Like many people, the L.A. cops “End of Watch” star Michael Pena joined on ride-alongs couldn’t help but get a little excited around his famous co-star, Jake Gyllenhaal.
“It was kind of funny. Everybody’s like, ‘Jake! Jake! Jake! What’s up?,’” says Pena, 36, who grew up at 16th and California and went to Marist High School in Chicago. “And as soon as we went on patrol they were like, ‘Yeah yeah, yeah, hold up a sec.’ They were policing. They were super cool cops.”
In “End of Watch,” opening Sept. 21, viewers get a rare, intimate look at police work. The film from writer-director David Ayer (who wrote “Training Day”) follows officers Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Pena) as they patrol a particularly dangerous part of south central L.A. The actors endured five months of training for the roles, including five-day-a-week workouts with three days of sparring and four-to-six hours of weapons training twice a week.
During the nightly ride-alongs with officers, Pena says, he saw people shot in the face and arms and a “bloody mess over here, bloody mess over there.”
Pena, who still has family in Chicago, including a brother who works as a sheriff at Cook County jail, talked at the Park Hyatt about growing up in Chicago, where his bike was stolen, and how he and Jake assisted police officers.
How aware were you of violence in Chicago growing up here? I’m not sure how much was going on near you or how much you’ve heard about things now, but the homicide rate is up something like 37 percent over last year.
Is there a war or something going on between gangs?
There’s just a lot of bad stuff all the time.
I remember I had my first bike for half an hour. I got beat up and it got taken away. It was pretty brutal.
How old were you?
Thirteen, or something like that. No, 10. I was 10 years old. The thing was, I think half of the people that live there are actually alive. It was pretty brutal. It depends if there’s a major war between gangs. It’s kind of a weird effect—one person shoots one guy, then they retaliate and they retaliate and they retaliate. It goes back and forth like ping-pong. The police have to try and stop it as best they can.
How long did you wait until you got another bike?
Oh my God, I think my dad built me a bike. [The one that was stolen] was like a Huffy, BMX bike, which were super-awesome at the time. We couldn’t afford it very much. That was like my birthday present. I think he got like the body of a bike, which wasn’t even really like a bike, it was like a motorcycle. So heavy, dude. And he built the fork, like welded some things and actually built the fork; it was so hard. The wheels were small. [Laughs.] I never got made fun of, though.
And no one stole it.
Nobody wanted to steal it. I could literally leave it with a bow and they’re like, “Man, I ain’t gonna steal that.” ‘Cause who’s gonna sell it, dude? With the welding and stuff. Dude, nobody’s going to sell it.
How did you react physically when you saw shootings during the ride-alongs? I’m sure you’re trying to play it cool, but was there a moment when you jumped?
Yeah, for sure. Especially the first day of shooting. They did their gang signs, like, “Get outta here, man!” We weren’t shooting on soundstages, man, that’s for sure. We were shooting in the thick of it. And they were beeping and trying to get us out and there was a loud pop. And all of us, including the real policemen, went for our weapons. I was like, “I got a fake weapon. What am I gonna do?”
You heard that off-set?
Yeah, it was literally like (pop).
Someone getting shot around the corner for real?
Yeah, yeah. But it was exhaust from a station wagon. And it was a little old lady. But we had security, we had a police officer … but the reaction that I got was an interesting wave of emotions. At first you feel apprehensive and fear and then you get in the thick of it and then actually get into some boredom because this is your 10th one and you’re like, “OK, more of the same stuff, more of the same stuff,” and then what kicked in is it actually started becoming really fun. And that’s when I think Jake—I’m not speaking for Jake but I feel like I can—is that you actually [start] wanting good calls. If that’s in your personality. And that’s what kind of guys they are. You want a good call. It’s called a code three, it’s when lights and sirens go on, when everybody goes to the scene. You want it. It’s really funny; you’re like, “What is it, what is it?” “It’s a gang shooting.” “OK, cool, cool. Stay in the car or outside? Can we go up there?” And then we were checking things out. And Jake was really good. He actually found—we were walking by looking for suspects or whatever, and then he’s like (quietly), “Do you know that there’s five guys in that car right there?” They literally pulled over in an alley, turned off the light and everything was dark and they were hidden by the boards, trying not to be seen. So if someone flashed his light they won’t see. There was a bunch of drugs in the car, and it was pretty brutal.
Did you ever see something the officers didn’t see and you’re like, “Psst, I know we’re just riding along but …”?
For sure. All the time. They just want eyes. They just want to get at the good stuff. And then we found out that there’s this new other criminal. There was like pimps and shit. Really weird. They’re tatted with money signs and anything to do with diamonds because they’re just after the money. And what they’ll do is they’ll follow somebody, take their correspondence, do whatever it is and then literally wipe out their bank account. Spend all their credit cards. I don’t know how they do it … They have a lot of money. They protect they’re women.
Now that you know how real cops behave, what’s the most ridiculous thing you remember seeing in movies or TV in terms of people pretending to be cops?
