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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I can’t be the only one who has noticed that every dish in the Western world’s a cheese sandwich

Raclette, cheesy crackers, baguettes – even ice-cream is just cheese in waiting.

Scientists examining a chicken nugget have discovered DNA from over a hundred individuals mixed into a fowl mush. It makes you think, doesn’t it? I mean, I always used to say to my kids when they ordered nuggets, “You realise that’s made of crushed-up chicken eyelids and testicles,” but I still imagined these were the parts of at most two or three bodies. And while no one with eyes (lidded or otherwise) could fail to see how disgusting the battery farming industry is, this new intelligence gives it a truly diabolic cast: what we’re participating in here is a sort of chicken holocaust.

I mean, I like Sadiq Khan well enough – I even voted for him to become London mayor; and I applaud his decision to attend a Holocaust memorial event on his first day in office. But c’mon, now, Sadiq, that holocaust took place some time ago, while you can walk past any takeaway, anywhere in Britain, and see a teenager put a hundred chickens in his mouth at once! How much better it is when they stick to their staple food – one that has sustained generations of European and American children, and that, one hopes, will do so for many more years to come. I refer, of course, to the cheese sandwich.

A few weeks ago I was having supper at a pizza joint with my friend Cressida, when she remarked, apropos of my ordering a Caesar salad: “Well, it makes a change from eating a cheese sandwich, which is basically what our kids have at every meal, and we ourselves do for a high proportion of them.” Then she began to itemise some of the meals that are “basically a cheese sandwich”. Lasagne, spaghetti Bolognese with Parmesan cheese, a tricolore salad with a piece of nice, crusty bread? All of these, basically, are cheese sandwiches reconfigured – as is almost all Italian cuisine, the pizza being only the most egrcheesgious example.

“But what about a lovely serving of cassata, or an ice-cream treat?” I hear you moan. To which my only reply is: add a wafer, and in all but name you have a cheese sandwich right there on the plate in front of you. After all, what’s ice cream? Only cheese-in-waiting. Cheesy crackers, cheese footballs, the Swiss raclette – the French onion soup served with a chunk of baguette – the humble ploughman’s lunch, or the businessman’s haughty oysters mornay; all, let’s face it, are basically cheese sandwiches. I’m not arguing that this food monoculture is a bad thing – on the contrary, with whole flocks of chickens being immured in nugget-hecatombs, it’s comforting to realise there are still some things in the world that are fairly undifferentiated. True, a cheese sandwich can be a baroque creation, with choice ingredients piled high on a seeded bun: a meat pattie, lettuce, tomato, a wedge of cheese and a dill pick— Oh! silly me, that’s a cheeseburger.

But alternatively a cheese sandwich can be beautifully simple. Consider the lonely Anatolian shepherd, a figure out of antiquity with his woollen cloak and untreated hypotension. See him withdraw a hard disc of unleavened bread from the folds of his cloak; see him withdraw a lump of hard cheese from some other folds of his cloak. See him combine them – and reflect that what you are witnessing is a way of making of a cheese sandwich which has remained unchanged for millennia, perhaps since the very first Anatolian grabbed a lactating ewe and rubbed its udder against some emmer wheat, so commencing the whole strange business we call civilisation.

About ten thousand years later, this phenomenon has bodied forth into the world we see about us: a society in which fortunes can be won or lost on the turn of a cheese toastie. One multimillionaire who owes his fortune in large part to an ability to dream up felicitous combinations of basic wheat and dairy products is Jamie Oliver. On his website, he discusses making a cheese sandwich with such oracular eloquence that, reading him, I felt I had a direct connection to some great prophet or otherwise holy man.

“A toasted cheese sandwich is a beautiful thing,” he writes, at once drawing our attention to the sheer wondrousness of God’s creation, “but I’m not messing about here – this is the ultimate one and it’s going to blow your mind.” Whoa! There it is – suddenly you’re in the presence of Ecclesiastes, half expecting Jamie to assert that, of the making of many cheese sandwiches, there is no end (which indeed is the case, especially if you’re taking young folk camping).

Instead, the man who has done more for Britain’s children than anyone since Lord Shaftesbury admonishes us in more exultant tones: “But there is a particular sequence of events that needs to happen in order to achieve the most ridiculously tasty, chomp-worthy sandwich.” In other words, the road of wisdom leads to the palace of excess, because: “Follow this recipe, and it will always make you feel good. It is also especially useful when you’re suffering from a light hangover. This is when the condiments – dolloped on to a side plate like a painter’s palette – really come into their own.”

Stirring stuff, which is why I’m getting up a subscription to replace Eros with a life-size nude statue of Jamie Oliver pointing a fondue fork towards the East End.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster