Michael Peña had been working in TV and movies for a decade, but it wasn't until 2004, when he played a gangbanger-turned-locksmith in the Oscar-winning film "Crash," that the Chicago native really hit the mainstream. Since then, the now 36-year-old performer has become a highly visible presence in cinema ("World Trade Center," "Tower Heist," "Shooter") and on the small screen ("The Shield," "Eastbound and Down").
In his latest film, "End of Watch," which opens Sept. 21, he co-stars with Jake Gyllenhaal as an L.A. cop who gets on the bad side of a major drug lord. Peña spoke to Newsday by phone from Miami, where he was promoting the flick.
I read that you and Jake went on a lot of ride-alongs with the LAPD to prepare for "End of Watch." What was that like?
We went on so many ride-alongs. We went on them three times a week, every week, for months. We always talked and asked questions, got into gnarly situations, wore bulletproof vests. The things that we would see really informed us about the movie -- people who were shot, beat up, battered, fights, ambulances all the time. I really felt like a cop.
What was the biggest thing you learned about the police?
How to talk to the suspect, how to control the situation, really be cool. You want to make it seem like it's not a big deal. There's also a lot of nonverbal communication between partners. When we saw that, Jake and I went wow. If they sound alarmed, the criminals will be alarmed as well. I have played police officers before, but I felt like I was pretending.
You grew up in a working-class environment, the son of Mexican immigrants. What got you into acting?
It was my best friend's mom. I would imitate people for fun, and she said you should be an actor. I was working at a bank, into sports, and that was the last thing on my mind. She forced me to go to this open call for "To Sir, With Love, Part 2," a TV movie. And I was hired.
Because of your ethnicity, was there a time you were concerned that you'd be typecast as gangbangers and cholos ?
Yeah, it was a problem. But I was lucky. . . . I realized in a way, everyone gets typecast, like the tall white dude is always going out for the football player or jocks, and the good-looking girl is always being considered for the sexy parts.
How did the part in "Crash" affect your career?
Up to then, it was rough. I was living in a shoebox when "Crash" came out, then Oliver Stone called, and it was for "World Trade Center" . And I said I don't want to mess this up. My life changed in a few months.
And now you just finished filming the role of a lifetime. You're playing legendary Hispanic farmworker activist César Chávez in a film about his life.
I was at Comic-Con once and was asked if I had a dream role, and I thought César Chávez would be great, because my parents were farmers, and they came here where they hoped the money was fair. He was a simple man, I grew up Catholic, and so did he. When we made the film, we were adamant about making him a regular guy who is disciplined, has a very simple focus, and that made it seem much more playable than treating him like an angel.
You've been in the business long enough to note any positive changes regarding Latino images in the media. Do you feel things are changing for the better?
I'm pretty stoked that it is changing. It's an exciting time in our lives right now, the country's changing, the outlook is changing. It wasn't like that even 10 years ago. My son is 4 now, and when he's 24, I don't think he's gonna have these problems, the same things I did. And I don't think I'm being overly optimistic.