Cine Latino: 'Gangster Squad''s Michael Peña on Playing César E. Chávez and Being a Badass

Cine Latino: 'Gangster Squad''s Michael Peña on Playing César E. Chávez and Being a Badass

Jan 09, 2013

Cine Latino covers, well, all things relating to Latino culture and the movies, now every Wednesday.

Michael Peña, who showed off his combat skills last year in End of Watch, reunites with 30 Minutes or Less director Ruben Fleischer in the crime drama Gangster Squad. The Chicago native joins Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi and Robert Patrick as an LAPD rookie trying to take back the city from one of the most dangerous mafia bosses of all time.

I got the chance to chat with Peña about his upcoming film role and the pressures of playing César E. Chávez in Diego Luna's biopic Chavez. Is it just me or are you becoming more and more bad-ass?

Michael Peña: I think the parts are just coming in that way but to be honest I'm just a regular Joe Shmoe. I think I've just been getting lucky. You're the only Latino in the gangster squad. Was that planned?

Peña: I am the only Latino in the squad so it's a bit of a social commentary in a way. It's good to see somebody Latino around that time that was really working for something good. I think during that time Latinos had to change their names to get jobs so it's almost an honor to be in a movie like this where I can play a Latino named Navidad Ramirez. What happens when so many big personalities collide on set?

Peña: It was a really fun shoot, it wasn't hard times. Josh Brolin is one of the funniest dudes and Anthony Mackie just had us all rolling. I would like to see him star in a comedy because he's just super funny. It really turned into a comedy club. After the tragic events that happened in Aurora last summer, you had to reshoot a theater gunfight --it was replaced by a scene in Chinatown. What was your reaction when you heard about having to reshoot?

Peña: I think people should take their hats off for Warner Bros. I think it's kind of cool when a big company like that reshoots something because they are being sensitive to the situation. It's a commendable thing to spend a bunch of money so that people aren’t re-stimulated by that kind of thing and so that they can go to a theater and just enjoy themselves. I think it was very cool for them to do that. What lessons have you learned recently from the films you've been a part of?

Peña: In End of Watch I learned what police officers really have to go through to protect and serve. In this movie, it's cool to know that in the 1940s there were real guys that stopped the mob in L.A. and so it reminds you that there are good people out there.  I learned about labor inequality in Chavez. I'm glad you mentioned Chavez. How much pressure did you feel going into the movie and knowing what a tremendous iconic figure Cesar E. Chavez is to the Latino community?

Peña: I'm not going to lie…it was a lot of pressure. My dad was a farmer and so was my mom, you can call them campesinos, and they weren't really getting paid fairly and so that was one of the reasons why they moved to America. What I really wanted to make, what I really wanted to do with that movie was make it entertaining. Once we had a good script we didn’t want to bore anyone and be too preachy. I haven’t seen it yet but that's what our intensions were going into it. I spoke with Diego Luna a few months ago and he told me his true love is directing. How is he as a director?

Peña: Diego was challenging, which is very interesting because actors/directors will sometimes just let actors go but he was definitely guiding me the entire way and I thought it was awesome. I got a lot of respect for that guy and I think he's a natural director. I just saw the trailer and I was really happy with what I saw. Were you able to meet Dolores Huerta?

Peña: I actually did get to meet Dolores Huerta. It happened at the Department of Labor, they named one of their hallways after Cesar Chavez and I met her there. I still can't believe how much energy she has, she's an amazing person.  The struggle that she had to go through was a lot. She's a real-life hero. Do you feel like you've made it? Is there a sense of satisfaction?

Peña: I don’t think so. I still feel like there's a lot of work to be done, to be honest with you. Some people dream of being able to greenlight whatever movie they want and I'm definitely working to be able to do something like that. How do you feel when people say that you are one of their favorite actors? Does that even seem real to you?

Peña: I would have never thought that but I just got on Twitter (@realmichaelpena) and fans actually give me shout-outs. A lot of the things they say, I go, "Wow, I didn’t know that." It's a cool acknowledgement. When I think of how I'm going to do a movie I think of them. I do it for them.  It's not necessarily just for me in a selfish way, I think about how it's going to translate and how people are going to receive it. To be acknowledged…it's not a bad thing, I'll tell you that much.

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Categories: Cine Latino, Interviews
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