Born in Chicagoto Mexican parents, Michael Peña has been acting in film and television since 1994 and has appeared in, among others, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, World Trade Center and The Lincoln Lawyer. In writer-director David Ayer’s End Of Watch, he plays Mike Zavala, a young officer in the Los Angeles Police Department patrolling the mean streets of South Central LA with partner Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Did your opinion of the LAPD change at all making End Of Watch?
I’m going to be honest – it changed quite a bit. I grew up in a neighbourhood where we were socially conditioned to think that the cops were bad. In retrospect, why would I think that? I took my advice from a bunch of criminals. But while making End Of Watch, we did 30, 40 ride-alongs with real cops and got to see the real deal. They actually get pissed off when somebody steals from a shop-owner, or from someone coming home from church or work, or from kids playing basketball. They actually get mad at the ethics of crime. Most people only think about police officers when they’re driving, “Oh, is my registration up to date? Have I got my insurance?” But these guys really care about the people on their beat; they think about the neighbourhood. They want to keep the criminals out and preserve the goodness for the people. I never really got that before I made this movie.
Did you ever feel like they were just putting on a good show for your benefit?
There’s always assholes anywhere but the viewpoint that I got on the ride-alongs was that they really want to keep the good people good. Two months ago, my brother became a correction officer and he’s about as good as you can get. It was a crazy surprise and with what I know now, I was like, “Oh dude, why do you gotta do that?” It’s a hairy job, and my brother’s always been the guy that influenced me. He’s been the number one dude, actor or not. He’s got four kids. I’m competitive, I have one. You know, you want to be better than big brother and it seems like he beat me out again.
What kind of involvement did the LAPD have with the production?
David Ayer had so many hook-ups. We trained with LAPD Swat. I personally loved this script and I loved this project and I was scared about it because the dialogue read like a David Mamet play. We had to rehearse for five months, there was no other way to do it. Everything was hard-hitting, and we had to train the same way. We had to be able to pull out the gun, reload it, put it back down, walk and talk on the walkie-talkie while we were doing it and still keeping this whole brotherhood idea that’s ever so important in any law enforcement situation. That’s what I really got from the movie and that’s what we tried to instil. We realised that it was going to live or die based on that. It’s funny because I invited my brother to a screening inChicagoand he’s like, “I need 12 [tickets], Mike.” I said, “Well, I can only get you three” and he’s like, “Then I’m not gonna go.” The 12 were for his brothers, his fellow corrections officers. I said, “What do these guys do?” He said, “They make sure that I get home alive every day.” I was like, “Right, we need 12 tickets.” I’m super-worried about my brother now but those guys are the ones that protect him.
The humour in the film was surprising. How much of that was improvised?
We had a lot of pressure because we were scheduled to film End Of Watch in 22 days – that’s not a lot of time. Usually a movie like this would be shot in 50 days. We rehearsed it for months so there was no real room for improv and, if there was any, it was stuff that we’d already talked about. It did feel like we were doing a play and that’s one of the best compliments you can give an actor: was it improv? No, it was all written.
Working so closely with another actor, as you did with Jake, you undoubtedly got close but did you ever get on each other’s nerves?
We definitely got on each other’s nerves. My hat goes off to him – he’s a great guy. To be honest, I hold up a little bit more of a fence and he’s open and he really helped me out a lot when we were trying to do things. My dad was in the military, my brother’s a correction officer and I’m not the most open dude. So he helped me a lot with that.
Are your characters heroes or cowboys?
Those guys, they really love their job. As a for instance, we were on a ride-along and this white officer said, “Yo, wassup man, how you doin’?” They learn to talk to the people and he was like, “Yo, didja get into college?” and the guy’s like, “Yeah, I got into Howard.” He’s known that guy since he was six and he was like, “Good, man – keep it up bro!” I thought that was really telling. I think it takes a special kind of person to do this. I can tell bullshit because I’m an actor so I could tell when these guys were giving us PR, and a couple of them did. But the guys from the sheriff’s department, they were the real deal, they were good people. There are some people who want to help.
What kind of neighbourhood did you grow up in?
I grew up at 16th and California in Chicago [S California Ave & W. 16th St]. There’s a huge park there [Douglas Park] and there’s four different gangs on every corner, which is why I had my first bike for about 30 minutes. There are projects all around there but the funny thing is that I didn’t know I was raised in a ghetto until I left it. When I got toLos Angeles, I was like, “What the…?” Palm trees, everything was beautiful. People there are super-lucky and they just don’t know it.
You shot in South Central LA neighbourhoods. What was that like?
We had bullet-proof vests on all the time. Cops get shot at all the time in South Central so somebody doing a movie about cops? They’re not gonna care. What was weird though was seeing the paparazzi because they follow Jake anywhere. That was so odd. Paparazzi are insane in LA, they just don’t give a rat’s ass! There’s a bunch of gangsters and then you’ll see a long lens through the gangsters: “Can you move to the right, please?… Jake! Jake! Jake! Love you, Jake!” They’ll do anything for a shot! They actually started paying people a hundred bucks so they could be on their roof if they knew we were going to be shooting.
What was David Ayer like as a director and what does he do well?
First and foremost, I think he’s a writer but he’s a very visual writer. When I first read the script, I didn’t know why it was good. I just thought, “Dude, I’ve got to be in this movie, please god let me be in this movie.” When I read it at home, it was like finding your new favourite book and thinking, “It would be so good to be in it.” So I met with David and his knowledge is so full that the script is literally just vines from the major root. If an actor is really willing to listen to the guy and pay attention to what he’s saying, their character would be infinitely more textured. We had five months of that, thank god. He just gives you the icing but then instead of just getting the cake, you’re also getting a steak.
What kind of direction did he give you once you were on set?
He would give me a little direction here and there but the best thing was that he would say, “You know the character better than I do, man. Show me what’s up.” And then he would literally challenge us. Because we’d done all this weapons training, all this mixed martial arts training. It’s one thing that I’m going to take away is that we had the best time shooting. He’d be like, “Show me something good, dude, show me something good.” And I just gave it my all.
Jake was also shooting video-camera footage for use in the film. Did that mean you had to stay in character the entire time?
It’s messed up when you’re dreaming about the movie. I’m not a method actor but this felt the closest to it. You couldn’t shy away from it, you did have to be in character the whole time. This is one of the few times where I really felt like I was this character.