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Lions For Lambs - Michael Peña interview

Michael Pena in Lions For Lambs

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MICHAEL Peña talks about preparing for his role in Lions For Lambs and what he believes the message behind the movie really is.

He also talks about working with an idol like Robert Redford and the sort of training he did for his roles in Lions For Lambs and World Trade Center

Q. Did you and co-star Derek Luke [who play two former students turned American soldiers who are sent on a mission to Afghanistan] create a back-story for your characters?
Michael Peña: Yes, we did. It’s kind of easier to act out something when you know the history of somebody like that. I remember in my freshman year at High School I saw somebody die in front of me. That was in Chicago, during my first week of High School and I think it was on a Thursday. You kind of understand what my character is talking about – that it’s like a war zone when you’re a kid. You see people die… in my old neighbourhood – not the one I live now – I think half the kids are not with us anymore. To reach 25 and have half your friends die without going to a Vietnam or an Iraq is kind of a telling tale. So, you can kind of bring that into the war and that’s what we did.

Q. Can I ask how that person died?
Michael Peña: Some car was speeding and hit him. He got off the bus and went right in front of the bus and there was a black car – I don’t know who was in it – that hit him. He was literally thrown about 100 feet, his shoes came off, he went down in a pool of blood and he was gone.

Q. Has working with directors like Oliver Stone and Robert Redford helped to shape your political beliefs?
Michael Peña: I tend to go with my own council. I’m an artist and I just try to do stories that might interest me the most – and these happen to be the stories that interest me. I don’t know if it’s because they’re in the news so much, or if it’s because it’s so much in my awareness that I think they could actually happen, but these are the ones that capture my imagination. It doesn’t hurt that Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford are in this particular movie. And in the other one [World Trade Center] it was Oliver Stone, one of my favourite filmmakers. I love Born On The Fourth of July, Platoon and Wall Street – I don’t know how many times I’d seen them even before I’d worked with him. In fact, I’m going to work with Oliver again in December in Thailand.

Q. What’s the Thailand movie?
Michael Peña: It’s called Pinkville and it’s about the My Lai Massacres in Vietnam. I play one of the not so nice guys. I’ve done one character like that on TV and when you exercise that part of yourself so much it feels a little funny when you get home. You’re not that person but when you’re exercising that part of yourself it kind of puts you in a twist. So we’ll see.

Q. What do you think the message to students is in this film?
Michael Peña: I think it’s to get involved. Robert Redford’s character pushes Todd [played by Andrew Garfield] to be involved. He doesn’t want him to go into the military per se but whatever way he thinks to get involved as opposed to the frightening apathetic way. It’s different to the ’60s when Vietnam was around because there were people protesting, picketing and petitions were being signed – kids were definitely involved and it shaped our society in a way. Our parents were all part of that movement. It shaped the way things were being run.

Q. Do you think your character took the right decision in the film by going to the war?
Michael Peña: That’s not for me to judge, I don’t know. I just asked whether he’d made an honest decision about himself. It helped that I have friends that actually made that decision from my neighbourhood and from places in Los Angeles. They’ve actually gone to the war, which is very interesting. I was thinking about actually joining [the Army] when I was 19 but I didn’t and ended up being an actor. I think my character made the right decision for himself.

Q. Have your feelings about the war changed because of the film?
Michael Peña: No, not really – I would wish I had a smarter answer for that but I honestly don’t know who’s telling the truth. We’ve had faulty intelligence, like it states in the movie, but I don’t know who to believe and why to believe them. Does anybody have an interest in it? It’s very hard to tell. Why did those people do what they did on 9/11? Who really knows other than those people? Honestly, for me I wish that everything could be solved with a conversation. If they need to throw some pies at each, or whatever, then that should be it. That would ideal for me.

