In the new film “End of Watch,” actor Michael Peña plays the Officer Mike Zavala, a cop who patrols the streets of gritty South Central, Los Angeles alongside buddy Officer Brian Taylor (played by Oscar nominee Jake Gyllenhaal). A pair of jokesters, the two form a brother-like bond as they protect their neighborhood and work outside their jurisdiction at the risk of their very lives. It’s a drama, while peppered with comedy, reveals a darker look at the drug cartels and border wars that have impacted southern California.
“I was reading close to 10 scripts a week and this one really stuck out from the others, from beginning to end,” says Peña, about the script penned by “Training Day” screenwriter David Ayer. “I was so impressed that it was an action movie, but a with a big character study – and so when I auditioned and got the part, I was ecstatic.”
For Peña, who grew up in Chicago, the story of how a drug cartel could infiltrate a neighborhood with severely negative consequences impacted him personally; so much so that his research became pivotal in preparing for his compelling performance as a young, family-oriented cop whose career is an honest way to carve out a livelihood with which to support his wife, high school sweetheart Gabby and their newborn son.
“I did a lot of research and really became interested in learning about one of the meanest cartels, Las Zetas and how they’ve been trained by American special arms forces,” says Peña, who spent five months alongside Gyllenhaal undergoing grueling police, tactical and fight training. “Learning about the drug war from the American perspective was incredible and forming that bond with Jake, I mean that aspect of two brothers that come from different mothers was cool.”
Peña – whose previous acting credits include comedy flicks like “30 Minutes or Less” and “Tower Heist” as well as action favorites like “Battle: Los Angeles” – says that he enjoyed the chance to flex his acting skills in the street-savvy drama as a cop with a comedic side.
“I had the weird fortune of being on a cool trajectory with serious roles and then progressing to comedy,” says Peña, who says he counts “30 Minutes or Less” as his favorite film to date. “Comedies are really difficult to do, but this film represents the only time I’ve been able to put a little humor in a dramatic performance.”
Joining Peña in “End of Watch” are Latina actresses America Ferrera as fellow LAPD cop Officer Orozco and Natalie Martinez as Peña’s wife; performances that bring female dimension to the film devoted to capturing gritty police work.
“I have to be honest with you, my whole career is about bringing more to the role than is ever expected,” says Peña, who revealed that he’s sharpened his comedic timing over the years during golf outings with comedian George Lopez. “That’s the approach that helped me get jobs when it was me in a room against a bunch of models.”
And it’s a mentality that the 36-year-old actor has brought in his next role as Latino activist César E. Chávez. With his performance in the first feature film on the labor organizer – directed by buddy Diego Luna – Peña says he was inspired by history to create great entertainment.
“Chávez worked on behalf of the common man, wasn’t even a great speaker but he had one goal: to make sure farmers were treated well, plain and simple,” says Peña, who recently wrapped up filming on the movie scheduled for release next year. “My parents were farmers, so I felt I could bring that their experience to this role.”
Along with his role in “Chavez,” Peña will also star in an upcoming drama alongside “Pollock” actor Ed Harris. As with “End of Watch,” Peña’s goal as an actor in each of his films is simple.
“I just want people to be entertained,” says Peña.
“I want them to go into the theater, buy a ticket and feel satisfied at the end.”