Before Michael Pena sizes up Ant-Man, he’s feeling the Fury with Brad Pitt.
A character actor known for his standout turns in such diverse films as Crash, World Trade Center, End of Watch and American Hustle, Pena plays a member of a tight-knit World War II tank crew pressing forward into Germany under the command of Pitt’s alternately paternal and domineering Wardaddy. As the simple-but-thoughtful driver Gordo, Pena delivers another compelling performance, including a particularly mesmerizing monologue critical to defining the unit’s dynamic.
Chatting with SPINOFF, Pena reveals the road he took to playing a Latino soldier in wartime Europe, and even offers some insight into working within the secretive confines of a Marvel Studios film.
Spinoff Online: You’ve worked with David Ayer before on End of Watch. What kind of relationship have you been able to forge during these two intense movies?
Michael Pena: It’s pretty easy now. I put in so much work on End of Watch that it kind of transferred on over to this one, because I know what he likes, what’s going to show up on screen, I think there’s a lot less wasted motion in this one. And even though I had a different job — in the other one, I think I had a lot of dialogue, and this one was completely different – but he still wants the screen to be full of life. End of Watch, it was all the little tactical things we were doing, and here in World War II, they weren’t as trained as well, you know what I mean? Because of the time they had and also the technology that they had. So what he was really after was more of the emotional journey of the guys. With me, even though people didn’t understand it, they didn’t have to understand, because when you meet somebody, you can kind of tell their history or where they come from. You’re like, “Oh, I can tell that guy probably had a really rough upbringing,” or whatever it is. So we really had to work on the history of it, which hopefully people are able to see that.
It’s such a unique movie in that five of you are in a lot of the film together – you share a unique amount of screen time as a group. Tell me what that experience was like as an actor, through the preproduction time you were given to bond in through the scenes.
Yeah. It was weird because it was an ensemble piece, but we all had our shining moments, so to speak. And we all knew – like I knew, when Jon [Bernthal] had a big moment with Brad, and then I had that dinner scene. I also had another monologue that didn’t make the movie, but it was tough. Maybe, you just give it a best shot, but you know…Shia [LaBeouf], he was really helpful. And I see it now that he was really complementary for me a couple of times – I’d finish a scene and he’d put himself in there, and for a big movie star like that to just like cut potatoes and be OK with it, I think he elevated the brotherhood and camaraderie, to be honest. The way we said it was Jon was the muscle, and Shia was the spiritual because that’s what Bible was, and I was obviously the nerd. And David wrote it like that. Dude, he lives like a Latino. He’s got the grandparents and the aunts and the uncles – they all live in the same place, and he’s got four kids. He writes for me the way he talks, which is – he’s a really, really smart dude but he knows that nerdy side of me. And even though I did have an accent, I’m predicting a lot of things and I’m talking the way that he would.
What fascinated you about that era once you dug in and what horrified you?
Well, the Latin thing – that they were highly unacknowledged for the most part, that was really scary. And the worst thing I think that can happen to somebody is to be forgotten. And even though we only have, like, a lifespan of 85 years old or whatever, it kind of pissed me off a little bit. I was like, “These guys fighting for the country and then to be forgotten is kind of a slap in the face. So this is my homage to these guys.” But I immersed myself in it, and I remember that when I first started acting, I said, “What are the staples in acting, as far as movies go?” And I watched A Streetcar Named Desire probably a hundred times, maybe more – I have it in every iPad, I have the VHS tape, I have the DVD; I mean, I just loved it. And so the way that [Brando] spoke, I kind of knew that when he was going “Stella!” and the way he talks back in the day, with a little bit of a nasally [voice], that informed me. Because I’m a little bit, [changes cadence of voice] there’s a little bit of different ways of talking, you know, and that’s what they did. And so I put in a little bit of that because I did it in Caesar Chavez, and it was 1950, and then later on in this guy. But there’s something really interesting how we’re depicting characters in a very conservative time in our country. There were those cheesy [propaganda ads] that everybody believed in and bought, and the kind of movies that were being shown really kind of depict the times that are going on. And so you have these guys that come from that life, and then you get to see them raw and who they really are. And that’s what these guys are.
You finally got your Marvel movie, which I know you’ve been hungry for. Can you talk about the experience of being part of Ant-Man, and that whole unique ride?
Dude! It’s a machine, man! And I understand now because, like, in order for me to get a script, I have to sign stuff. Somebody’s got to deliver it straight to me, and I can only have one copy. They’re very, very like protective of their scripts. And I didn’t quite understand why. And then I’ve seen like a couple articles on how a movie script gets leaked, especially for Marvel, then the movie doesn’t do as well. Because it gets out –everybody knows the story. And with a Marvel movie in particular, you want to be surprised. You want to be awed by something. And it doesn’t really work because it’s always kind of a mystery. So if you know everything about the murder mystery, it’s not going to be as exciting. For instance, on [the new Fox drama] Gracepoint, the people that are watching it for the first time think it’s awesome, and then some people that have like seen Broadchurch [the British series that inspired Gracepoint] now see this, they’re nitpicking at the little things because they already know the story. So, not much is surprising them. They’re really just trying at that make these two projects compete. And the reason why we did that is because only one percent of America, if that, watched Broadchurch, and then the other 99 percent, it’s for them on Fox. So I know when the mystique all of a sudden gets revealed or realized, people lose interested, especially in those kind of movies.
It’s a good time to be Michael Pena right now. Seems that a lot of cool projects coming your way, like CHiPs! What’s going on with that one?
Well, I think it’s still got to be greenlit, but I think it looks pretty good because Dax [Shepard] is producing and directing, and he also wrote a really solid script. And it’s more along the lines of Lethal Weapon, but I really want that to go because I think it’s not like End of Watch, because these guys are different characters – and it’s fun. And some of the action sequences are really bad to the bone. And I do have an affinity for doing these kinds of action movies. I did it in Shooter. This has got action in it as well, but it’s like very character-heavy based. I really hope that it goes.
Did the original show mean much to you?
Yeah, because it’s a Latin dude on TV! Are you kidding me? Ponch! You know what I mean? I remember they were always like cornering somebody, and especially on bikes. You’re like, “Wow, this is really intense!” And it was shot pretty well, to be honest.
Fury opens Friday nationwide.
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