What sort of training did you have to do for this role?
Michael Peña: It was funny but when it comes to the part where I’m shooting and have to reload that took quite a bit of training – that 30-second sequence took me about three weeks. To me, it’s one of those things where if you see it in a movie and you see someone mess it up, you might think the guy’s a faker. I didn’t want that to happen [laughs]. Our technical adviser helped us a lot with regards the way you stand and your pins and stuff like that. I also did a little bit of studying on pain and consciousness – you know, when the body’s hurt there’s a sleepy kind of feeling. But what’s interesting about it is that the pain actually helps you. When you feeling like you’re going to sleep and move a little and there’s more pain, it kind of shoots you up with adrenaline and wakes you up a little bit more. But then there’s less adrenaline in your adrenal glands, so then you go to sleep.

Was that the same kind of thing you were feeling on World Trade Center?
Michael Peña: That was more of a compression syndrome, which is different. I was hoping that it would help me, so there’d be less research… but with compression syndrome you just feel like very compressed and the pain is different. It’s more of a dull pain and this one was very much a sharp pain. I couldn’t move [in World Trade Center]. But on this one, when I move to show my leg, it’s like a stinging pain from the knee to all the way up your back. It’s like needles.

Do you stay in contact with Will Jimeno [the real-life character he played in World Trade Center]?
Michael Peña: I do. I talk to him all the time – just about every month regardless of where I’m at. I’m trying to get him down to the [US] premiere for Lions For Lambs, which would be fantastic. It would be great if I could bring him over to London. But he’s a really good guy and he’s a real hero. He doesn’t consider himself a hero and there are firefighters and people who do it all the time – but when the building is falling, would you really go in there?

As a young actor what was more exciting in hindsight, acting with Robert Redford or being directed by him?
Michael Peña: That’s a tough question to answer. But I think being directed by him because as I was acting with him, I was being directed by him as well. It’s tough because I grew up watching most of his films – there’s The Sting, The Natural and All The President’s Men. But when he acts, he makes it look so easy. I think he’s under-estimated as an actor because when you talk to him and then see him act it’s a seamless line and it seems very much alive.

I think I learned so much by his directing me. In the morning we would just come in and read the script, or the scene we were shooting that day. But he’d be very patient. He’d ask: “OK, you say this, so what do you think about that?” And we would just talk about it very slowly and patiently, so by the end of the day you knew it a little bit more and you knew what he wanted. It’s in his style to make every moment count. He doesn’t just say something so that you can hear it, but it’s what’s the meaning behind it. It’s interesting how studious he was with his directing.

Q. How do Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood [with whom he worked on Million Dollar Baby] compare as directors?
Michael Peña: They’re very similar as far as I’m concerned. I think Bob tends to talk about the scene with you a little bit more in the beginning. But they both hire people that they know are going to come in with their homework done. I think Clint might have said – and I may be misquoting – that directing is like 80% casting and the only reason he does three takes is because if he can’t get his actor to do what he wants in the first three takes it’s either he’s not directing right or he’s hired the wrong person. It’s a very simple way of looking at it. Bob tends to talk about it a little bit more – but that’s different again from Oliver Stone. Oliver Stone is more like a Beethoven sweeping kind of movie and Bob is more like Miles Davis and jazz.

Q. From the background you came from in Chicago, how hard was it to achieve what you’ve managed to achieve already?
Michael Peña: I’ve always viewed acting as when you start off there’s always kinds of stereotypes like the gang banger of the week. I spent three years doing that! I was like: “Haven’t you got anything different from the bang banger? How about a kid from college? I’m a nerd man!” I was going up against people that were real gangsters, so I’d be in the waiting room asking: “Is that a real tattoo on your neck?” “Yeah bro, cool!” It was like: “Good luck to myself!” But it’s always been an interesting ride because I just went to High School, I didn’t go to college or what not. And with me being Latin and whatever, one day I just decided to go for the characters and give them emotions. I decided I was going to make them a real person and as soon as I started doing that I started getting more work. In Crash, I played that character like a person and it was a lot more fun.

b>Read our interview with Andrew Garfield

b>Read our review of Lions For Lambs