Michael Pena Interviewed – ‘Shooter’

     March 19, 2007

The new film from Antoine Fuqua is opening this Friday and its called Shooter. The film stars Mark Wahlberg as a Marine Corps Sniper who leaves the military after a mission goes bad. After he is asked back to help stop an assassination he gets double-crossed again and he is forced to figure out who set him up and how to clear his name.

While it sounds a lot like a bad Steven Seagal movie from the early 90’s… I have to say I really dug it and found Shooter surprisingly entertaining. One of the reasons I dug it more than I expected was probably due to the amount of politics the film weaves into the storyline. Slimy politicians in Washington are always a safe bet, especially ones that have good actors playing the roles like Ned Beatty and Danny Glover. I should also mention that Mark Wahlberg is one of those actors I buy into. He just connects with me as an everyman – someone who can play almost any role and keep the character grounded.

But enough about Wahlberg.

Michael Pena is someone you probably recognize but can’t place, at least not yet. While his early career was in TV, he’s recently made the jump to the big screen in a major way. Recently he was the lead opposite Nicholas Cage in World Trade Center and as you’ll read below he’s currently filming the new Robert Redford film that stars Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep as well as Redford who is both acting and directing the film. It’s called Lion for Lambs by the way.

In Shooter Michael plays a new FBI agent who starts to question what everyone thinks happened. If I say anymore it will give away more plot points than necessary.

The interview below was conducted a little while ago in roundtable form – meaning a bunch of us sat around a table and asked some questions. Michael came across as someone who really understand the industry and had a lot of interesting things to say.

If you want to listen to the interview click here, otherwise the complete transcript is below. And due to the amount of people we got for this movie I couldn’t transcribe everyone. So if you would like to listen to Danny Glover – Mr. I’m-getting-to-old-for-thisclick here.

And if you want to see a trailer for Shooter before reading the interview click here.

Shooter opens this Friday.

Question: Did you read the books of this beforehand?

Pena: I didn’t. Antoine [Fuqua] told me not to read the books. It was a different character, right? A pretty popular character from what I understand.

Question: Did you read them afterwards or at any point?

Pena: I didn’t because I think – it’s funny – I had a picture of what Nick Memphis was like and then if I would’ve read the book I’m not sure it would’ve helped me out.

Question: How did the script come to you?

Pena: Well, my agent sent it to me and said that he really liked it. He said, ‘I like it. You should give it a read.’ I thought, ‘Okay, cool.’ It’s an action movie which is something that I’ve never quite done before and so I didn’t know how to receive it, but the script was good. Jonathan Lemkin really did good by it because it was page turner. As I turned each page I just really liked what I was reading and it was intriguing and it actually kept my attention and those are usually the kinds of scripts that I would do anyway, something that actually interests me. Something that I want to go see.

Question: What were the things that made it such a page turner? Was it the action or some of the technical stuff?

Pena: Well, it was a combination of both. Number one I thought that it was really cool that the action sequences were actually justified, that you actually wanted them to do something. You were like, ‘Please, do something.’ As opposed to there being these action sequences and then blah, blah, blah and again like that which seems to be some of the movies out there that I’ve seen and that I try hopefully not to do. The other thing, you’re right, is it was a technical thing. It was this sniper guy a mile and a half away shooting a target and having the bullet travel for four or five seconds and then hit the target. You have to realize that I’m a guy that likes Chess and all of that. Calculus in high school, that kind of stuff I really enjoy.

Question: Your character didn’t realize it seemed for a long time that he was in an action movie.

Pena: I think that was cool. I believe that was a really cool thing. In a comical way it’s almost like the guy in ‘Naked Gun’ when he’s like, ‘There’s nothing to see here.’ And there’s all these explosions going on behind him. ‘Don’t worry. Everyone can go home.’

Question: Did you and Mark [Wahlberg] train at the same place or not?

