Ant-Man has one of the best special effects of the summer. And we’re not even talking about all of the incredible shrinking sequences, we’re talking about Michael Peña, who steals the spotlight every single second he’s on screen as Luis, who is quite possibly the most effortlessly charming criminal that has ever been in a movie.
But Ant-Man isn’t the only movie Peña steals scenes in this summer. He’s also one of the main characters in the horror movie The Vatican Tapes (which hits theaters today), where he plays a Father trying to help a young woman with a particularly nasty case of demonic possession. We also fully expect Peña to also straight up steal all of his scenes in Vacation and The Martian later this year. 2015 is officially the Year of the Peña and we couldn’t be happier about it.
We spoke to the actor earlier this week for The Vatican Tapes and we picked his brain about being a career scene stealer. So what’s his secret? It starts with realizing you’re incredibly lucky to even be in movies.
Movies.com: From the outside it seems like you’ve had 10 breakout years in a row. Does it feel like that for you?
Michael Peña: I think it all started with Crash, where I had really cool writing and it was my first real role. I mean, before that I had lines like “Look over there!” or “He went that way!” or “I don’t know, sir. Please don’t arrest me, sir.” I was playing Gang Member No. 5, then No. 4, then 3, then eventually Gang Leader.
Movies.com: Even in those small roles, you still make a dent, you still leave an impression. How do you approach small characters, even if they are Gang Member No. 5?
Peña: I guess it’s an insecurity thing. Or maybe it’s not, I don’t know, but here’s what’s funny. When I first started acting, I started for the money as a career choice. I don’t know anyone who goes, “You know, I really want to do accounting because I just looooove accounting.” You do it as a career choice. And so first that happened, and then I started reading better scripts, but even when I was just Gang Member No. 5, I still tried to have fun. When you read the script you just want to be able to add to the story. That’s all I ever really want to do and hopefully be an asset to the movie. I don’t always do it, or I don’t always feel like I do it, but the goal is to tell the story the best you can and hopefully you have talented people around you that can help you with that.
Movies.com: How does a project like The Vatican Tapes come to you these days? Is it a much different process than it was even just a few years ago?
Peña: Oh hell yeah it’s way different. I was golfing with Tom Rosenberg, the producer, and he was like, “Hey man, I got a movie for you.” We’re both from Chicago. That guy cracks me up. He’s very Chicago. So he says “I’ve got this thing, you should read it.” And I did and thought it was really cool, so I called up Tom and said I’d do it. He goes “Great! We’ll see what can happen.” Two months later we were filming.
Movies.com: When the script first went around it was designed to be a found footage movie. Was it changed before or after you got involved?
Peña: I think I was late on it because I didn’t know it was ever even considered to be a found footage movie. It’d be tough to do it that way, to be honest.
Movies.com: You’ve done some thrillers, but this is your most overt horror movie to date. Is that intentional?
Peña: Definitely intentional. I wanted to do something like that. I’m doing it selflishly, but Mexican people love horror movies. They love to be scared. Growing up, my brother would sneak in Nightmare on Elm Street and we’d be like, “It’s so cool! Don’t tell mom, don’t tell mom!” It scared the bejesus out of us. We couldn’t sleep for two days and my mom is like “What’s going on?” and eventually finds out and is all like, “You are forbidden from watching any more of these on school nights.” And so what happens? My brother sneaks in Nightmare on Elm Street 2, bro. And I’m like ‘No way!”And it’s on a Monday…
So me wanting to do horror started way, way back. I always call my brother to see what he’s into, so I called him and asked him and he goes “horror movies.” He’s my barometer of what audiences are wanting right now.
Movies.com: What’s the last thing he said he was into that you were like, “Really? That’s what I need to be making?”
