Simply put, the great actor Michael Peña is one of the good ones. He can play anything from ridiculous comedy (OBSERVE AND REPORT, 30 MINUTES OR LESS, TOWER HEIST) to intense dramas such as CRASH, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, "The Shield," WORLD TRADE CENTER, BABEL, THE LUCKY ONES, and last year's magnificent, raw END OF WATCH. But the one thing Peña has never done up to this point is a voice for an animated feature, a streak that ends this week with the release of TURBO, a film about a snail that races in the Indianapolis 500. I know, it sounds silly, but it's actually kind of cute.
Peña plays Tito, a guy who sells tacos out of a truck with his brother Angelo (Luis Guzmán), who meets the high-speed snail Turbo (voice by Ryan Reynolds) and figures out a way to boost business by aligning their food selling to Turbo's racing career. Also lending their voices to TURBO are Paul Giamatti, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Richard Jenskins, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez, Ben Schwartz, and even Snoop Dogg.
And while we talk a while about TURBO, Peña's dance card of films in post- and pre-production is quite full, and I wanted to talk as much about the array of movies we're going to see him over the next couple of year as I did about his latest work. Peña is a really easy guy to talk to, and as you'll see, we get into all parts of his career, including diversion into some of his better-known older films. Enjoy my talk with Michael Peña…
Capone: Hello, sir.
Michael Peña: Hey, how’s it going?
Capone: We just did this like nine months ago.
MP: END OF WATCH, that’s right.
Capone: Because David [Ayer, director] was here last time, we pretty much just stuck to that movie, but you have so much coming up. You’re like the hardest working man in show business.
MP: I’d like to keep it that way. I’d like to keep it going, because there was a time that I didn’t have anything going. I yearn for work, and every time I was on set I was trying to make the most of it, which is a good thing and a bad thing. Like if you’ve got one scene, you’re supposed to service the story, but I was trying to make like a dollar out of 15 cents.
Capone: But people caught on, so the plan worked.
MP: Yeah, I guess my training was more of a survival instinct, where you just want to be a good storyteller and if you’re not, you’re going to be out of luck.
Capone: I’m curious. I think a lot of people really took notice of you because of WORLD TRADE CENTER, but you had been doing stuff before that. Do you remember a smaller role where you were pushing it and then watching it later, you were like, “Wow, I almost went a little too far.”
MP: Well, CRASH I was proud of, but going too far? I think anything before CRASH, I was trying a little too hard, and that’s when I told myself “Alright buddy, you know what you’re going to do? You’re going to keep it cool, man.” [laughs]
Capone: When you were on "The Shield" though, that was before WORLD TRADE CENTER, right?
MP: That was before.
Capone: Because that’s where I remember thinking, "I'm going to remember this guy's name from now on."
MP: I did "The Shield" and then CRASH came out, and then two months later I was working on WORLD TRADE CENTER. I actually had a good audition for "The Shield," and they brought me back and they said, “We just want to check certain kind of levels for police work,” and thank god they were able to give me the part.
Capone: Alright, let’s talk a little about this movie. I’m sure this is not how it happened, but the way I imagine you getting cast in this is they brought it to you, and you’re like “Okay, it’s animated. Whatever.” Then they said, “Oh and by the way, Luis Guzman is going to be your brother.” “I’ll take it!”
MP: Absolutely! [laughs] No, what happened is that I asked my agent. I was like, “Hey man, my son really likes these movies. Can I get into any animated movies?” I will watch these time and time again, and my kid will know every part. So I sometimes skip forward at night, so that we can get him to bed earlier. You know, like if he’s an hour into something, I’ll skip forward a couple of times, and he’s like “Dada? This is too early. Roger wasn’t going in.” I’m like, “Oh man, he really knows everything.” He knows all the parts, so now I have to say, “We’re either going to skip forward or we will stop in the middle,” and so now he knows. But basically I wanted to do something where I wanted to be the cool dad for my kid.
Capone: So this is the first time you’ve done animation?
MP: Yeah, the first one like this. The other ones were for like "American Dad," but this is the first one where I had a good part in it. I did something ARTHUR CHRISTMAS, but it got cut. We were doing something really cool, but it didn’t work out at the end, so they had to change the performance.
Capone: And you also have another animated coming out at some point, HELL & BACK?
MP: Yeah, but that one’s rated R. I’m not going to have my kid watch that.
Capone: It looks more adult oriented, yeah.
MP: Then I’m also working with those same guys again, or at least with Danny McBride and those guys, on this series [for the new FXX channel] called "Chozen," and I’m one of the rappers, and some of the jokes are pretty gnarly. Again, I wouldn’t let my kid see it.
Capone: Another animated thing?
MP: Yeah, it’s animated, but it’s only for adults.
Capone: Did you find when you were doing TURBO, are you pretty active and physical in the recording booth?
MP: Yeah, very much, because I didn’t study voice and projecting, so I have no idea. I worked at it the best I could, but I found out that the only time they were able to say “Okay, let’s move on to the next one” is when I’d really act it out and then just direct my attention and my voice to the microphone. But then what happens with me is that then I get into the moment, and it feels like real acting, and then I’m able to improvise. It’s funny, it’s like little things start popping up with my imagination and it’s like, “You know what would be cool? If we did this and that,” and they’d use a lot of my ideas, so I was really excited.