Pena: He trained to be a sniper and I trained to be an FBI guy. So I went to the FBI office here in Los Angeles and in Philly. I met these guys and it was surprising because you have a preconceived notion of what the FBI is like –they know everything about you [Laughs]. So that’s one thing, and when you get there, and watching like ‘FBI Files’ and forensic shows, you don’t want to touch anything, but you go there and they’re just regular guys. It’s interesting, but they’re just regular guys who just happen to have a job that they have to do when they have to work, when they’re talking to you or when they actually have to do the work. I met this one guy who was a rookie and he’s of German descent and what was really interesting is that he wanted to be a really good FBI guy. It’s one thing reading it in stories and then seeing it in movies and then seeing the subtlety that lay behind that. He was just leaning forward and listening intently and really wanted to do good, writing down everything. I asked him what he had going, why he liked this so much and he said, ‘These guys just have a wealth of information. It’s just so much.’ It’s one thing to read it in a book and another thing to actually go and do it. It’s like moving out of your house when you’re nineteen. You think that you know everything and then a day later you’re like, ‘Why am I paying for gas? Do I really need to pay for gas?’

Question: Did you base your character on him at all?

Pena: I did a little bit especially the beginning of it because I think that you needed a certain kind of innocence and you could tell the difference between him and the other guys. The other guys knew the beat already. They knew what was going on and this guy was more on a search. He was more on a search for what was going on which was exactly right for Nick Memphis and at times when you’re nervous it can seem a little clumsy which is another thing that I wanted to do. Shakespeare did it and all the guys that were playing all the fools at first ended up being the heroes at the end. I thought that was always an interesting tidbit to know.

Question: How cooperative was the FBI with you considering the nature of this movie? Did they read the script?

Pena: Yeah, right. I mean, I told them that I was playing a rookie. They were like, ‘A rookie?! Come on.’ They want you to play the beat guy, that guy. He was like, ‘That would’ve never happened to me.’ I told them a little bit about the story, but I don’t think that they read the script. I do redeem myself at the end with it paying off.

Question: Mark said that you guys are buddies and that you’re playing golf now. What happened when developing those characters then? Was there goofing off between the scenes?

Pena: Nah. He’s pretty intense. He’s really a professional. I never talked to him about it, but I thought that he kind of stayed in character a lot. Definitely, he was like that. The thing is that I’ve been trying to beat him at golf for a while now. He’s good though. He brings that focus and that energy that he has in acting and it’s hard because he can drive the ball like three hundred yards and he putts well. So you’re like, ‘Great. Awesome.’ So I have to be a tactical guy. I’m like, ‘I have to do this and that.’ And somehow I’ll beat him on a hole, but by the end of the round – I have some time. I’ll get some lessons.

Question: How was it doing that torture scene?

Pena: That was intense. That contraption was crazy. I mean, there’s no other way to put it. The prop guys showed me an illustration of what they were thinking of and I was like, ‘Really? You’re thinking of that, huh? That’s cool. That’s interesting.’ The weird thing about it is that when you have your hand like this it’s really hard to have any real strength with it. You have a little more strength here because you can straighten your arm out, but when the guys are around and you’re stuck they’re like, ‘Do you want to see how it works?’ I was like, ‘No. No, not right now. Not even as a joke, buddy.’ It’s a pretty scary thing to even think that thing happens.

Question: You’ve had a great string of roles over the past year. Are you going to be taking a vacation any time soon because you’re now shooting the new Robert Redford movie

Pena: This is what I love to do, man.

Question: Can you talk about doing that movie?

Pena: I’ll tell you a little bit about it. It’s an awesome first sentence. It’s a movie directed by Robert Redford and starring Redford and Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise and myself or whatever. After the first three names you’re like, ‘Whatever.’ I mean, they’re icons.

Question: Are you done with it?

Pena: No. I’m midway into the shooting.

Question: What do you do in it?

Pena: Well, I play this college kid who goes to Afghanistan and fights the war. It’s another interesting thing and Redford plays my teacher, my professor who’s trying to talk me out of it.

Question: Do you have scenes with all of the big guns in the movie?

