Michael is an ideal depiction of what it means to be a first generation Latino aspiring to be more than the world initially offers him. His parents, Mexican farmers, immigrated to Chicago in hopes of creating better opportunities for themselves and for Michael and his brother. Like most Hispanic families going through economic hardships, family and community served as the backbone to everyday life. Although Michael was only able to enjoy his first bike for 10 minutes before it was stolen by a menacing group of adolescents, Chicago was the setting for his family’s earlier years. As a child, Michael’s mother would take her boys to the movies every Sunday. Instead of spending that money on herself or items for their home, the three would venture to the local theater to catch two movies - always a traditional Mexican film as well as a contemporary American film. It was during these trips to the movie theater that Michael began to understand and appreciate the power films have to incite emotion and inspire. Upon watching Edward James Olmos play teacher, Jaime Escalante, in Stand and Deliver, he felt compelled to take calculus in high school. Another education-related film he cited during our conversation was Dead Poets Society featuring Robin Williams. In this case, the film allowed Michael to experience and feel part of the camaraderie shared between teacher and student. These seemingly insignificant childhood experiences coupled with a fortunate discovery of raw talent would eventually propel Michael to Hollywood stardom.
If Michael’s rise to success contains a message for aspiring actors, it’s that you have to believe in your craft and the work you’re associating yourself with. Initially, Michael wasn’t a believer in his craft. In fact, during one of his early auditions, the casting director asked him if he could act, to which Michael replied, “We’re about to find out.” This attitude didn’t denote dedication and a firm belief in his craft or abilities. However, in Michael’s case, the raw talent must have been painstakingly piercing in the eyes of seasoned professionals. It wasn’t too long after that first audition that a casting director simply instructed him to relocate to Los Angeles. There was one booking as a featured extra in between, but from Michael’s modest description and some basic editorial analysis, Michael just had that raw and pure talent that easily convinced. His belief in his abilities began to solidify when he left his tight-knit community of Chicago to pursue and master his acting skills in Los Angeles.
Once in Los Angeles, Michael’s career began to take off. He accomplished all the basic essentials such as getting an agent and booking roles. However, he soon realized that in order to mold raw talent into art, he would have to call upon his personal experiences to engage deeper with scripts and films. Early on, Michael primarily studied and was a fan of actors such as Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro. He then began to admire stories and scripts and the directors capable of telling the stories. When I asked him for advice for aspiring actors, he offered that as an actor you have to be true to the type of writing you like. If an actor is unable to connect to the material and wouldn’t enjoy it naturally if it came on television, there lies a fundamental disconnect that won’t be overcome. Michael gave the example of Larry David and his show, Curb Your Enthusiasm. To Michael, it’s pretty clear that Larry David enjoys the show’s dry comedy and would watch that type of show even if he wasn’t affiliated with it. So as Michael said, “If that’s what you like, that’s what you go for.” This approach has proven very successful. At the center of all his roles is Michael’s ability to leverage his personal beliefs and experiences to breathe life into characters. The deep understanding of what a character would say in any given situation is important and essential to creating an individual that audiences either love or hate, but ultimately remember because of the power of the performance.
The film World Trade Center directed by Oliver Stone and starring Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Michael Shannon came at a time when the nation was still grieving over the losses of September 11. However, amidst all the pain and suffering, there was a unique opportunity to highlight the amazing heroism displayed during that infamous day. Peña plays Colombian native and Port Authority police officer, Will Jimeno, who was buried under the rubble for 13 hours before being saved by Marine rescue workers. Throughout the progression of the story, the audience can literally see the stress and pain take over Michael’s facial expression and body movements. As an audience member, you can see the sweat, sense the fear and feel the terror these rescue workers felt moments before a tower of metal collapsed right on top of them. As Peña and Cage’s characters are stuck under the debris, they exchange personal information that brings the audience even closer to them. It is without a doubt that Michael was able to call upon his humble upbringings to put himself in the shoes of Will Jimeno and evoke the type of emotion necessary to give the audience a true front row seat to the tragic events of that day. His performance perfectly encapsulated the American spirit of resilience and honor. Although Michael’s character was on the brink of death, he persevered through with the help of his fellow American and in the end, survived. As we commemorate another year since the tragic events of September 11, be sure to catch World Trade Center and experience the riveting performances that commemorate the bravery of the day.
Crash is a perfect example of Michael’s abilities. Most of our readers will remember Michael playing the role of blue-collar locksmith living in Los Angeles with his family. Through an odd and coincidental set of occurrences, a grocery store owner is out to kill him because he believes the locksmith rigged the keys to his store and robbed it overnight. He finds the locksmith exiting his car and prepares to shoot as the locksmith’s young daughter attempts to shield her father with her invisible cloak of protection. Throughout the film, Michael doesn’t say much but the power of his expressions, mannerisms, and interactions with his daughter are truly captivating. Michael mentioned he spent a month preparing for this role by living with his brother and his niece. He called upon these experiences to bring an unglamorous character to life and propel the emotive powers of the movie. For those who haven’t seen Crash (winner of 3 Oscars),we at Urban Latino highly recommend you check it out and become acquainted with Michael’s breakout appearance. It is kick-ass and a real tear jerker.
