In the action thriller “End of Watch,” Chicago-born actor Michael Peña (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) plays Mike Zavala, an LAPD police officer who is targeted, along with his partner Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), by a Mexican drug cartel after they come across a violent crime scene. During an interview with me, Peña, 36, discussed what made his role unique and what it was like to do his research with real cops.
You’ve played other law enforcement characters in your career. What did you see in David Ayers’ script that led you to believe you wouldn’t just be rehashing something you’ve done before?
I don’t even remember the last time I played a police officer. One was a Port Authority officer in “World Trade Center,” but I didn’t do a lot of policing. This actually felt like the first time I played a cop. In “Shooter” I was an FBI agent who didn’t know much. [Officer Mike Zavala] was a completely different person with a different attitude and swagger. It’s like he owns the streets. He makes sure he protects everybody. He’s a maverick. He doesn’t mind confronting danger.
Something I really liked about your character and Jake’s was that you’re not these cliché hot shot young cops who think they’re invincible. I really felt both characters really understood their mortality and that the next call they answer could be their last. Did you feel the same way?
Yeah, I felt like we didn’t want to sensationalize anything. We wanted the acting to be very, very real. We wanted people to relate to it. The acting had to be very natural just because of the style of the movie. Sometimes if it’s a grander movie, you can go a little bigger with your performance. But in [“End of Watch”] you just have to live life. You have to be a three-dimensional person. To do that, we had to rehearse a lot. We rehearsed for four months. It was like a Sidney Lumet film. It’s a lot of dialogue for an action movie.
Yeah, the chemistry between you and Jake is probably the best I’ve seen all year on the big screen. During those scenes where you guys are talking and joking around like friends, how much of that dialogue was in the actual script and how much leeway did David give you to play off one another?
It was like 98 percent scripted. There is really only one scene we improvised. [Director] David [Ayer] would encourage it, but after a while even he would be like, “OK, that’s enough of that.” He’s such a great writer I’d rather keep his writing.
Were you able to research your role by hanging out with any real cops?
Yeah, it felt like we went on 30 ride-a-longs. The cops actually have a banter that I never knew about. That was a big revelation. There were a couple of dudes from the Sheriff’s Department that were instrumental in our research. They were on their game. They finished each other’s sentences. They really had this brotherhood.
What’s the most interesting thing you saw on the ride-a-longs?
I saw people shot in the arm and in the face and in the stomach. Usually that’s not the kind of thing you get to see every day. I remember there was a woman who was beat up and didn’t want to press charges against her husband. I also learned that if you are in a family who is like a “gang family,” you’re trained to hate the cops. Meanwhile, there are a lot of other people who are cool with the cops. There are a lot of cops out there that really care about the neighborhood and want to prolong the goodness of that neighborhood and protect it against evil.
Would you consider this the most physical role you’ve taken on?
I think so. I had to spar two or three times a week. I had to work out like five times a week. I had to go on weapons training. It felt like a full-time job for four months. By the time the fourth month came along, I was ready to shoot it. I felt like I had already shot the movie in my head. I did a lot of visualization. That’s what happens when you hurt for four months. When you put that much time and effort and think about how the audience is going to relate to it, it becomes a special movie for you.
I’m really excited to see what you’re going to do with your portrayal of Cesar Chavez. Can you give us an update on that production and what your focus has to be like going into a role that is so iconic to so many people?
We attacked it in a different way. [Director] Diego Luna didn’t want to do “Gandhi.” I think cinema is changing. It’s not as grand as it was before. Chavez was a simple man. The only thing he kept was his purpose in life. I had to gain like 30 lbs. and learn the accent and have a bunch of wigs. It’s not really going to look like me, to be honest with you. I literally had to talk to like 1,000 people. There is one speech of his I really like where he announces his fast. It’s nerve-wracking.