Pena: No, man. I wanted them to write a scene with me and Meryl, but I actually went on set a couple of times just to watch her. She’s fantastic.

Question: What did you learn?

Pena: I think that there’s too much to learn. It’s like going to see Michael Jordan play basketball. You’re like, ‘What did you pick up?’ It’s too much, what he does. He does his crossovers really good. You need a good jump shot and you need to put the ball in the basket.

Question: What about working with Redford, working with him as a director and actor?

Pena: He makes it seem like you’re not really shooting. It’s like an interesting thing because he has a different style about him. Like in ‘The Quiz Show,’ it’s a very intriguing movie and you’re very much stuck in it, but in a different way with a different intensity. It seems like you’re just having a conversation and it’s not really a big deal, but it is a big deal at the same time. I love working with those kinds of directors. They have their own style and they have their own vision and have something to say, but you kind of want to go towards that because they’re directing the movie more than I’m just acting in it. They’re setting up the shots and the key lights and the people in the background. They have all of that to consider, and so I like it when a director really has a point of view like that guy.

Question: You’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest directors out there. Is that the first thing you look at when you get a script?

Pena: Well, sometimes – first and foremost I ask if it’s a good script because if you have a great director with an okay script, from what I’ve seen, nine times out of ten it’s going to be an okay movie no matter what. To me it’s story. The story has to be interesting to me. It’s a funny thing. I love Bukowski books, but I don’t know if they would make good movies and you have to keep that in consideration – can you see the movie, can you be intrigued in it? That’s the thing. So it’s all about the script and the story first, and then it’s about who’s going to tell that story. The director has a lot to do with how that story is being told. Good directors have good scripts most of the time anyway. If they said that [Steven] Spielberg had a script and he’s working on it I would be like, ‘I’m in. I’m in. What is it?’

Question: Are you going to be back on ‘The Shield?’

Pena: No. I think that movies are pretty much taking over. I love that show though. It was a good show and it was almost like shooting an independent film every week and those actors are phenomenal – Walter Goggins and the character of Vic Mackey. It was a really cool show to be with. It’s funny because a lot of people still only know me from that show. I’ll be in the supermarket and they’re like, ‘Army!’

Question: Can you talk about that shift in your career where all of a sudden you’re working with these great people and it’s happening over and over again? Was there a moment when you noticed that you’re getting where you want to be?

Pena: It actually started about seven years ago. I booked a series called ‘Siemper Fi’ with Steven Spielberg. He produced that and then I did a movie with Joaquin Phoenix and Ed Harris. Nothing seemed to pop, but I just wanted to do my work and do it as best possible. Then I did a movie with Ryan Gosling and Kevin Spacey and Don Cheadle called ‘The United States of Leland’ and I pretty much kept the same thing going. I just want to be doing good scripts with good directors. It’s funny, but it doesn’t seem that different now because I’ve had that same mentality for such a long time that it doesn’t seem like a jump. The opportunity is definitely different. After ‘Crash’ it was a lot easier to get an audition for a certain movie and it was before it even got the Oscar. Oliver Stone saw ‘Crash’ and hired me without reading me which was the first time that had ever happened. I was like, ‘He doesn’t want me to read? Are you sure? Should I read for him just for the hell of it? Are you positive?’ He dissected it and made sure that he saw whatever he wanted and he had a talk with Paul Haggis about how I was to work with, but it’s a blessing, man, because I like good stories anyway. I like to read a good story. I like to see a good story. There are a lot of them out there and I just want to be a part of them.

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Question: I imagine after ‘World Trade Center’ people would come up to you and talk about their stories of September 11th. Was there anything about doing that movie that moved you?

Pena: The thing that moved me was at the premiere for ‘World Trade Center,’ I don’t know if I’m ever going to have this again in my life – I hope I do – but after the premiere there were cops and fireman that just wanted to shake my hand. They said that they were caught up in the movie and they said that we did right by them. I mean, that’s the best acknowledgement that you can get, when there seemed to be all these people that are actually putting their life on the line in order to protect and serve, and these guys did above and beyond that on that particular day. That’s one of those things that I’m always going to remember, them telling me that.

