Michael Pena wanted to sit closer to the floor-to-ceiling windows at NoMI during a recent lunch — and who wouldn't? The trendy restaurant on the seventh floor of the Park Hyatt hotel offers customers a scenic view of Michigan Avenue and the Water Tower building, and in the case of Pena, who shares top billing with Jake Gyllenhaal in the upcoming film "End of Watch," a far different view from the one he was used to growing up in Chicago.
Pena was raised by his once-undocumented Mexican parents in the North Lawndale area across from Douglas Park, which he said was swarming with gangbangers and drug addicts. He worked at Harris Bank in the Chicago Board of Trade before quitting to move to Los Angeles, his current home, to pursue acting 16 years ago. "I might go to the Board of Trade later to see who still works there," said Pena, 36, midway through a full day of press for "End of Watch," a found-footage cop film in theaters Friday.
Pena has quietly built a resume that includes two Oscar-winning films ("Crash" and "Million Dollar Baby") and one that was nominated but lost ("Babel"). Next year he will appear in "Gangster Squad" with Ryan Gosling and Sean Penn and star in a Diego Luna-directed biopic about Mexican labor leader Cesar Chavez. And yet Pena, who has also appeared in films with Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood and Eddie Murphy, has a hard time seeing himself as a celebrity, as I learned during lunch.
(The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.)
Michael: I love the style of this place.
Luis: You picked it, right?
Michael: No, (the publicists) did. … I'm usually taking a nap at this time. I was up, like, at 5:30 a.m.
Waiter: Are you gentlemen ready to order any food?
Michael: Can I get the sweet corn soup? And then can I get the Farmhouse Bowl (salad) and the spicy tuna roll. I think that should be enough food, right?
Michael: This is for …?
Luis: The Tribune.
Michael: I grew up reading the newspapers, mostly the sports section. I was a wrestler and would check to see if I was ranked. I went to Marist (High School) originally and went downstate a couple times. I ended up not being able to wrestle my senior year because I had a broken nose and dislocated … everything (from wrestling).
Luis: Where is your cauliflower ear?
Michael: I got it drained. I had a girlfriend at the time, and she didn't want me to have that. It looked nasty. Those guys who have girlfriends that don't give a crap, that's real love.
Luis: What made you want to wrestle?
Michael: I loved WWF as a kid. I went to try out and was like, "What kind of wrestling is this?" There weren't any body slams. No top ropes. I used to be that out of it. I was like, "I'm leaving." As soon as I was about to leave, the coach was like, "Are you going out for wrestling?" "I'm thinking about it." So I was stuck. I wasn't the strongest guy — kind of like acting. I wasn't like the most good-looking guy. I was pretty average. The No. 1 thing is the motivation to win. How am I going to beat this guy? In acting, I'm going up against models. How will I get this part?
Luis: Did you wrestle with family members?
Michael: No. My brother would kick my (butt), but not anymore. When I was 17, I went from 5 (foot) 3 to 5 (foot) 9 in like a summer. I saw him yesterday at the ("End of Watch") screening. He's a corrections officer and was there with co-workers. He came up to me and said, "Congratulations, Mike. I'm proud of you." It was really kind of a special moment. There aren't too many moments where my big brother says that. He didn't even say that when he saw me in "Crash." For me, ("End of Watch") is one of the most gratifying roles I've done. "Crash" is definitely one as well. I felt like I knew the character and was living the character in both cases.
Luis: I saw you say on "Lopez Tonight" that your parents crossed the border.
Michael: Twice. That's why we didn't visit Mexico. My parents left us with a family for six months. Can you imagine leaving a one-year-old kid with a family you don't know because you don't want to bring him to Mexico? This family, who I've only met once since then, took care of us. My parents came back after crossing again and eventually got their green cards.
(The food arrives.)
Luis: I cover celebrity sightings and heard you were at Sunda last night?
