Actor Michael Pena's Star Turn
by Scott Huver
Michael Peña will fulfill his longtime dream to play Cesar Chavez in the new biopic Chavez.
At first Hollywood seemed like a pretty-boy contest to Michael Peña. “When I first started acting, I’d go out [for auditions] and all of a sudden I’d see a bunch of models. And I’m like, Oh, man! That’s my competition?” But the native Chicagoan, 36, believed there was a place for his particular type of character player: Latino on the surface, Everyman underneath. “For 10 years I was just trying to study as best I could and really come up, because that was the only way that I could literally survive,” he recalls.
His persistence paid off with a breakthrough role in the 2005 Best Picture winner Crash, and since then, Peña has consistently demonstrated considerable range in diverse films, including World Trade Center, Observe and Report, and Battle Los Angeles. “It’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of ups and downs, to be honest,” he admits. “And it kind of feels—at least to me— that luck is on my side a little bit.”
Skill, more likely: In the harrowing End of Watch, Peña is utterly convincing as an everyday LAPD beat cop navigating the meanest streets alongside partner Jake Gyllenhaal. “It was pretty intense,” he says of his hard-core research regimen, which included accompanying police officers on patrol. “That puts you in the zone of what it’s really like to be in South Central.
“The first time I was, like, not scared, but filled with intense anticipation as to what could happen,” he recalls. “Pulling people over and going to a house that has a bunch of thugs in it. You see people get shot. You see women who are beat up and trying to make sure their husbands don’t go to jail. It’s a weird, weird thing.”
Peña shifted from End of Watch’s intimate, found-footage style to the set of Gangster Squad, a flick focused on the surface glam of the ’40s (to be released in January 2013). He plays another LA lawman, this time at war against the mob for control of the city. “It’s an epic movie,” he says, noting that despite the era shift and stylish suits, cops remain cops at the core: “[They were] guys who wanted to make sure that the neighborhoods were safe and that people were abiding by the law.”
Next is his dream role, one Peña previously voiced his desire to play in interviews. “I said a while ago that I really would love to play Cesar Chavez,” he marvels. “And it just so happened that [my dream] became a reality.” Starring as the pioneering labor organizer in the biopic Chavez meant so much to him because Peña’s parents were originally farmers in Mexico who sought a better life in America. “I saw that my parents were chasing the American dream—and it was a very real American dream, because my brother is a corrections officer and I’m an actor,” he reveals. “My parents made it a reality. And Cesar Chavez helped a lot of people realize their dreams as well, so it was shocking to get the part. I was in awe. I told my dad and he was silent for 10 seconds. Then he’s like, ‘That’s right.’ He just kind of choked up a little bit. It was pretty awesome.”
photography by Joe Toreno; styling by jeff kim; grooming by ashley streicher at solo artists. shot on location at the london west hollywood