Q&A: Michael Pena

2012-35 BIZ Latino Michael Pena H

Acting for nearly two decades, Pena talks about "End of Watch" and trying not to play "the token Mexican dude."

Acting for nearly two decades, Pena talks about "End of Watch" and trying not to play "the token Mexican dude."

Pena, 36, is the son of Mexican immigrants and grew up in Chicago. Every Sunday, his family would go the movies without fail, and when he was 18, he responded to an open casting call. He landed a part as an extra and soon moved to Los Angeles. Over the years, he has starred in such films as Crash and World Trade Center. End of Watch marks a breakthrough for him.

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: In End of Watch, you play an L.A. cop opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. What was it like playing the hero for once?

Michael Pena: It's such a well-written character, and director David Ayer really captured Latin culture. But if this was a studio movie, I'm not sure they would have kept it so Latin. David also wrote Training Day, which was a studio movie, but it starred two big actors, Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke. This was my biggest role to date, and there was actual dialogue and interaction, thank God.

THR: How have you experienced stereotyping over the years in terms of the roles you are given? In Tower Heist, for instance, you played a bellhop.

Pena: In the beginning, I was always playing some kind of gangbanger and the token Mexican dude who didn't have a lot of lines but was in the entire movie. At the same time, everyone gets typecast, and I decided that if I was going to play a stereotypical role, I was going to play it like a three-dimensional character.

THR: Still, has it been frustrating?

Pena: To be honest, yes. I came to L.A. when I was 19, and my two roommates were blue-eyed, blond dudes. I helped coach them, and they both landed pilots.

THR: Who were they?

Pena: I'm not going to say, but it's an interesting note.

THR: Was there a turning point in your career?

Pena: There have been several, including World Trade Center. I was a Port Authority police officer trapped in the rubble. The bummer was that not very many people saw the movie because of the subject matter.

THR: What's up next for you?

Pena: I just finished shooting Chavez, directed by Diego Luna. I play Cesar Chavez.

THR: Does Hollywood need to cast more Latino actors?

Pena: You want to cast whomever is going to make that part awesome, but I do think times are changing for sure.