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.

Show Hide image

Donald Trump's rise is a reaction to Obama's two terms as president

This week, from Barack Obama’s legacy to memories of Angela Carter.

My children can’t believe that I grew up in a racially segregated Alabama, or that I reported on the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa (for this magazine). One of their earliest memories is of helping a family friend sell coffee and hot chocolate in sub-zero temperatures to the crowds celebrating the inauguration of Bar­ack Obama in Washington in January 2009.

My past is ancient history to them. I strongly recommend that anybody who still feels that way watches In the Good Ol’ Days, the YouTube trailer for a documentary called 13th by Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma. It splices physical abuse of black people at Donald Trump’s rallies (and his taunts about how they would have been “carried out on a stretcher” in the past) with documentary footage from the 1960s. It’s chilling.

When Obama won the Democratic nomination for president, I went back to my old school in Montgomery to see how attitudes had changed. It was no longer segregated, of course, but it was still predominantly white. A former classmate told me that when he was five, the family handyman got chucked over a bridge and left for dead by the Ku Klux Klan. We never heard these stories in school. Then I met the progressive headmaster, who assured me that everything was non-discriminatory now. But, as I left, I was escorted to my car by the school bursar, who told me he didn’t trust Obama because he was a “Muslim”. The way he said it made it sound like the N-word to me.


Going South

There has been surprisingly little discussion about the extent to which the rise of Trump has been specifically a reaction to Obama’s two-term presidency. Yes, we have heard how Obama’s legitimacy has been questioned by the “birther” movement and we have listened to Trump crow about forcing the first African-American president to produce his papers (or rather his birth certificate). But when even a former grand wizard of the KKK – an absurd title – says that Trump talks “a lot more radically” than he does, it is impossible to ignore the racial dimension to this election.

The two big states that Trump still hopes to swing his way are Pennsylvania – memorably described by the Clinton adviser James Carville as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with “Alabama in between” – and Ohio, where my mother was born. She is from the northern Democratic stronghold of Cleveland; Cincinnati, she used to sniff, was the South. She didn’t mean geographically.


Bill and Hill

There are many good reasons to be wary of Trump but I have never felt comfortable with Hillary Clinton. The governor of Alabama in my day was Lurleen Wallace, who was in office because her notoriously racist husband was ineligible to run for a consecutive term. She didn’t even bother to disguise that she was a proxy candidate and ran as Mrs George C Wallace, while he became known as “the first gentleman of Alabama”.

Admittedly, Hillary Clinton is far more her own woman than Lurleen ever was but Bill Clinton, remember, is a former Southern governor, of Arkansas. Bill and Hill had the idea long ago of a “twofer” run at the White House – and they’ll definitely have known about the Wallaces’ example. Alas, it’s too late to dwell on how much better it would be if the first female president of the United States hadn’t already been its first lady and Bill Clinton hadn’t set his sights on returning as first gentleman. But it’s Trump v Clinton and, thus, no contest.


Granny knew best

Enough about the US elections, hard though it is to tear our eyes away from the car crash. Last week, I went to the launch party at Daunt Books of Edmund Gordon’s wonderful biography of Angela Carter, a literary heroine of mine. I was a young publicist at Virago in the late 1980s when I visited Carter at home in Clapham, south London, where she was living with her much younger husband, Mark, a potter, and their little boy. She looked like a magnificently eccentric granny to me, with her shock of thick, wavy, grey hair. I thought that she was ancient because she’d had a baby at 42 but, as ever, she was just ahead of her time.


Partial eclipse

I’d no idea until I read The Invention of Angela Carter just how many Virago novelists she had nurtured. Pat Barker, for instance, the author of the Regeneration trilogy about the First World War, was one of her protégées. The photographs, though, show Carter with the young men who eventually eclipsed her: Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro. She taught Ishiguro creative writing at the University of East Anglia and introduced him to
her agent, Deborah Rogers. He told me at the party that there were only half a dozen students on the course with him and the university couldn’t be bothered to find enough people to fill the places the following year. Yet it has since become the stuff of legend.


Lost treasure

Carmen Callil, Carter’s great friend and the founder of Virago, was also at the party. She told me that her joy in publishing faded when Carter was offered only £60,000 for her last novel before she died of lung cancer in 1992. By then, the men – Rushdie, McEwan, Amis, et al – were getting far bigger advances of several hundred thousand pounds, even though she was every bit as good as them (or better).

At the end of her life, her thoughts were on money and how her “two boys” – her husband and son – would manage without her. She told her literary executor, Susannah Clapp, to give permission to everything and anyone who wanted to use her work for commercial purposes, however naff or vulgar. Her last book, by the way, was to have been a fictional life of Adèle Varens, the vivacious young ward of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. How I would have loved to read it.

Sarah Baxter is a former political editor of the New Statesman and the deputy editor of the Sunday Times

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood