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Each and every one of us have been in a situation where we’ve been blamed for something we didn’t do. All it takes is to find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time and all of a sudden you have blood on your hands. For most of us when this happens it’s inconsequential. In the case of Michael Pena’s character in The Lincoln Lawyer, he ends up serving a life sentence.
Playing one of Mick Haller’s (Matthew McConaughey) former clients, Pena finds himself taking a plea bargain for a crime that he didn’t commit, but the twist is that Haller’s new client, played by Ryan Phillippe, is the one that set him up. Speaking with Pena in a roundtable interview, the actor discussed his real life encounter with that type of situation; how he balances doing both drama and comedy; and his idea to play a half-alien/half illegal alien. Check out the interview below.
You have a pretty emotional scene in this movie. How many takes did you have and how difficult was it to cry?
The first one, you mean? I think I only had three scenes in it. That one, the flashback, and then the one in present time. Thank God I had some lemon and pepper, you know what I mean? No I’m kidding I’m kidding. You would have seen the lemon drops. Either that or, like, “Wow this guy’s got a fountain in his eye!” I don’t know it’s one of those things where you just like...you know what, I was lucky because sometimes, I’ve gotten parts like this before, and I don’t know it’s that part in my life where I was just hungry for it because I just did two comedies in a row. And when I read it, it captured my imagination so I just zoned out for like an hour and I was able to do it. And while it was happening I was like, “Oh my god it’s happening,” but you don’t want to pay too much attention to it you just want to let it ride. And it’s weird because your body actually like... I don’t know I’ve noticed that girls cry way easier than guys do. You know what I mean? They’re like on first take, I was like, “You already did it! Dude!” and me, they’re like, “Take 46.” You know what I mean? And I’m still going at it. But this one it was one of those things, where just something happened and I was able to ride the wave.
It’s a pretty common fear to just be somehow caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and this is exactly what happens to your character. Is that a fear that you had before getting on this role?
I think I tapped into some of that because I lived in Chicago and it was a kind of shady part of town and like, the cops would always stop me, because I’m Mexican and I look like the other dudes. And styles kind of played a part in it, like you’re not really gonna dress in a suit and tie, I mean you kinda dress like everybody else in the neighborhood, you know which is, somewhat similar, to that. I remember I had a shaved head, and mustache, goatee, whatever, when I was in fifth grade. Just kidding. That would have been a mean fifth grader! I got stopped by the cops, and I was going to prep school at the time, like private school, but I still had that kind of style or whatever so you know they’re like, “What are you doing?” I was like, “I’m coming back from football practice.” He’s like, “Nice. What’s in the backpack?” And then looking in it’s like, shoulder pads, kneepads...So you know it does happen. And I think, I don’t know, maybe subconsciously it hit a nerve.
Do you have a preference for comedy or drama, and how do you approach each one?
I don’t. Literally my managers and agents, I have really good managers and agents, this guy Rick Hertzman and Jack Wiggerman CAA, and Eric Cranzer’s been with me the whole time. They basically will send me like, sometimes five scripts. Or they’re actually very selective of what they send me, you know what I mean because he’s like, “I could tell it to you but you’re never gonna do it.” I was like, “Okay, what’s the budget?” and he’s like, “It’s a hundred million dollar movie but, it’s like, you’re not gonna do it.” And I read it and I was like, “I won’t ever do it.” Which maybe sucks for them, you know. I’ll read like ten scripts, and then sometimes if I’m lucky there will be two or three scripts that I like, and sometimes they’ll all be dramas or they’ll all be comedies, or there will be two dramas and a comedy, and then I’ll go for whatever. If I have to audition, I’ll audition. If it’s an offer, great.
Well, if you’re enjoying a script and you think you’re like... Number one, there’s a couple times when you’re like, “Oh my god.” I’m envious of writers. My ex-girlfriend who I have a kid with, she’s a writer. And right after I read her script I was like, “Holy shit!” There’s something about coming up with something out of nothing. Like I work with somebody else’s creation already and I try to make it better. But to sit at the typewriter and be like, “All right I’m clearly not a writer.” You know what I mean? That is, it takes once or twice of trying to do that to know, and I’m always a fan of them. Like I always, like, what’s Allan Loeb doing? I’ll read every one of his scripts. I read like seven of his scripts in one week. And I wasn’t right for any of them, but just because I’m a fan of the writer and the writing.
What other comedies are you doing?
I just finished 30 Minutes or Less, which comes out in August. It’s great. It’s got Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, I don’t know if you guys know him, Nick Swardson, who’s in all of the Adam Sandler movies, and Danny McBride from Eastbound and Down.
What’s your role in that?
I played an assassin. It’s hard to believe I know. But I played the assassin, and it’s kind of a character, so I’m sure I’m going to see you guys for that one. They told me that I had to do a lot of press for that one.
Can you talk a little about Tower Heist?
Tower Heist? That is a movie that it’s hard not to name drop, but, it’s a crew of five, and it’s Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, me, Matthew Broderick, and Casey Affleck. And we’re like, on a heist. I’m like, everybody’s like really cool in the cast pictures and I’m like [smiles goofily]. Winning! Maybe not.
You guys just wrapped recently right?
I wrapped two weeks ago. Then I hopped onto this press tour.
Well it’s just a lot of press, man. I’ve been all over for Battle: Los Angeles and I don’t even have big parts in both of them, you know what I mean? I think they pay me now to do press more than they do to make the movie. You know what? I like the movies man, and when I don’t like the movies, you won’t see me that much, to be honest with you. But there has only been like one or two in the last six years that I thought they were okay movies.
Would you consider doing more sci-fi films?
I want to do more sci-fi films, I want to play like a half-alien, half-illegal alien.
There you go a pitch for your next movie.
You guys should not write that down because I’m seriously going to use that shit. Half-alien, half-illegal alien.
I saw Gosling just kill it in Blue Valentine. I thought he was just amazing at that and I wouldn’t mind maybe doing something like that. Which I think is cool, I can do that kind of stuff, but when it’s super glossy, like big, like that’s when I have, with dramas like that that are super glossy, that’s when I’m like, I think I’m out of my element when it comes to that. But if it’s like indie, documentary-style type of stuff, either that or its like wishful thinking, but I actually think he knocked it out of the park. I was really surprised he wasn’t nominated. The other guys were fantastic, but that guy was just put on a clinic. It wasn’t like line reading or anything. It was just like, if you go to acting class, that’s when they would be like, “That was great. That was fantastic,” taking notes.
How long have you been in the biz now and are you where you think you should be, at this point in your career?
I do think, I mean I’ve been at it for like fourteen years, I’m going to say...fifteen. Fifteen years. Ever since I was a fetus. Like in the womb. Yeah I mean I took a year and a half off, when my kid was born, because I don’t know for some reason I just had this thought in my head I didn’t want to be one of those dads, that like, the kid doesn’t know who his dad is. You can have a kid and just be off to work all the time and it’s basically mom, mom, mom. And so I took a year and a half off and spent a lot of time with him so now anytime I see him he’s like, “Dada! Look!” and then he’s sharing, you know which is different. Then he’s like, “Hi Dada.” But as far as where I’m at, I think so, because I took a year and a half off and then I was like, I called the agents and I’m like, “I’m ready dude,” and he’s like, “Well... shit man.” I was like, “What, I’m not getting costarring roles anymore, right off the bat?” And he’s like, “You gotta work up to it just a little bit, but you’ll do it.” Which happened, so, I’m happy.
Well you’ve got a really good track record, especially within the past year, especially this year.
Well this year, yeah, but before that for like two years I didn’t have any movies coming out. So, maybe mental note, don’t do that again.