Michael Pena On Set Interview – OBSERVE AND REPORT

     March 30, 2009

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

Last June I got to visit New Mexico for the first time. I was invited (along with a few other online journalists) to visit the set of the new Jody Hill film “Observe and Report.” If Jody Hill’s name sounds familiar to you, it’s because he previously directed “The Foot Fist Way” and he’s one of the people behind “Eastbound and Down”, a great new show on HBO that just finished its first season.

By now you’ve all heard of “Observe and Report”, but for the few that haven’t…

At the Forest Ridge Mall, head of security Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) patrols his jurisdiction with an iron fist. The master of his domain, he combats skateboarders, shoplifters and the occasional unruly customer while dreaming of the day when he can swap his flashlight for a badge and a gun. Ronnie’s delusions of grandeur are put to the test when the mall is struck by a flasher.

Driven by his personal duty to protect and serve the mall and its patrons, Ronnie seizes the opportunity to showcase his underappreciated law enforcement talents on a grand scale, hoping his solution of this crime will earn him a coveted spot at the police academy and the heart of his elusive dream girl Brandi (Anna Faris), the hot make-up counter clerk who won’t give him the time of day. But his single-minded pursuit of glory launches a turf war with the equally competitive Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) of the Conway Police, and Ronnie is confronted with the challenge of not only catching the flasher, but getting him before the real cops.

While I usually have to post on set interviews before I’ve seen the film, that’s not the case this time, as I recently caught a screening and loved it. Not only is the film laugh-out-loud funny, it’s a hell of a lot crazier than most studio released movies. Trust me, Jody Hill was given the freedom to make his movie and it’s absolutely worth checking out when it hits theaters on April 10th.

So with the release date fast approaching, WB has finally lifted the embargo on the interviews I participated in and the one below is with Michael Pena.

If you’re familiar with Michael’s previous work in “The Shield”, “World Trade Center”, “Babel”, or “The Lucky Ones”, you’d think he would never be funny in a comedy. But he is, and after people get a look at his work in “Observe and Report”, I think he’s going to be offered a lot more comedic roles as he brought a hell of a lot to his character and he’s extremely funny in the film.

Anyway, during our interview Michael talked about his hair and accent in the movie, what it was like to try and keep up with all the improv, and a lot more. As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio by clicking here.

Finally, before reading the interview, I strongly suggest watching this red band trailer for “Observe and Report”. After you see it, I promise you’ll want to watch this film. Also, this trailer is not false advertising. The film really is this crazy and awesome.

We heard you have an interesting accent for this film.

Michael Pena: When I read the script it was written for a white kid with blond hair. I told my agents, “Look can you submit me for it,” because they weren’t going to offer me the part because I’m not known for comedy. They said, “You want to play that part?” and I said, “Yeah I think I can play a guy trying to be black.” So I have a couple buddies—one this guy Rich who is in a band. He’s from Toledo, but he’s got the strangest accent. Then there’s another guy who’s a caddy at Wilshire Country Club and I kind of messed the two and then just went in with the accent. This was my idea too because the caddy at the country club has big curls, but he’s one of the best caddies that I’ve ever had. He’s really serious and pays no mind to his accent.

Is that your hair or a wig?

Pena: This? It’s my hair dude. Dude it’s tough. I just don’t want to spend that much time in the makeup chair and so I was like dude let me just perm it bro. I swear to God Jody [Hill] was emotional and was like, “Man would you do that for me man? That’s so cool man. Come here man.” I don’t think of it any different because if I was working for Redford or something and if they wanted me to perm my hair, I’d perm my hair. But this one I think adds to it. If you guys see there’s a gold chain, there’s a pinky ring—very subtle stuff.

You said you’re not known for comedy, but I’ve seen you on “My Name is Earl” so do you think you’ll start doing more of this genre?

Pena: “My Name is Earl” was the first one and I’ve got to say I was really, really nervous. It was great doing that. It’s still kind of spontaneous or what not, but it’s still a whole different vibe and it’s still as playful as can be, but it’s just a whole different animal. So I have been trying to ease into it with “My Name is Earl” and now this.

What is the vibe on this movie like? It seems very loose and improvisational.

Pena: That’s exactly it and the thing is is that the structure is basically the same, but in drama everything is tracked because the screenwriter in the beginning is talking about something in the past or whatever and in the middle there’s a definite kind of objective. The screenwriter wants to have a kind of affect. What affect does he want to have with this scene and in the end it’s like the conclusion or resolution of that will lead into another one. This one it’s like make you laugh, make you laugh, make you laugh.

How is it for you working in this R rated environment where you can pretty much say and do anything?

Pena: It’s really interesting because I’ll say some outlandish kind of stuff. I don’t know if you guys have seen any of the dailies, but I’ll say some crazy out of this world stuff and the director comes in, “Cool, cool can you do more of that?” and he takes it to a whole different level and I’m like, “Oh my God I think Jesus is going to hate me for this. I don’t want this to happen.” He’s like, “That’s the way to do it man. Just roll with that. Just roll with it man. Let it feed you.” At the end of the day you just pray to God that comes out alright. I think it’s alright. Seth Rogen and Jody Hill –I don’t know if you’ve seen “Foot Fist Way,” but I’m in pretty good hands.

When that kind of improv is happening and everyone is kind of topping each other, how hard is it to keep a straight face?