Capone: When you first came in to record, did they have any designs to show you?
MP: They showed me “Tito” right off the bat, and he's this chubby Mexican dude. He looked really happy [Laughs] So I imitated that a little, and that’s where [in Tito's higher-pitched voice] “Que pasa, my friend? Oh yeah!” I guess that expression really helped me out, because I was like “What would he say?” and he’s like “Que pasa, my friend.”
Capone: That idea that there are these two sets of brothers [the humans and the snails], and one brother is more of the brains and the other one is more impulsive and more about action. I love that juxtaposition. That’s a great way to start a friendship.
MP: Yeah, and also, I do have that brother in that I was the guy who was like, “I’m going to be an actor” and he’s like “Dude, you know we’re broke, right? And you want to stay broke?” I think half the people, my friends growing up, are alive, and “Who’s going to think of being an actor?” But I had these crazy dreams of “One day, I’m either going to be a professional athlete” and I wasn’t that athletic. So I did have those dreams and I struggled a lot and my parents and brother were like, “Hey buddy, why don’t you come home?” I’m like, “I don’t want to come home. I think I’m fine.”
Capone: That story also plays into that underdog theme that’s running through this movie. It’s not just about the dreamer living out his dream; it’s also about an underdog coming into his own.
MP: Yeah, and getting his. I related to that. I thought, “What a great message for kids,” and also that my kid is actually going to be watching this. I do want to have my kid maybe, hopefully, be inspired, and at dinner he was drawing the Turbo snail.
Capone: So he’s seen it?
Capone: Did you tell him that you were in it, or did you just take him to it?
MP: I did. I said, “You’re going to have to guess which character is me.” Right when the movie started, he didn’t want to guess at all; he just wanted to see the movie. I was like “Roman, that’s me.” "Not now." He just wanted me to shut up.
Capone: I was really impressed with the photorealism in those race scenes. I just saw an Indy car race over the weekend was like “Wow, that’s exactly what it looks like.” Did that kind of blow you away when you actually saw it?
MP: Yeah, there were a couple of things. When I first saw it, it wasn’t in 3-D, but all of the animation is just amazing, what they do. Even the hair, how it falls. It’s its own world, but it’s very detailed. A funny thing happened. I remember watching the movie and not thinking much of it, but then when I actually went to Indy--because I was the honorary starter for that, which was awesome by the way--I had déjà vu and the director said, “Yeah, we took pictures of this place.” And I was like “Oh right.”
Capone: You thought you had been there before.
MP: I was like, “Is this a past life?” He’s like ,“No, we had it in the movie.” “Okay, all right. That’s cool.”
Capone: Did they film you while you were recording, to maybe get some of your movements?
MP: Yeah. It’s very interesting, because it’s actually kind of slower. The acting has to be a little more intense, but the movements are slower. So he’d be slow and very deliberate.
Capone: You are one of the few non-snail characters. Did you have shell envy at any point?
MP: [laughs] I do now, because of my kids. I’m like, “What’s your favorite part about TURBO?” “The snails.” I’m like “Damn it!”
Capone: Before you were forced to watch them over and over again, were you a fan at all of animation? Did anything in particular stand out?
MP: I mean especially when I was a kid, yeah. I mean we are all huge fans of animation. I do the movies that I do, but I still appreciate like the first TRANSFORMERS. I remember looking at the Transformers and being like, “Wow. They look so real. The steal looks so real.”
Capone: You’re talking about the movie, not the cartoon.
MP: The movie and the cartoon. And my son watches the cartoons as well. “That’s a Decepticon, dada.” But I do have an appreciation for it. I would actually like to do those movies, if they could think about how to fit me in, or I could think about how to fit me in.
Capone: Let me talk to you real quick about some upcoming things. Obviously, the big one is CHAVEZ. When is that coming out?
MP: I think that comes out in March.
Capone: What can you tell me about that?
MP: I haven’t seen the final cut, because they had to make some changes, and we did do some filming.
Capone: Some additional filming?
MP: Yeah, some additional filming for the different acts, and so I haven’t seen any of that stuff. Chavez going to London and getting global support for this cause. But I do remember the rough cut that I saw, I liked very much. I’m kind of nervous about that one.
Capone: I’m a big fan of [director] Diego Luna, so I’m excited to see what he makes as a director.
MP: Yeah, he’s a great kid.
Capone: So is the focus then on the union organizing efforts?
MP: That’s always there, but I think he had a great idea and it's what I focused on as well. Anybody can do that in a way. There’s only so many levels you can do when you’re screaming out to an audience, but we focused on the familial aspect of it; he had eight kids and he had to get away from those eight kids, and that’s the struggle and the torture that he did while he was struggling and torturing and trying to do this movement. He was like a man that was doubled up in pain. I saw the movie, and what’s funny is sometimes you don’t like the guy, which is okay. You take a look at it, and it’s like “This guy has got two major things on his shoulders, but he’s got to do the right thing.” You’re not always going to be liked when you’re doing the right thing.
