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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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.