In the mystery thriller The Lincoln Lawyer, actor Michael Peña plays Jesus Martinez, the former client of criminal defense attorney Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) that was wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a woman, four years ago. That crime comes up again, in a current case that Haller is working for rich Beverly Hills playboy Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), whom he is sure is the real person responsible. The slick lawyer who has made a career out of working the justice system to the advantage of his clients becomes determined to correct his mistake and free his innocent former client from jail, while working around the attorney-client privilege for which a violation will cost him his license forever.
At the film’s press day, Michael Peña talked about the appeal of this small but memorable role, the fear of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, the challenge of crying on film, and how he enjoys doing both comedy and drama. He also talked about his roles in the upcoming feature films Tower Heist, directed by Brett Ratner, and 30 Minutes or Less, co-starring Jesse Eisenberg and Danny McBride. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
MICHAEL PENA: I think I had a cool part. I golf with Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi, the producers of the movie, and they told me about the script. They said that it wasn’t the biggest role, but it was an important role. I’ve heard that before. But, I gave it a read and it was really cool. I wanted to do it because I thought it was not the easiest role, on both ends of the spectrum. I really wanted the challenge. I really hadn’t done anything like that, in a while. I’d been doing comedies and stuff. I have a couple of comedies coming out, later this year. I was eager to do this.
It’s a pretty common fear to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, like your character was in this story. Is that a fear of yours?
PENA: I tapped into some of that because I lived in Chicago, in a shady part of town, and the cops would always stop me since I’m Mexican and I look like the other dudes. Style played a part in it. You’re not really going to dress in a suit in a tie. You dress like everybody else in the neighborhood. I was going to private school, but I still had that neighborhood style. They said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m coming back from football practice.” They said, “Nice. What’s in the backpack?” I’m like, “Shoulder pads and knee pads.” It does happen. Maybe, subconsciously, that hit a nerve.
How hard was it for you to have to cry?
PENA: Thank god, I had some lemon and pepper. I’m kidding. You would have seen the lemon drops. I was lucky. It was a time in my life that I was hungry for it, after doing several comedies in a row. When I read it, it captured my imagination. I zoned out for an hour. I was just 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 want to let it ride. It’s weird. Your body reacts. I’ve always noticed that girls cry way easier than guys do. With me, it’s like take 46 and I’m still going at it. But this was just one of those things where something happened and I was able to ride the wave.
PENA: I don’t. I have really good managers and agents who are very selective in what they send me. I’ve heard them say, “I’d send it to you, but you’re never going to do it.” I’d read it and say, “I’m not going to do it.” That probably sucks for them. I’ll read 10 scripts and, if I’m lucky, there will be two or three scripts that I like. Sometimes they’ll all be dramas, or they’ll all be comedies. If I have to audition, I’ll audition, but if it’s an offer, great.
How do you know when it’s the right project?
PENA: If you’re enjoying the script and you think, “Oh, my gosh, how did someone write this?” I’m envious of writers. My ex-girlfriend, who I have a kid with, is a writer. There’s something about coming up with something out of nothing. I work with somebody else’s creation already, and I just try to make it better. I’m clearly not a writer, but I’m always a fan of them.
What interested you in Battle: Los Angeles?
PENA: The script was cool and it was shot documentary style. When I met with the director, he told me that he was going to do it documentary style and, as soon as he said that, that’s the kind of acting I like to do. I liked the movie.
Would you consider doing more sci-fi films?
PENA: I want to do more sci-fi films. I want to play half-alien, half-illegal alien.
Is there a role that you’re dying to play, that you haven’t had the chance to play yet?
PENA: I saw Ryan Gosling just kill it in Blue Valentine. He was just amazing in that. I wouldn’t mind maybe something like that. I can do that kind of stuff. When it’s super glossy, that’s when I’m out of my element. I was really surprised he wasn’t nominated.
PENA: I am. I’ve been at it for 14 or 15 years, ever since I was a fetus. I took a year and a half off, when my kid was born, because I didn’t want to be one of those dads where the kid doesn’t know who his dad is. You can have a kid and just be off at work all the time, and it’s all mom. But, I spent a lot of time with him, so now, every time I see him, he’s like, “Dada!” When I decided to go back to work, I called my agents and they were like, “Well, shit, man.” I was like, “So, I’m not getting co-starring roles, right off the bat?” They said, “We gotta work up to it, a little bit,” which has happened, so I’m happy.
How was Tower Heist to shoot?
PENA: I finished filming that about two weeks ago. It’s an action comedy with Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck and me, as the main gang. And then, there’s Alan Alda, Tea Leoni and Judd Hirsch. I’m one of the guys who do the heist. Alan Alda plays this guy who’s like a Bernie Madoff guy, who takes everybody’s money, and we get it back.
What was Brett Ratner like to work with?
PENA: He was interesting. I just got through doing a comedy, called 30 Minutes or Less, right before that, with Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), who I think is an amazing director, and it was really loose. If you said something funny, that was it. The take was done. Or, if you wanted to try another angle, you could. With Brett, you would improv until he thought you said something funny, and then you would work on that to get it perfect because he has a lot of camera movements. If it doesn’t match his pacing, you’d have to do it over and over and over and over again, until you got it. It was a lot of takes, but I think that’s his style. All the Rush Hour films, you feel like they’re just big movies. That was my second time working with him. I did a pilot with him 10 years ago, so I’m used to the style.
Was it difficult not to crack up, working with that cast?
PENA: Yeah, for the whole movie. I’m not good at that. I’m a drama guy. I did Crash and World Trade Center, and then I’m with Eddie Murphy, who would egg it on. I was the head-scratching, look away guy. Those guys are legends. It’s so interesting to watch Ben Stiller work because he just knows what’s funny. I loved The Cable Guy. Tropic Thunder was awesome. I thought Reality Bites was really cool. He just has such a knowledge of script, character and story, and I just tried to keep up. Eddie Murphy is just so off-the-cuff and can make anything funny. You hope that someday you’ll acquire that skill, but maybe you’re born with that.
PENA: Yeah, that comes out in August, and that’s with Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson and me. It’s a really cool movie, and it’s a much smaller movie. Danny McBride’s dad has won the lottery and he’s spending the money like crazy, so he’s like, “Dude, I’ve got to off my dad before he spends it all, so I can get an inheritance.” He needs money for an assassin, so he hires this kid and puts a bomb on him and says, “Go inside a bank and get me $100,000,” which he does. That’s to pay me off. I play the assassin. The whole time, it’s Jesse Eisenberg trying to get out of the bomb jacket. It’s insane, but it’s really funny. I saw it. It’s a flat-out comedy. And, the way that the writers found this idea was to look on Wikipedia for the top 100 dumbest ways to die, and they found some guy that put a bomb collar on his neck, went in on it with his buddies to get money, and then gave it to the other guys and they detonated it. That’s the dumbest way to die.