Capone: The other one I’m super excited about is AMERICAN HUSTLE [directed by David O. Russell].
MP: Yeah, in December.
Capone: That’s the first big scandal I remember as a kid. I didn’t get all the nuances, but I remember it being on the news every night for weeks. I can’t believe no one has made a movie about this yet. So tell me who you play in that, or can you?
MP: I can’t. I can’t tell you anything. [laughs] I can’t. I really can’t.
Capone: Can you say at least who you get to work with?
MP: My first day of work, I was really nervous, because it was Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner. Literally, all had been nominated within the last couple of years, and then it’s me. Then my last day of shooting is all five of those people and Robert De Niro. So I was like “Man!” I have a small part in it; I’m not one of the leads in that one.
Capone: You shot a pilot with Ruben Fleischer called "The List." What happened with that?
MP: Yeah, it didn’t go.
Capone: Are we going to see this thing?
MP: I don’t think so. You know I did it, and there were some problems with it like in the beginning, but with TV it’s a different animal. It’s not like you can sit on it for three months and then shoot that script. I don’t think I fully got a grasp of it totally to be honest with you. I thought it would have been cool, because like "The Following" is cool and I remember seeing "24" and it’s addictive quality, and it could have been something like that, but I think it fell short just a little bit.
Capone: What about FRONTERA?
MP: Yeah, that’s with Ed Harris.
Capone: What’s that about?
MP: I wanted to do a movie in Spanish and I read the script and was like, “Wow, this is really cool.” Plus I’m a big fan of Amy Madigan and Ed Harris, and Eva Langoria plays my wife, so that’s not too bad.
MP: I'm a guy crossing the border, and there’s some kids that are kind of like Minutemen and they shoot at me. Then Amy Madigan’s character comes arond, and they’re just making fun, and she’s on a horse and the horse jumps up and drops Amy’s character, and then Ed comes around--who’s married to Amy in the script--and he looks at me and thinks I’m the one that did it. It’s a case of “whodunnit” a little bit. It was a really interesting. For me, it was in the rhythm of Charles Bukowski. Actually no, more like MOTORCYCLE DIARIES, how something happens but it just evenly happens without pushing too much.
Capone: You have another movie with Davie Ayer, FURY?
MP: That I start in September, and it’s another great script, an unbelievable script.
Capone: And an amazing cast.
MP: Yeah. Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Brad Pitt, and Jon Bernthal--"Walking Dead". Dude, I did WORLD TRADE CENTER with him. Yeah, he was one of the guys.
Capone: Can you say anything about that? It’s a WWII thing, right?
MP: WWII, Nazi Germany, 1945.
Capone: Brad’s going back to Germany?
MP: Yeah, but this one he plays a very broken man. It’s a tough role. We all have tough parts, not to lie. I’m not worried about it, but as we're rehearsing, I'm like “How am I going to play this?”
Capone: Tough physically or emotionally?
MP: No, just tough characters. Like it’s on the page and it’s beautifully set on the page. Brad’s got a really layered, very complicated character. I do. Shia does. Logan. Jon Bernthal has a very interesting thing that he’s doing. We just did the read through. We did it a couple of times, and it felt pretty good.
Capone: Does it inspire you when you get a little nervous about doing something?
MP: I always get a little nervous about the stuff that I care about.
Capone: But that probably fuels you somehow.
MP: Yeah, like I was nervous during CRASH, because I was like, “I want it to be so good,” and I get nervous. If I don’t care, then I shouldn’t be doing the movie.
Capone: The last one I had was THE VATICAN TAPES. You haven’t done a lot of genre stuff.
MP: I’d like to, to be honest. My brother loves horror movies.
Capone: And you play a priest in this one, an exorcism film.
MP: Yeah, it's cool because I went to Catholic school growing up, so it’s perfect. When I read it, I was like “Man, this is really scary. I want to do this movie.” They said, “Okay, cool.”
Capone: What can you say about that?
MP: That one was cool. Djimon Hounsou is in it.
Capone: Have you shot that already?
MP: I’m rehearsing for both movies. I start this one on July 22, which is in what?
Capone: Two weeks?
MP: I’ve got to start getting ready there, buddy. Jesus.
Capone: Where are you shooting that?
MP: No, it’s going to be in Los Angeles. So those are two back-to-back projects that I’m pretty excited about, and then hopefully next year… Well, I’ll tell you about it next year when it’s more finalized.
Capone: Okay. All right, cool. Can you give me a hint? Is it a sequel?
MP: No, it’s not a sequel. It will be an original.
Capone: Not OBSERVE AND REPORT 2?
MP: Oh, I love that movie, man.
Capone: Same here. Yeah, I saw that at the SXSW premiere.
MP: I was there too, yeah. It became a cult hit, dude. When it comes out on cable, it just absolutely reignites people, and I hear “Dennis!” So instead of “The CRASH guy” or “END OF WATCH guy,” I’m Dennis, Dennis Shafonte.
Capone: It was good to see you again. Take it easy.
MP: I’ll see you in probably eight months, maybe with CHAVEZ.