Gilbey on Film: An interview with Michael Peña

The American actor is finally a leading man.

In less than a decade, Michael Peña, a 36-year-old Chicago-born actor of Mexican parentage, has proved himself to be one of US cinema’s most nuanced and persuasive character actors. In 2004, he appeared in a brace of Best Picture winners scripted by Paul Haggis: Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, in which Peña had a small role as an amateur boxer, and Crash (directed by Haggis), which gave him a meatier part as a young father caught up in the film’s network of racial tensions. Since then, he has been impressive in a dizzying range of material, from manic comedy (Observe and Report, 30 Minutes or Less, Tower Heist) to contemplative drama (Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center), from action movies (Battle: Los Angeles, Shooter) to the occasional indefinable curiosity (Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?).

What he has rarely had until now is a lead role; character actors without a fixed persona don’t always find it easy to make the crossover. But End of Watch, a thriller from the writer-director David Ayer (Training Day), corrects that, putting Peña on an equal footing with his co-star, Jake Gyllenhaal. The actors play LAPD officers who stumble onto one grisly case after another, but the pleasure of the film comes less from the increasingly hysterical revelations than the bonhomie between these brothers in arms—Gyllenhaal like a human cocktail stick, Peña cuddly as a teddy bear. I met Peña during his visit last month to the London Film Festival.

Did it take long to work up the camaraderie with your co-star?

It was strange. Once I got together with this guy [gestures to image of Gyllenhaal on the End of Watch poster behind him], it took us the longest time to get anything going. There was something stopping us. We had to ride around a lot and spend a lotta time together before we began to feel we could trust each other. And maybe there’s a grain of that in the film, but there’s a lot of affection too. He has the confidence to hang back and give me a scene. He said to me on the set: "I want to do whatever I can to help you be awesome." Now, not a lot of actors in his position would watch out for you like that. Most would want the whole show to themselves.

You bring a lot of breezy comedy to what is a very serious film. How did you see your responsibilities to the movie?

I’m just an actor. If it’s drama, I add as much humour as the part will stand. And if it’s a comedy, add as much drama as you can, so it balances out; you don’t wanna be too serious. I went to church a lot, and the best pastors always told a lotta jokes, a lot of anecdotes. A good comic explores the imagination but it’s always got to have those notes of truth running through it. When I think of the actors I admire, they can seemingly do it all - comedy, drama, action, everything. I can’t do it all yet. I’d love to do a romantic comedy: that’d be awesome, a whole other realm.

Have you been offered any?

I’ve been offered parts in them, but never the whole thing. I love When Harry Met Sally. That’s an awesome arc. And it has such real humour. I haven’t read a lot of scripts like that. They’re usually more tongue-in-cheek.

Has it been a struggle to reach the stage where you’re getting lead roles?

Man, the whole thing’s been a struggle. My first ten years in Hollywood were really tough. I’d be coaching friends who came to me for acting advice, and then they’d make it before I did. I’d still be helping them while they were on movie sets and I had four lines on a TV show.

Was that a race issue?

Well, it’s a … It coincides with the population, I guess. The major population at that time in America was, I’m sure, Caucasian, and I understand that’s what people relate to. But times are changing. And that has afforded me the luck to star in a movie alongside Jake Gyllenhaal, and to not be the sidekick. Obama’s got a lot to do with that change. It’s a fantastic time for me right now. My kid looks Mexican even though his mother is white, and I hope life’s a lot easier for him.

Did you realise at the time why it was so hard for you to get a break?

Pretty much, yeah. I was only offered auditions that were written specifically for a Latin male. That’s not so much the case now. For instance, Tower Heist was written for someone else; I came in to audition and they gave me the part. Observe and Report was written for some white dude trying to be black. But I went in and said, "What about me?" And they were like, "What?" The way I went in there with this crazy character ]

really convinced them. The Lucky Ones, Shooter—these were written as white. It’s come a long way. I don’t even know where it started. It could have been when Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal did Y Tu Mamá También or when Alejandro González Iñárritu [who directed Peña in Babel] started breaking through. I dunno. But it changed.

How did you cling on when work was hard to come by?

I didn’t wanna do anything else. I would have done this even if I was just doing theatre and I had to work at a bank in the day. I love creating characters. At first I was doing it for the money, to make more than I did working at the Board of Trade in Chicago, but then I got to love it. To be honest with you, I did think I was gonna have success. But I didn’t know if it was gonna be as third banana on some TV show. I never dreamed of this. I mean, I’m in London! People are asking for autographs. That’s funny to me. What you gonna do with an autograph?

Didn’t you experience anything similar after the success of Crash?

Not like this. The joy of Crash was that it was all about the work. It was my first real part. Before that, it was a line here and there, maybe a scene. Crash was five scenes, a beautiful arc, a little vignette of my own. It really meant something. I feel the same about End of Watch. Even though it’s a cop movie, it’s about relationships, brotherhood.

Were you at the Oscars when Crash won?

I wasn’t invited. I wasn’t even included in the SAG [Screen Actors’ Guild] award for Best Ensemble that we won. Some rule. I wasn’t eligible because… I don’t know. My name wasn’t on it anyway. But it was my first real gig so … S’all good. Shit happens, you know? It’s funny how that was an important year for both of us. Jake was the Brokeback Mountain guy, I was the Crash guy. Both our lives changed that year.

I read that your next role is as the civil rights activist César Chávez.

First I did Gangster Squad, a big shoot-‘em-up movie, very much an ensemble [the cast includes Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Emma Stone]. But Chávez I really dug. My big concern is how to show this man’s life without being preachy and pushing the audience. I did a whole transformation. I have to deliver these long, long speeches in his very nasal voice. I gained 30lbs. Rehearsed constantly, over and over again. It’s really my first lead, the first time I’m carrying a film. I waited a long time for something like this.

"End of Watch" is released 23 November; "Gangster Squad" on 11 January 2013.

Michael Peña (right) with his co-star Jake Gyllenhaal (photograph: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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