Michael as Officer Navidad Ramirez in new crime thriller “Gangster Squad.” (Photo/Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures)

In “Gangster Squad,” Michael Peña has platform to defy stereotypes

It’s not your typical good versus evil story. But that’s exactly what actor Michael Peña liked best about “Gangster Squad,” a movie about an undercover police squad that will do whatever it takes to keep citizens safe from the mafia in 1940s Los Angeles.

“I’m the only Latino in this movie and for me, this role was a way to provide some social commentary,” says Peña, who plays rookie cop Navidad Ramirez. “To have a Latin dude be part of this squad, creating change and protecting his city seemed like a really important thing to portray.”

In “Gangster Squad” – a film by director Ruben Fleischer starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte and Emma Stone – Peña’s good guy character is a far cry from the roles which characterized his early career in Hollywood.

“I started out playing gang bangers,” recalls Peña, whose first films include “Boogie Boy” and “Crash.” “But as a kid growing up, I knew that the bad guy was almost always Latino. So now I feel lucky to change those perceptions. Edward James Olmos has said that he won’t play a bad guy and while I’m not going to be playing a good guy all the time, I am gravitating more towards portraying Latinos in a positive way.”

That being said, Peña said he loved being part of the film’s star-studded cast, which included a reunion with “The United States of Leland” co-star Ryan Gosling.

“We filmed that movie more than 12 years ago, and it was great to be working with Ryan again,” says Peña, of the film that hits theaters Friday. “And that was another reason to be really excited about ‘Gangster Squad’ – it was an amazing experience. I’ve studied Sean Penn for years; he’s one of the great actors of our time and I’ve watched everything he’s done. And Josh Brolin too, kicking ass. To be in a movie with them was really cool.”

For Peña, who is originally from Chicago but has lived in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years, shooting “Gangster Squad” offered him a glimpse of a historic L.A. He was able to be a tourist in his own city, visiting buildings and set locations that were evocative of 1940s, art deco Los Angeles.

“I saw all these different places that I didn’t know existed in Los Angeles; buildings from another era that I’d never seen before,” says Peña. “I love traveling, but this kind of proves that history is around you all the time.”

And while “Gangster Squad” promises to be a box office hit, the film’s production wasn’t without some controversy. The movie was originally set to premiere last summer but was delayed after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado because of a scene which featured guns shooting through a movie screen into the audience. Deemed by Warner Bros. Pictures executives as too reminiscent of the tragic events in Colorado, that scene and several others were rewritten and reshot.

“My hat is off to Warner Bros. for caring so much about the audience – I don’t think they had to do that, but they did,” comments Peña. “They moved certain scenes to a different location, hired writers; all in order to do the right thing.”

And make no mistake: Peña will defend the movie industry against accusations that it influences people to carry out such horrific actions.

“What we’re doing is providing entertainment and I’m a paid actor who memorizes lines for a living,” says Peña, who last thrilled audiences in “End of Watch.” “The real dilemma is that parents aren’t putting guns away and kids have access to them. And if a kid isn’t doing the best mentally, you as a parent probably shouldn’t teach them how to shoot. I grew up in the ghetto and loved ‘Scarface’ but I knew that movie was pure entertainment. Parents need to take responsibility and educate their kids.”

Education and empowerment are actually themes in Peña’s next film, “Chávez.” He’ll be starring as American labor leader César Chávez, who helped organize thousands of farm workers suffering from poor working conditions. The film will be released this fall, and while Peña admits he hasn’t yet seen the finished product, he knows the movie will help highlight the achievement of an extraordinary Latino icon.

“I can’t wait till it comes out,” says Peña.

“I’m excited because this is a great time in my life right now.”

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