by Kate Richmond
photography by Patrick Fraser
It is a rare thing to phone a Hollywood someone-or-other whom you don’t know from Adam, shoot the breeze for just short of an hour, and leave the conversation feeling that perhaps the ostentatious stigma surrounding Hollywood may, in wonderful actuality, be a farce. Cue Michael Peña. The actor (whom you might remember from his memorable roles in Crash, Million Dollar Baby, the FX series The Shield, and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center) is also an aspiring producer, musician, sportsman, and family man. All in all? One of the good guys.
Born to Mexican farmers who met here in the States and started their family in the city of Chicago, Peña and his brother were those kids on the block who toted lunches packed with homegrown food in lieu of the more common McDonald’s Happy Meal. “I guess it was great,” Peña mused, “but at the time we were like, ‘Dad, just go to the store, dad!’”
I ask Peña how often he visits his other motherland and he responds in that slow, I’m-just-hanging-out-before-I-grab-my-surfboard-and-check-the-waves voice of his (only truly complete when you catch the hint of a sexy Spanish accent): “I just got back from Mexico, actually. The people are just awesome.” So what does he think about those awesome Mexicans who want to make a go of it in America – much like his parents did – but are facing serious immigration obstacles? “Like John F. Kennedy said,” Peña quotes, “‘We are a nation of immigrants.’ That pretty much says it all. We’re a nation of immigrants! And if it wasn’t for immigrants I wouldn’t be here.” I agree, telling him, neither would I.
From here, our conversation drifts towards the pending election. I ask Peña how he feels about the Democratic presumptive nominee who hails from his hometown of Chicago.
“I think it would be amazing!” Peña says adamantly of Obama in the Oval Office. “I can’t help but think that if Obama gets elected there’s going to be serious change in the States. It’s definitely going to be something for the history books and a really great change for America.” But Michael Peña’s Obama fever is certainly not due to a mere jumping on the bandwagon. In truth, he doesn’t like to discuss politics at all. “I avoid politics,” he says, for reasons I can best describe as Twainian; the famous author who said that, “In religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second hand, and without examination.”
In a world of shifty politicians and less than trustworthy news programming, one can certainly respect and sympathize with Peña’s approach. And though politics may not be his cup of tea, Peña definitely keeps himself busy with other aspects of life he finds important, such as family, career, travel, and championing human rights. “[As an actor] you visit so many different countries, so many different places when you’re shooting, and your eyes really open and you see that the conditions for many people’s lives aren’t exactly the optimum.” I press further, inquiring as to what changes he would like to see happen. “I mean it’s an awareness, you know? There’s the poverty level in America and then, there’s the poverty level around the world: people living in dirt, scrounging for water, and it’s a completely different level.” And indeed, opening one’s eyes to harsh realities of human struggle is absolutely the first step to improving those conditions.
We then launch into a discussion of his career. He began acting – nearly by chance – at age 19 when he went to an open call, missed out on the lead, but was cast as an extra. After that he decided he would move to Los Angeles to chase the acting dream. His parents were all for it, he remembers, and his voice drops into a heavy Spanish accent to recreate their reaction: “I was like, ‘Mom! Dad! I’m moving to Los Angeles!’ And they were like, ‘You’re crazy! Do it!’” And so he did. Very well. This fall he will co-star with Tim Robbins and Rachel McAdams in The Lucky Ones, a film following three soldiers back from the Iraq War who embark upon a cross-country road trip. Peña will also be seen in Jody Hill’s comedy Observe and Report with Seth Rogen (whom Peña emphatically states, “is one of the best people I’ve ever known”), as well as Oliver Stone’s anticipated war drama, Pinkville, about the investigation of the horrific tragedy of the 1968 My Lai Massacre.
But be not mistaken, he doesn’t just act. “I’m producing two movies right now,” he tells me, “but actually, it sounds a lot cooler than it really is. I basically just had an idea and I was like, ‘Wow, this would be a cool movie!’ and my friend got one of these bigger production companies involved and was like, ‘Uh, what do you think about this?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh man that’s great, let’s hire a writer!’” Relating this progression of events, Peña’s attitude is super cool and laidback (as if producing films were just, oh, you know, an everyday thing) and I find myself wondering what magical nymph sprinkled fairy dust on him as a child. Was she, um, still around for me to get some of that Talented-Cool–Humble dust?
As if to further prove my point, Peña then continues, describing his brush with rock stardom; about the same time he was chosen to be in Crash, the band in which he drummed was looking to sign with major record label, Interscope. “I mean its crazy… a lot of people have the dream out here of making it in a band and making it as an actor, and, um, mine just happened at the same time.” He may have chosen acting over the band, but his love and appreciation of music is wide, naming Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Stones, Robert Johnson, and The White Stripes among favorites. Off the top of his head, he thinks Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan would be the two complete artists’ collections he would bring to a deserted island with him, even though I told him he was allowed only one. “Half Dylan, half Stevie!” he protests. How can I argue?
Peña is not one for wasted moments. He doesn’t like to chill-out, and isn’t one to get caught up in the Hollywood party scene. “It’s not that I look down on it [the Hollywood scene] or anything, but I just hang out with so many of my friends and we basically like, play basketball, go golfing…” In fact, he had previously informed me that he golf’s like a madman. “I like to be doing stuff all the time!” But it’s not just sport that fills his hours off-set. He would love to enter into the world of theater and get a play off the ground, although he acknowledges this can be a difficult feat. He chooses work based on the story and the characters (and his movie-buff brother’s thumbs up), explaining to me that the writers are the true unsung heroes of Hollywood. (Amen, Michael.) “If I could, I’d be a writer, you know. I just love reading…” So does he read a lot in his spare time? “I try to,” he says, and then adds without any sheepishness at all, “I read a lot of golf magazines, too.”