In similar fashion to Crash, Michael and his co-star, Jake Gyllenhaal, spent a total of five months riding along with real LAPD officers and training in a police academy to better prepare for their roles. Director, David Ayer made it clear that he didn’t want any officer watching the movie to question the actors’ mastery of policing skills. In an NYT interview, Ayer reveals that despite already having directed Los Angeles police genre films, he put aside his fear of being type-cast as the go-to-guy for cop dramas and tried again with End of Watch because he wanted to get it right. The film follows Officer Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Officer Zavala (Peña) as they document their day-to-day duties as LAPD officers with Taylor’s home video camera. The artistic decision to portray their lives through the unadulterated lens of Taylor’s camera aligns with the director’s intention to be true to the collective experience and mindset of LAPD officers. Both officers are best of friends. Not only do they spend their workdays fighting crime, the film also captures their friendship and connection through their families, friends, and community. By painting a holistic picture of the relationship, Michael and Jake transform from Hollywood stars to sweating cops, chasing criminals on the sweltering streets of Los Angeles. As the film develops, the pair of officers is called to a house where they make a grim discovery that ultimately unleashes on them the full unforgiving wrath of the very active Mexican cartel.
When I asked Michael about the film, he said he appreciated the on-screen relationship Taylor and Zavala. They attend each other family’s events and promise to look after each others’ children in the event that one of them was fatally injured. Michael was able to bring a mastery of truth and candor to the film that produced a meaningful connection between the actors and the audience. You get a very strong sense of who Michael’s character is and how highly he values his rapport with his partner and best friend. This is apparently true of many police officers that are under the constant threat of losing their lives to crime. They depend on their partners to not only cover the first round at the bar, but provide a round of cover fire in the event of a shootout. End of Watch showcases Michael’s acting skills that he so carefully honed throughout the years. So if you’re in the mood for a new type of cop drama that utilizes unusual yet effective filming styles, be sure to catch Michael Peña when he comes to a screen near you.
Aside from his personal successes, Michael was also very interested and encouraged by the increasing amount of Latin talent coming to Hollywood. He mentioned actors such as Jacob Vargas, Diego Luna, Jay Hernandez, Rosario Dawson, America Ferrera, and Selena Gomez as a good indicator of what’s happening in the country. He personally believes that as the Latino population continues to grow and our purchasing power increases, there should be corresponding movements to increase our political voice and representation. It is because of this firm belief and vision for the future of Latinos in America that Michael volunteered his time to appear in a PSA with Wilmer Valderrama encouraging Latinos to vote. Be sure to check out the PSA on VotoLatino.org.
Staying true to his belief in the power of politics to transform race relations, it was with great elation that the Urban Latino team discovered Michael would be portraying Cesar Chavez in the upcoming Diego Luna-directed biopic. When asked at Comic Con, what his ideal role would be, Michael responded, Mexican civil rights activist and labor leader, Chavez. Screenwriter Keir Pearson announced his plans to write the biopic nearly two years ago and announcing Peña in the lead role gave the film the direction it needed to kick the project into high gear. As director, Luna hopes to prove Chavez’s importance to wider audience, “This man inspired an entire community to see themselves as deserving of basic rights and to rise up against injustice. The film will send the message that change is in our hands - Chavez did something everyone thought was impossible with a fearless grace that magnetized an entire country.” This is clearly a big step for Peña as he embarks on a role that is ever so close to his past. Based on his performance, Michael could really elevate his stock in Hollywood and seek out even larger roles that completely rotate around him. Michael is surely positioned for the performance of his career as he has directly benefitted from the political activism and influence of the leader. Chavez led a revolution without violence. Instead he used hard work and dedication to accomplish the vision of providing his people with the ability to live the American dream and be free. When Michael received news that he was offered the part, he was on the set of The Gangster Squad. He recalls his fellow cast members, which included Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, and Emma Stone, congratulating him and feeling the camaraderie of being part of an artistic community. It is these types of experiences for Michael that make acting and his connection to the artistic community so rewarding.
This fall will surely be a pivotal period in Michael’s career. With End of Watch slated to hit theaters in late September and the Cesar Chavez biopic in post-production, it will allow the actor from Chicago to continue driving and improving the Hispanic agenda in Hollywood. It is especially promising that Michael has been able to balance film opportunities with mass appeal with ones that speak directly to the importance of Hispanic culture in America. In the future, we’re excited to see Michael’s talent introduced to an ever widening audience. As for the readers who have aspirations to make it in Hollywood, Michael Peña will serve as an excellent example of overcoming hardships and creating a path to achieving their dreams of being capable and respected members of the artistic community. What’s especially poignant about Michael’s story is that, we as a country have finally arrived at a point where roadblocks are just that, roadblocks. In the past, the Latino perspective would have been ignored, but as we move closer to becoming a nation of minorities, the opportunities for bright and gifted Latinos in Hollywood will continue to increase. It is also important to note that Hollywood isn’t the only option. Historically, the major film production houses were the only means to making it on the big screen. However, with the proliferation of digital technologies and a do-it-yourself mentality, Latinos can bypass these bureaucratic institutions to produce the content our culture generally needs. Michael’s involvement in the Chavez biopic is an excellent example. His Mexican heritage and his parents’ direct reception of benefits afforded by Chavez’s social movement efforts are what it means to produce entertainment and valuable learning lessons through the medium of film for our country’s best Hispanic talent. Additionally, this film will reach communities outside the United States. It is for this reason we are especially proud that Michael Peña is gracing the cover of our magazine. The Latino culture has too many stories that need to be told and if current and future generations of entertainers follow in Peña’s footsteps, we’ll be better positioned to more directly fight ignorance and impact the course of our nation. Our culture is our strongest asset and we must continue increasing the avenues to share. We at Urban Latino wish Michael Peña the best of luck in his future endeavors and hope his experiences in Hollywood encourage the next generation of Hollywood’s elite.
Below are some of Michael Peña ‘s “must see” titles:
Interesting facts about Michael Peña:
Words by Erik Zambrano
Photography Courtesy of AEM