Peña: Well I do the projects that I want to do, but I like to bounce ideas off of him. I remember early on in my career I was in this small independent film that was all about nothing, you know what I mean? It’s just about life. And so I ask him what he thought of the movie and he goes, “It was too much talking, Mike. Way too much talking.” ‘What do you mean?’ “No one talks about feelings like that, Mike! I feel, I feel, I feelfeelfeel.” So after that I went, “Oh, okay…”
Movies.com: Is that why you’re taking on different roles in movies that are less talky and more action?
Peña: I think it’s just luck, to be honest with you. Who wouldn’t want to be in a Marvel movie? I can pin it back to almost seven years ago when my kid was born. I used to read Charles Bukowski and Hemmingway and try to get inspired on that like every other actor. I was reading everyone’s biographies and was just trying to be as good of an artist as I can be. And I am still trying to do that, because it is still so hard out there. You can have a couple of movies that did well and people pat you on the back, but then you have a few that you tried to do your best that don’t do so well, and people forget about you. You always have to keep a good head on your shoulders about the good and the bad.
But my kid, when I was reading comic books to him and watching all these animated movies with him or seeing the cartoons he watches, it opens you up to all these different genres. He’s such a fan of movies in general that it’s kind of cool that he’s opened my eyes to all these different genres. So it’s no just that, but I’m lucky that people can even see me in these kind of movies.
I don’t know if it had happened earlier on in my career that I would have tried the stuff that I’m trying today. There’s a thing about having a kid that just changes you. You don’t take yourself so seriously. I remember Johnny Depp, for instance. He started doing Pirates of the Caribbean and it’s almost like he’s acting for his kids, which I can definitely relate to. You’ll do the dumbest s—t just to get a giggle, which before you would never do. You’re acting like a literal assclown and it’s okay.
Movies.com: Since Ant-Man’s release, I’ve seen countless comments that spotlight you before they do anything else. I was even just reading an interview with Kevin Fiege where he said you were a lower tier character he’d like to see more of. Is that weird for you?
Peña: Wait a minute, what? What interview is that?
Movies.com: It was on Collider.
Peña: Right on, right on.
Movies.com: Is it weird that one character can mean so much to so many different people?
Peña: It’s funny because, to me, I’ve been doing the same kind of work for what I consider years. I’m just trying to be good in a movie. Especially when it comes down to any kind of humor. I don’t think this is any different than, like, Eastbound Down or even the smaller one, Observe and Report. Only in a Marvel movie can you do a very specific kind of humor. And especially with Paul Rudd, all the humor just kind of fell together.
But to be honest, I don’t pay too much attention to that kind of stuff, just because I’ve done movies where I’ve poured my heart into it and they don’t work and people don’t like them. Once again, sometimes they love you, sometimes they don’t, so you’ve just got to be ready. I’m a golfer, man, so maybe that’s just where the mentality is coming from. When you score a birdie, you still have to be able to stay in the game and not get too caught up in the past. You just try to finish the round.
The reason I try to keep a level head about this stuff is because I’m having a little bit of success later on in life, I’ve seen other people get totally praised and they think they’re on top of the world and they don’t work right and they fall and they can’t believe that people don’t love them any more. The thing is, and I’m not trying to be a humble pie or anything, but you’re lucky as an actor. You’re downright lucky. If anyone tries to tell me, “Yeah, but I worked hard,” I’m like, ‘F– you, dude. There’s a million people who worked just as hard as you, but for some reason, they like the way you do it.’
Some of these people who are really good looking, I’m like, ‘What did you do to make yourself six foot tall and a good looking dude or a beautiful woman?’ I mean, if you’re symmetrically perfect without plastic surgery or whatever, what did you really do? You didn’t do anything. Even talent is like that. Talent can sometimes be interpretation of talent. It’s God given and it’s a blessing, so just consider yourself lucky and don’t blow it.
When I went off to do Ant-Man, my kid, because he loves Marvel movies, he says “You know what da-da? Don’t mess it up.” And I’m like, ‘Thanks. Great advice, bro.’
The Vatican Tapes is in theaters today, July 24.