Question: Do you want to direct?

Pena: I think so.

Question: You want to do that and eventually produce your own films?

Pena: I think so. I think that directing is something that I’m going to lean towards. There is still a lot of work to be done as far as even me as an actor, to see how I can tell a story in the best way, how to fit into a story, how to tell a story, how to make it fun for me as well and working with actors and the light and the camera angles, why this angle is picked instead of that angle. Without getting overly heady about it, you have to know how to put the audience’s attention to where it should be at that point in a story. So I have a little bit of work to do, maybe five years.

Question: What was the glacier experience like for you in this film?

Pena: Awesome. You’re going up in a chopper for half an hour into Whistler and you’re thinking that it’s beautiful it’s amazing, ‘Look at those trees.’ You think it’s really cool and then you get into costume or whatever and they dump you off on the glacier and you think that it’s really cool and that the view is fantastic or whatever, and two hours later you’re like, ‘It’s cold. I want to go home.’

Question: So no falls or injuries up there?

Pena: No, but they made me walk – it’s in the movie – down a mountain and then up a mountain.

Question: You did that?

Pena: That’s what I asked. I had a metal plate on because there was no way to not have it on and it was a walk – you saw it. It was a good walk.

Question: They couldn’t give you a fake metal plate?

Pena: Well, you had to drop it as well onto the ground and if it was fake one it wouldn’t have been right. It needed to stick like you saw. If it was plastic it wouldn’t have been right. It would’ve rolled off the toboggan.

Question: You seem to be really committed to doing good stories with good people. After getting a lot of attention after ‘World Trade Center’ did you get flooded with scripts that weren’t what you wanted to do and have to resist some temptation there?

Pena: It’s kind of been the same thing. There’s always been the opportunity to audition for things, but now there seems to be a little more interest in it. I’m just following the same kind of formula. Do I like the script? When I read it in my apartment by myself, just me, how do I feel about the story? It’s really easy. If after page twenty you’re on the internet then there’s something wrong, but if it’s three o’clock in the morning and you’re on page eighty and you really want to finish those last forty pages there is something to be said about that. So it’s going to be the same for a while.

Question: You auditioned for this one, right?

Pena: I did.

Question: Mark said he knew you were right the minute you auditioned. Did you get that feeling?

Pena: I did. At first I didn’t know because of the genre and because it was so different I wondered if I could do something like this. I’m used to dealing in relationships and working with Maggie Gyllenhaal and us being husband and wife. It was rewarding as hell and so I didn’t know how I would do it, but it was funny, I was taking a jog one day and I was just thinking about the character and I thought, ‘Oh, I got it.’ I went to that meeting and setup an audition and Antoine offered it to me in the room. He was like, ‘You want to do the movie?’ I was like, ‘Lets do it.’ It’s funny though, you have to connect with it somehow and you have to work for that connection. In essence you want to try and make it look as easy as possible, but there is a lot of research that goes into that. So I did have a connection. You hear about certain movies or whatever, but from the get go it was refreshing because Antoine actually cared about the characters and the story and he wanted it to be as honest as possible. He was like, ‘I just want to be real with it. I don’t want any of that fake stuff.’ I kind of like that especially in an action movie. There are scenes where Mark is trying to cover that wound that other directors might not have shot it so honestly. They might have faded away from that because people might not want to see it, but it was cool watching someone actually trying to deal with it in a way and not think of censoring themselves.

Question: Was it fun? It looked like it was fun playing Army.

Pena: It is fun. It’s the kind of thing that you’re not really ready for, but if someone were to give you a gun and tell you to shoot this thing, run around the block and shoot that other thing and then there’s going to be a helicopter above you, shoot that too – you get into the spirit of that pretty quickly. So it was a lot of fun. That was surprising because I had never done any of that stuff before. So I was totally willing to do that.

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