Pena: I’m the worst at it dude. That’s why I was asking if you guys seen the dailies because I think I’m the worst actor here of all time. I know for sure when you see Seth say really funny you’re going to see my head shake and I look at that when I’m seeing a comedy. I look at the person’s head shake. There’s a couple of times where I have to just look away and pretend like that’s a choice. Somehow filter that in there.

We saw Seth do about four takes of a scene and he says something different each time. Do you say the same line or do you add to it?

Pena: Even in drama that’s the interesting thing. The dialogue doesn’t change, but the action and the intention and whatever the moment gives you depending on the spontaneity of the other actor as well. That kicks in and then sometimes the dialogue changes. On this one you really have to appreciate Seth’s take on it. We’ve done 15 takes on one thing and he says everything differently, but with a different point of view and he changes it each and every time. Me, I do pretty much the same, but not as well. He’s a master at that, plus he’s a write so he’s got this vocabulary. He’s talking about motives or something like that for candles. I have no idea what that is. So I’ll use that in the scene.

Are you one of the characters who initially wasn’t a mall security guard and Seth recruits?

Pena: No, no I’m mall security along with Seth. I play Seth’s best friend.

So you’re part of that…

Pena: Special league taskforce. We’re on our way to catch a pervert. Well that’s the thing he puts together a team to catch a pervert who’s like just going on an assault of flashing and we’re going to catch that guy.

There’s also some other friends who come into so does your character have interaction with them?

Pena: Yeah he does a little bit and it’s interesting doing it with Ray [Liotta] because the first day I think all we asked him about was, “So in “Goodfellas…” How can you not dude? It was fantastic working with Ray.

I had a hard enough time not cracking up while I was doing my scene so I don’t know how you do it.

Pena: I don’t do it. I crack up. There was a scene where all I said was one word and we were all cracking up because of that one word and it was really, really tough to go through. Drama you’re trying to affect the other person and impinge on them emotionally as much as possible, but this one if Seth is trying to make me laugh, nine times out of 10 he’s going to make me laugh.

What was the word?

Pena: Sweetbird? It’s not a funny word.

Was it because of the way he delivered it?

Pena: No, I delivered it, but we were all cracking up because he said some things that we’re going to a candle store and I’m like, “Oh sweetbird?” It’s not that funny dude. It was just cracking us up. Hopefully it’s funny in the movie.

What store in this fake mall would you actually like to shop in?

Pena: Dude I don’t know. I thought this was all real so I have no idea. I love playing music so I’d shop at the music store, but this all looks so real. Also it’s deceiving because there’s a Sports Authority and there’s a Bed Bath & Beyond and there’s real stores within these stores so I don’t know which ones real. The set dressing is fantastic.

What do you have coming up after this?

Pena: I don’t know because of the impending actor’s strike. This has been a tough year. I have a movie with Oliver Stone right before and it’s funny that I’m doing this now, but I had a movie with Oliver Stone and because of the writer’s strike we couldn’t have a writer rewrite it so people were just dropping out right and left. The movie got canned or whatever. There was no work and now if the actor’s strike…big budget movies I don’t know if it matters because if they stop, they’ll start up again, but with the lower budget movies or something that isn’t $150 million I think it’s a lot tougher to do.

Do you think it’s possible that people will come back for the movie that was canned?

Pena: I don’t know. It would be an amazing character for me to be honest with you. I’ve never played a character like that. I think it would be amazing. I hope so.

Do you think the strike is going to happen?

Pena: I hope not. I hope that they resolve it as quick as possible, but I didn’t think the writer’s strike was going to happen. I’m not a good person to gage that on.

Do you think once SAG resolves their differences that a lot of projects will be green lit?

Pena: Absolutely dude, immediately. You can’t shoot a movie without actors. Even if it’s a cartoon there’s voiceovers and what not. That’s what happened right when the writer’s strike was over—boom this came in my life. They’re starting it really quick so that the actor’s strike doesn’t affect it which it won’t.

You’ve done a little TV, but you’ve mostly done films…

Pena: I started off doing TV though.

Would you consider going back to TV even if it meant signing a five year contract?

Pena: Right now I’m doing pretty well in them [movies]. I either get to co-star or star in some movies which is literally a dream come true. You’re watching movies when you’re starting acting and you’re like, “Oh I wish I could so that.” Now I’m doing that so I think I’m going to keep that and ride it out to see what happens. Right now it’s an interesting time because there’s amazing television shows. “The Sopranos”, just even one show in particular. It would be really tough to turn that down if it was going and something like that was starting out and the cable shows. I was on “The Shield” for a year before “Crash” came out and it was like doing an independent film every week. I don’t know. It would be tough, but right now I think movies are the way to go.

What’s the perk of shooting in New Mexico?

Pena: I think golfing. There’s literally eight of the top 10 courses are in Albuquerque or really close to it which is probably not what you were wanting to hear.

Did you ever play with Wahlberg?

Pena: I did. He’s the one who actually got me started. I fiddled around with it a little bit and he was so good at beating me with such a consistent pace. I’m competitive as it is. I think I started getting better like two years after so now I’m like a 10 handicap or something like that.

What did you start off at?

Pena: Probably like a five or six. He’s smashed the ball like a long way. He’s a strong guy. You’ve just got to not look at what he’s hitting because you’re going to want to go in there and blow out your back or whatever, but he’s surprisingly really good.

Do you have any fight scenes in the film?

Pena: I do have a fight scene. I want to see if I can do some UFC stuff in there—chocking a guy out. Sleep, sleep. I don’t know. Who knows?

I love your costume. It doesn’t even look like you.

Pena: This is my first comedy and I’m going to go big.

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