Bringing activist Cesar Chavez to life on-screen

Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta and Michael Pena Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta and Michael Pena as Cesar Chavez in a scene from "Cesar Chavez." Photo Credit: AP / Pantelion Films

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Michael Peña isn't sure why the film industry, one of the most highly unionized in the country, doesn't like to make movies about organized labor. And when it does, it all too often focuses on union corruption, like in "On the Waterfront" and "Hoffa." So Peña is glad to be playing one of the union movement's true heroes, United Farm Workers organizer Cesar Chavez, in the film of the same name that is now in theaters.

"Chavez was a reluctant hero; he spoke little and did lots," says Peña, a familiar face in such films as "End of Watch" and "American Hustle."

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Chavez, who died in 1993, became famous, thanks to his work on behalf of field workers in California and Florida, and his successful use of nonviolent tactics, which included an international boycott of grapes. He fought for laborers who made as little as $2 a day for backbreaking labor in hot fields, where they were refused bathroom breaks and water.

"The workers were treated very unfairly," says Peña. "They would pay them close to nothing, well below minimum wage. They would work for a week or two, then charge them half their pay just to sleep on the floor. They couldn't use restrooms, take water breaks. If you explain that to anyone now, it sounds like slavery. It was unbelievable."

Peña had to audition three times for director Diego Luna before he was cast as the lead in the film. Then, when he went to research the role, he found that most of the material available was from videos made when Chavez was making national news. "I had to gain 30 pounds, and I was listening to a lot of his speeches," says Peña. "I needed a way in, and once I started doing the voice, the time made more sense to me. Because there was such a difference in the way people spoke."

First and foremost, says Peña, he hopes people will be entertained by "Cesar Chavez." But after that, "Hopefully, it can start a debate as to what you can do, how you can get involved, maybe politically. Some of these things are still going on.

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"So hopefully, this film will get people thinking about getting involved."

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