From drama to comedy, Michael Peña, the Chicago native with Mexican blood from Jalisco and San Luis Potosí, is in my opinion, one of the most underrated actors in the film business. He is also the next Latino actor who will win an Oscar. His performance as Jesus Martinez in ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ was as visceral and absorbing as any performance this year in a supporting role. The scene where Peña is being harassed by Matthew McConaughey’s character in an interrogation room is riveting. You couldn’t take your eyes off him.
Michael Peña, is a rarity amongst his generation of thespians. One with the versatility to make you laugh hysterically one minute then make you cry or immerse you in deep thought the next. Take for example his engrossing engagement speech in ‘Lions for Lambs’ or his riotous performance in ‘Observe and Report’. That type of multifaceted talent is unusual and left to the greats such as Paul Newman and Robin Williams.
For his new movie ’30 Minutes or Less,’ a comedy where he plays a Latino killer named Chango, Peña’s brief stint can only be described as ‘hysterically memorable’. If you have seen his movies - from ‘Crash’ to ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ - you know Peña is as talented as they come. So if he is so good, why isn’t he already one of Hollywood’s leading men?
In search of that answer, I spoke with the star who eludes recognition about what makes him laugh, who makes him laugh, and yes, why he hasn’t had a lead role in Hollywood yet.
ShowBizCafe.com (SBC): In the new R rated comedy ‘30 Minutes or Less’ you play a very funny Latino thug named Chango who has a bizarre accent. Where do u get your inspiration for your comic personas?
Michael Peña (MP): Acting is just acting to me. The way I approach acting is simple. The first thing I say is, ‘who does this character remind me of?’ For Observe and Report, I saw this documentary, ‘American Pimp’, and I can’t believe that all the dudes had these weird lisps, because they all had gold teeth fronts, so I thought it’d be funny if I played a blackxican who spoke with that lisp because he wanted to be a pimp. In ‘30 minutes or Less’ Chango is based off an actual person from Chicago from my neighborhood, I’m not going to say his name because he’s in and out jail, but once the movie comes out, people in my neighborhood are going to know exactly who that was.
SBC: You have usually played secondary roles throughout your cinematic career. I’m wondering if at this stage of the game you’ve grown tired of the brief cameos and 15 minute scene stealing supporting parts. Do you feel the time has come for you to become Hollywood’s first Latino leading man in years? How long does it have to take for you get a true lead role?
MP: I’ve done cameos, been a co-star, been in ensemble casts and had supporting roles because I’m just after the good roles. And I don’t think I’m going to change that. If I read a script and there’s a part that I get really excited about, that’s the one I’m going to go after even if the director asked me to look at the lead role. But if the lead role is fantastic, then I’ll definitely make a pitch for it.
SBC: Michael, Hispanic moviegoers are dying to see a Latino leading man and Hollywood thinks they are an extinct breed. Javier Bardem is a Spaniard and considered European, and Benicio del Toro can’t seem to deliver box office gold. Is it that you’re not finding leading roles for Hispanics or is it that you might be too comfortable where you are to want to break through?
MP: I have to be honest with you, I think at first I didn’t know what to do with them. I would read a script and see it was for a lead role and I’d say, ‘nah, it’s okay’. The stories just weren’t that interesting to me. But now I think because I’m doing all these co-starring roles, like me and Nic Cage [World Trade Center] or maybe even ‘Shooter’ where I had my own storyline and stuff, you know, ‘The Lucky Ones,’ and now with Jake Gyllenhall [End of Watch]. I mean, in the last 5-6 years, I’ve had 4-5 co-starring roles and I think I’m now learning how to potentially star in a movie. It’s a little different than doing supporting roles. It’s funny you ask that, because I think I’m now getting ready to get into that mind frame where I can star in movies.
SBC: If you were a director, what’s the first story you would tell?
MP: I really would like to do something that lends itself to an Alexander Payne-ish type of dramedy, like a comedy that is very much based in reality. I mean I just love Alexander Payne and Hal Ashby’s and Woody Allen’s stuff. Some of my stories are grounded in Woody Allen’s earlier work. It’s funny, but something like bowling...like the drama of bowling, or a movie like ‘Diner’ (1982). I really like dealing with relationships in my acting, that really is interesting to me. I applaud the writers that can really get in there and can get into the heads of those characters. I try to write and it’s very hard to do. The dramedy would be more my genre.
SBC: Where do you get your funny bone being such a great dramatic actor?
MP: Ten years ago I asked my agents if I could get more auditions at sitcoms because I hadn’t cracked comedy yet, but I thought I could crack it. My rep, whoever it was at the time said, ‘it’s hard to get you auditions because you’re not funny.’ And I wasn’t very funny but I was trying. I had to find my niche, man! I was like, ‘how am I going to do this?’. Comedy is really hard. It plays on your confidence, if you go into an audition and you try to be a stand up comedian, you’re going to bomb and it’s not a good feeling. ‘Observe and Report’ was what opened my eyes to see what I can potentially do with comedy. And it’s the same thing I’m doing in drama and it took me a whole 360 for me to able to communicate that. In comedy, I’m just doing a character that I think is funny, that’s interesting. In ‘Tower Heist’ I walked the streets of New York for a while to get inspired by the interesting people all over.
SBC: What are your favorite 3 comedies that have made you break a rib?
MP: You can’t say no to ‘Caddyshack’. I don’t know how many times I’ve rewound Bill Murray’s performance and seen it over and over and over and over again. Oh my god! How about ‘Broadway Danny Rose!’ That Woody Allen performance is just fantastic. That movie opened my eyes to a different type of comedy. It wasn’t just funny characters, but the way a person could be. Remember that one scene where Allen wants all his clients to succeed and he sees this one woman who was creating music with champagne glasses, and he was like, ‘Could you believe this? Could you believe this? She never took one lesson, never took one lesson.’ Just the absurdity of it made me laugh so hard. I also grew up watching Cantinflas and my mom used to take us every Sunday to the movies and that was an escape for us because we didn’t live in a very good neighborhood. Me and my brother couldn’t wait until Sunday and have that popcorn with chocolate. We would watch 2 movies on Sunday and there was always a Cantinflas movie in there. My mother really liked comedy and she realized we liked comedy so she just kept on taking us and we were more than happy to join her.