Michael Pena has had a year for the ages. Pena began the year starring opposite Matthew McConaughey in The Lincoln Lawyer, channeled his inner action star in Battle: Los Angeles, played a wildly funny bad guy in 30 Minutes or Less and now he is in the all-star cast of Tower Heist. Pena phoned Movie Fanatic for an exclusive interview about working on the Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller-starring comedy-action flick.
Pena plays a bellhop at New York’s most luxurious apartment building whose richest resident has just been arrested for defrauding his Wall Street clients. Among those who have lost everything are the apartment building’s workers and their retirement plans.
The film (check out our Tower Heist review) provided a unique challenge for Pena, as he exclusively tells us below, but also was a challenge in that he found it easy to sit in awe of his co-stars' talent from Murphy and Stiller to Alan Alda and Casey Affleck and had to stay focused on bringing his A-game to the A-list cast.
Movie Fanatic: We last spoke for The Lincoln Lawyer and Battle: Los Angeles, but you were all abuzz about Tower Heist. Now that the film is out, how are you feeling?
Michael Pena: I’m really psyched about it. I saw it last week and I was really entertained. The movie really made you feel good and satisfies you thoroughly. I’m just hoping everyone feels the same way.
Movie Fanatic: It’s what we go to the movies for…
Michael Pena: Exactly!
Movie Fanatic: This has been a banner year for you. How does it resonate?
Michael Pena: This year has been amazing for me, I really count my blessings. I’ve had the court drama with The Lincoln Lawyer and Battle: Los Angeles, then kind of an indie comedy with 30 Minutes or Less and now I have a big action comedy with Tower Heist. I couldn’t be happier.
Movie Fanatic: As an actor on Tower Heist, what was it like with that cast? It’s got to be one of the best casts of the year.
Michael Pena: At the same time it is exciting, it’s one of those situations where you just pray to God that you can hold your own and give as much as you can to the story as possible. All those guys are successful for a couple of reasons. They’re all charismatic people and at the same time they’re very talented. At the same time they’re smart. There’s a couple of scenes that Casey (Affleck) wrote a monologue for himself. The first time I thought he was improvising -- the sister’s vagina part -- and he killed it. When I learned he wrote that thing, I was so impressed.
Movie Fanatic: Right before that scene, you have a couple of moments alone with Alan Alda. Talk about a legend. What did it mean to you to even be in the same room with that guy?
Michael Pena: He is a Hollywood legend, and it’s not by accident. He’s got presence. It’s easy to just watch him do his magic. You have to make sure you don’t get too caught up in watching all these actors. Eddie Murphy’s the same way, so is Ben Stiller. It's easy to say, “Oh, that’s really good” and “Oh my God, that was amazing.” But, at the same time, you have to be right there with them and not get lost in the star-gazing. Stiller for instance, he does subtle things in his delivery, while still focusing on the story. I had to make sure not to be watching and to be a participant.
Movie Fanatic: Your director, Brett Ratner, is such a master of the action comedy. What did you take away from the Ratner set experience?
Michael Pena: You know what? It was almost like a circus. There was always somebody famous stopping by that he knows. He’s very jovial and it fits his personality so much. He’s got so much energy. He’s not apologetic about what he wants and what he likes in a scene. I've got to admit, I called him up after watching the movie and said, “Congratulations, you really did something special.”
Movie Fanatic: The other thing about it, it is so timely. When you were filming it, you probably had no idea that people were going to gather and Occupy Wall Street. Your villain is a Wall Street guy. What do you make of the film’s timing?
Michael Pena: It’s a godsend to be honest with you. I hope all those Occupy people go and see it so they can feel good about what they’re doing in a way.
Movie Fanatic: Wouldn’t that be something if the NYPD can’t get these people out of the area, but they all leave and go see Tower Heist?
Michael Pena: [Laughs] That would be great.
Movie Fanatic: On a film like this, it could feel like a circus, like you said. What was the biggest challenge for you?
Michael Pena: I’ll tell you one thing that happened. I auditioned for it and I had this whole character done. On the first day of shooting, Brett goes, “Remember all that stuff you did at the table read? Don’t do any of that.” So, then I had to start over with the character. I have to admit, that put me into a spin. But, I understood it. He wanted me to create something in the moment with the story. I thought that was a very interesting approach.
Movie Fanatic: The comedy-crime genre, there aren’t that many great films. What are your favorites and why?
Michael Pena: I really like Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours. One of my favorite movies is Hear No Evil, See No Evil. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was also one of my favorites: Those two guys (Michael Caine and Steve Martin) are totally amazing. In a way, they’re always scheming, but that for me, was totally entertaining with great character work.
Movie Fanatic: How’s Gangster Squad coming?
Michael Pena: Amazing, I get to work with Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin and Sean Penn. It’s fantastic. Look out for it!