Michael: A sighting of me? That's so funny. No (lie), but I don't feel like a celeb. I do star in movies, but I don't know, dude. It's weird. I guess people recognize me, but I'm not a household name. Two out of every five people who come up to me know my name. The one thing I don't want is to be followed by paparazzi. I want to be able to walk around Lollapalooza.
(Michael puts down his spoon.)
Michael: That soup is a little too rich for me. I have to put it down. … The reason I love Lollapalooza is because it's a great music festival. I used to tour with this band. I was a drummer. I would tour a bunch for about 10 months out of the year and act for about two months. I would make what I needed from acting and would stretch it out. I used to live off of nothing. I worked on ("Crash") for four days and made no money. I shot it and went on tour, and the lead singer was like, "Dude, you're an actor." "I'm a drummer too." "Sorry, but you can be a successful actor."
Luis: Do you feel like "End of Watch" is your biggest role?
Michael: It's weird to say that. I've starred in other movies: "Shooter" and "World Trade Center." But ("World Trade Center") was multiple storylines at one time. I'm in almost every scene and frame (in "End of Watch"). I have just as much screen time as Jake Gyllenhaal. He's a huge star. I have to thank Jake for that. It's crazy to share screen time with someone like that and not be a huge star. My hat goes off to him.
Luis: How did you get started in acting?
Michael: My best friend's mom made me do it because she said, "You're good at imitating people. Why don't you try acting?" I think I said, "Nah, I'm cool." It was just so far from reality. I went to Hubbard High School. I don't think they had a theater program there. She made me promise I would go to an open call. I went, and a Hollywood producer said, "So can you act?" I was like, "I don't know. You tell me." I didn't get the part (in "To Sir, With Love II,") but I was an extra. … Holy (crap), this (sushi) is spicy.
Luis: You don't like spicy?
Michael: No, I love it. … I got to work with Sidney Poitier. I went up to him at craft service. I was naive. Sometimes it's good to be naive. People try to go back to that feeling of being naive and fearless. I said, "When did you start acting?" He was like, "I was 18." I was like, "I'm 19 — right on time."
Luis: What was the neighborhood where you grew up like?
(Pena uses a fork, salt shaker and his hands to demonstrate.)
Michael: Here's Douglas Park, here are the (Latin) Kings, here are the Disciples, BGDs — Black Gangster Disciples. Like, all over. It was nuts. I had my first bike when I was 10 for literally 30 minutes. I just got my (butt) kicked. People were shot all the time. I've definitely seen people bleeding and pools of blood. Then we moved to a place by Marquette Park on the South Side that was a little better. Our first week there, we went to the park: "Oh, there's a march going on, let's see." It was the Ku Klux Klan. I remember my dad looking at all their eyes. That was my first education on how it is and how people view us.
Luis: Did you ever get shot at?
Michael: I remember my buddy and I got in a fight with seven guys up on Milwaukee (Avenue). He sprayed them with Mace, and we ran down some stairs. There was a park right there. We're running and hear (screeching tires) and then (gunshots). We hid between the curb and a car because they're not going to be able to shoot down. So we get up and are cleaning ourselves off and my friend says, "Check if you got shot." I didn't. I wasn't even nervous. It's just a thing that happened.
Luis: Was it scary moving to Hollywood or easy?
Michael: I had nothing to fall back on. My dad wasn't going to give me money. At times I was flat broke. I slept on couches and in a friend's van. I was like, I'm going to stick it out. I didn't know I'd have this kind of success. I thought I would maybe be a series regular. The third banana, if I was lucky. I tried to be good in roles so that I could get the next job. I was so broke at one point, I would shower in the Oakwood Apartments clubhouse when I was living in a van parked outside. I used to live there, so security had seen me come out of the apartments and (they were) like, "Hey, he lives here." I only did it for a month, but it was a long month.
Luis: What were you telling your family at the time?
Michael: I said I was doing great in my apartment and have a big TV. We weren't even rich, but I didn't want my mom to know I was sleeping in a van and using a box of cornflakes as my pillow. I lied to them. I can say it now because it worked out, but I definitely lied to them.
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