Oh my God, dude, the one thing, and you see it on TV shows all the effing time, dude. We were trained that when you shoot, you have to talk to the intended target because, and you’ll see this on any TV show, they’re like, “Dude that’s not going to happen” and then they put the muzzle toward somebody else. ‘Cause your head turns and so does the gun. Like, “Dude, I swear to God.” I was like, “Whoa, there’s no technical advisor?” Be like, “Dude, you’re pointing your gun at your partner.”
I’m going to notice that all the time now.
You’re going to notice that every time. That I found out it irks cops. I’m like, “Oh, great.”
It seems like you and Jake really bonded from going through this experience together. How much would you recommend friends who are hanging out saying, “Hey, let’s take this bond to the next level. Let’s go on a ride-along”?
Dude, that would actually be, like--you mean to be romantic? Like a bromance? “Bro, you want to take it to the next level? Would you die for me, bro?” That would be something that Will Ferrell would say, “Do you want to take it to the next level, man? Do you want to be romantic? If you want this bromance to take it to the next level, let’s go on a ride along. Let’s do it, bro!”
That’s a good idea, right?
[Laughs.] Yeah. That’s an epic idea, dude. I think family members should do that. ‘Cause me and my brother literally fought all the time, dude. Physically, everything. I bet you if we sat and saw the world the way it really is and we woke up to it we’re like, “OK, we need to calm down.” Even though we lived in a bad neighborhood—the thing is, when you live in a bad neighborhood you run away from trouble. You run away from the cops. In this instance, they are the cops and they run toward the trouble. So it’s actually gnarlier than you think it is.
A situation that would most scare him if he was a cop: “I think every cop’s going to say it, being in a gun fight with some perpetrators and being ambushed. Imagine from all areas. That would be the worst.”
On gangs filming their activity for YouTube: “They also like to give shout-outs with bandanas or whatever so you don’t really know who it is. But you’re like, ‘Yeah, you’re an idiot because if a cop confiscates it it’s got your other videos on it.’”
On a mind-blowing YouTube video: “There was one YouTube vid that I was like, ‘Holy, whoa.’ ... I think it was in Boston, this car was like riding along and these 10 guys I think it was, like, ‘Why don’t you get out of here? Yeah, your motha!’ Bam! Like hitting the cars, breaking windows and stuff. And there was one car that stopped, and they were bullying all the cars. One guy comes out and beats the crap out of 10 dudes. With like a pipe. He’s like ‘Pow! Pow!’ And they’re filming it because in one street this always happens. And then there’s another angle of the guy filming it and once his buddies are getting his ass kicked he runs away.”
Some favorite YouTube videos: “Yeah, God, there’s so many, dude. There’s one that’s a prank call. It’s called ‘Ownage.’ He prank-calls Chinese restaurants and he’s like (Chinese accent), ‘Hello? I need to speak to somebody who speaks Chinese.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, what do you want?’ and he’s like, ‘The [bleep], baby.’ [Laughs.] ‘Come here, big boy.’ It goes on for like seven minutes. That one’s really hilarious. The one where I think he’s on LSD or something and he’s a lizard. ‘Big balloon guy. Big balloon hands.’ You haven’t seen it? Epicness. That one. I watch chess videos from kingscrusher. I play chess. And he gives the best tutorials, especially to go to sleep. And then there’s one, the honey badger. ‘There’s the honey badger running in slow motion. Thanks a lot, stupid!’”
On Lollapalooza (where I walked right past him this year after At the Drive-In performed): “Dude, I went in ’92 and 2012. It was literally 20 years apart. It was my first concert, Lollapalooza, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were playing and this one I was like, ‘Man, I would love to go’ and then two of my buddies were DJ’ing, Chris Masterson and Danny Masterson and they hooked it all up. Dude, I had a blast. ‘Cause I go to Coachella as well. I was in a band for years, they’re signed and have singles out, it’s called Nico Vega. And one of them’s married to the lead singer of Imagine Dragons, they’re killing it right now. So I toured a bunch. I would play with people like Warpaint and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and like all of our friends are making it. So I’m a band guy. I was acting, but I was acting maybe like a month out of the year, and then 11 months was on the road. When ‘Crash’ came out the lead singer’s like, ‘Dude, you’re going to be an actor.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I worked on “Crash” for four days. We’re good.’ And then I got offers or whatever. But that was off the hook, dude. I think for me Miike Snow murdered it, dude. Killed it. That was the first time that I’ve ever been backstage where everyone’s dancing. I think it was the song ‘Animal’ that really put it over the top.”
What he’s listening to now: “Miike Snow, Black Keys, White Stripes, Tyler The Creator, Ed Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Warpaint.”
Guilty pleasure movie: “God, I think I’m kind of a snob to be honest with you when it comes to movies. Let me think about this. God, there’s movies that I watch all the time. I’m gonna say, it’s not a guilty pleasure at all but it’s ‘Caddyshack.’ Just because Bill Murray’s so epic in there. ‘Kill the varmint.’ He’s hilarious. I’m a golfer so everything that they do is like, oh my God.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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