down and you’re kinda like, “Okay I see where they’re going for,” it’s totally different.
Michael Peña - Yeah, we just had the premiere and that’s what a bunch of agents said... sometimes they can be a little cynical because they watch so many damn movies... But I think audiences should understand that it’s from the guy who did ZOMBIELAND. And the guy that did THIRTY MINUTES OR LESS. And I like his style of... It’s fun and it’s cool and it’s like... Ruben Fleischer... His movies, I think they’re meant to please. But still, even when I did THIRTY MINUTES OR LESS, he wanted to keep the tone very real. But at the same time in a way heightened, like in... even Ryan’s part. Getting in trouble with the girl that he likes. That’s... It’s a little bit bigger than reality, I think.
The Kidd - Yeah. Which is probably an excellent way of putting it. “Yes, there is a realistic tone to it, BUT...”
Michael Peña - It’s larger than life.
The Kidd - You have to take it... To turn it up a little bit.
Michael Peña - Yeah, that’s what it is. We started with reality and turned it up. I think that’s what makes these kinds of movies fun. I don’t know if necessarily people want to really get brought to like a dark place with this particular kind of movie. I don’t know if it would work as well, to be honest.
The Kidd - I don’t know... If it was more... At that point I think it would play like other films. It would play very much like THE UNTOUCHABLES at that point. It shares elements at some points but at that point you’re like, we’ve already been down that path, we’ve already seen that movie. So this takes that and turns it up a little bit.
Michael Peña - Yeah, but even for me, if you think about it, you had THE GODFATHER right before that, and stuff like THE FRENCH CONNECTION and stuff like that... And then THE UNTOUCHABLES was lighter. Was actually a lighter movie in comparison to those kinds of movies. But this is a different time...
The Kidd - Well yeah, you look at THE GODFATHER and you’re totally taking it seriously, and then you’d take THE UNTOUCHABLES... De Niro has that scene with the bat... There’s somewhat of a comedic element. It’s funny without necessarily being funny.
Michael Peña - This is one like SCARFACE, I think. Where it’s like the big characters, like Mickey Cohen. And then you have like Al Pacino in this one. I picture it more like that, because when I first saw SCARFACE, it was entertaining, but it was big. [Al Pacino SCARFACE impression] “I’m Tony Montana!” Y’know what I mean? That guy? And here’s like, [Sean Penn/Mickey Cohen impression] “I’m Mickey Cohen...” To me, SCARFACE is a fun movie. It’s totally the opposite of GODFATHER.
The Kidd - Oh absolutely.
Michael Peña - And that’s... I think of this one as more of a SCARFACE thing, or like a Quentin Tarantino thing... vibe. That’s how I look at this movie, and I was just like, “I want to be part of this one.”
The Kidd - You have a “Cool guys don’t look at explosions” moment with the car... how difficult is that? To walk away from an exploding car and know that, “We’re getting the shot. I can’t flinch. I can’t turn around.” How hard is that... not as an actor, just as a person to be like “holy shit, there’s an exploding car...”
Michael Peña - It’s pretty exciting, dude. Because it was one of the first shots that we did. I think it was the first week of shooting, and we just got through beating guys up or whatever... And it’s kind of like a cool introduction to... I knew what kind of movie I was doing, so to be walking away? It feels pretty cool. Because you’re like... You don’t want to get burned. And you’ll know, if your hair's on fire, that it’s probably not a good thing, but walking away... But they show us what the fire is going to be... But you’re walking pretty quick, dude. [Laughs] If you see the crane shot out the... We've gotta hurry up a little bit more because we’re like, ”Nyrrr!” Inside you’re just a little like... “I just don’t want to get burned.” I think it was a cool shot and then when i saw it, finally, I was like, “Wow, that’s really, really awesome.” When you see the four guys... Ryan’s here, but you really see the four guys and then they reveal him, which is cool, but then we’re all facing the fire. I thought it was one of those cool shots.
The Kidd - Let me just ask you one more quick thing about CHAVEZ, because I know that’s... I don’t know if you’re shooting now or if it’s in the process of...
Michael Peña - We just finished.
The Kidd - When are we supposed to expect it, if you know that? And I guess going back to a tonal shift, how do you prepare for a role like that, and how do you prepare to not only make it a good film, but also to make it respectful of the real life man that’s the source, I guess?
Michael Peña - I did a lot of research, but the thing that i mainly focused on was his movement and his voice. I tried to do it like myself for months, and we shot in May, but really I got it like in January sometime... January, February... And I was just preparing, preparing, preparing, and I was like, it’s not working. And me and Diego [Luna] said, “Look, dude, I don’t want to make a boring biopic. We were in search of doing a film.” And the story is good enough that it’s going to take care of itself, so we’re focusing on the man and what we actually had to give up in order to have a movie like this. So I focused on the voice... And what’s interesting is that then the dialogue was ten times easier to do. He has this nasally voice with this old-school kind of style, like back in the day they’re like, “I know what you’re talkin’ about.” Like that kind of thing. But he actually spoke as... [Cesar Chavez voice] “The people that say...” Like that’s how he speaks. So I just... lot of speeches... lot of interviews... I just kept over and over and over again doing that... And I gained like 30 pounds for the movie. And that was right after END OF WATCH and GANGSTER SQUAD, which I was in shape... and I’m still trying to shed the pounds from that, because I finished like two months ago. And a lot of talks about how we can make things interesting. Because once you have a good script, you actually want people to enjoy the movie, as opposed to just doing some actor stuff that you know is cool. Like, “Wow, it’s a great performance,” or “Great movie, but I didn’t understand what it was about.” And you don’t want people to walk away with that.
The Kidd - Alright, thank you very much.
Michael Peña - Yeah, dude.
The Kidd - Congrats on the Spirit Award nomination. I’m sure you’re psyched about that.
Michael Peña - Yeah. Yeah, it’s pretty big for me, so I’m pretty stoked about it.
The Kidd - Thank you very much man. I appreciate it.
Michael Peña - Have a good one, dude.
GANGSTER SQUAD opens in theatres today, January 11.
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