The Motion/Captured Interview: Michael Pena in 'Observe and Report'
Character actor breaks loose with one of the most unexpected comedy turns this year
When I visited Jody Hill in the editing room of "Observe and Report," one of the first scenes he showed me was an extended sequence that spotlights Dennis, one of the co-workers of Ronnie, the character played by Seth Rogen. After the clip, I turned to Jody and said, "That guy's awesome. Who is he? Cause it's funny how much he looks like Michael Pena."
"Uhhhh... that is Michael Pena."
I suspect I will not be the only one to have that reaction. Pena is known more for dramatic work in films like "Crash" or "World Trade Center," and he's made a good career out of playing sensitive and earnest. But there's a crazy person bubbling deep inside, and Hill finally tapped into that to spectacular result. When I was in Austin for SXSW, I sat down with Pena to discuss his new role, perceptions of him in the business, and our Facebook friendship.
Motion/Captured: Michael, this is a reinvention for you in a lot of ways, in terms of how people will perceive you.
[more after the jump]
Michael Pena: You think so?
M/C: I really do. And I think it's a great reinvention. I've liked your work so far, and you've got a really solid rep, but Dennis is so far outside of what we've seen from you before... was it a conscious decision? Was this something you..?
MP: See, this is... this is the thing. I love documentaries and I watch documentaries to no end.
M/C: I do, too. It's one of my favorite genres.
MP: That and comic books now. I just started reading... I don't know if you read comics...
MP: I just started getting into "Preacher"?
M/C: Oh, nice.
MP: It's sooooo good. But, um, I'm into, I'm into, like... I saw this Hughes Brothers documentary ["American Pimp"], and I saw this one pimp, and I couldn't believe it, dude. I couldn't believe it. And I was like, he comes off a little effeminate, but he's totally into the women, and I just thought that was really funny. Those guys are like...
[drops into his Dennis voice, all lispy and fey]
... "Aw, hell, no, man, it's all about me trying to take care of my girls." Actually, it's like, "Me and my bitches. You gotta be true to them." And the girls during this? They're just like, "Uh-huh, yeah." And she's rockin' the kid on her hip. "Yeah, he's true. He made me money. Truth." I thought, wow, this is so funny, and then a few weeks later, I read the script, and it was written for a guy like an Eminem guy. And I was like, "No, dude. I'm gonna go in there and, like..." They didn't want to cast the guy in "Crash," right? I just decided to go in there with the character. I was just the character from the moment I walked in. It was a little bit like drama, but at another level.
M/C: What I love about these guys is they don't play things as "comedy." This or "East Bound" or "Foot Fist"... these are character pieces. The fact that they're funny is incidental.
MP: That's what I could do something like this, you know what I mean? It benefits me that this new brand of comedy is more real. Like I saw the trailer for "Funny People," and it looks more like a film about the... about how comedians... their process, and about how funny people work, and not a, like, an overt comedy. Comedians doing what they're doing. I think it's a different, more honest viewpoint. These people don't know they're in a joke. It helps me out.
M/C: And most of these films are ensemble-based. It's not about... I just talked to Seth about this, how, in the '70s and the '80s, when the "Saturday Night Live" guys were blowing up and leaving the show, it was about them going off to become movie stars. You'd have one movie star or maybe a buddy film, but nobody else could divert from that. I prefer it where everyone in a film is funny. Everybody has something substantial to do. Jonah in "Sarah Marshall"... great example...
MP: [laughs] He was, like, in love with Russell Brand. That was so great. And, like, in "Knocked Up" with Kristen Wiig... so memorable. Dude... that was... killer. And she made the trailer.
M/C: There's a generosity to this comedy.
MP: Yeah. I mean, I think the reason why is, um... obviously, Seth is a really funny guy, but he's also such a smart guy. He knows that... or maybe it is just because he's an unselfish guy... if his movie is good, he's going to be good. He's the star. And the one thing I hear he does brilliantly, which I'm really thankful for, is that he's just as good at setting up as he is at selling jokes. There's one scene I had with him, where he's like, "This is what I have."
[Pena pretends to affix a Polaroid to his forehead, like Ronnie does in the film.]
MP: He's literally giving me the floor. "What should I do?" It's all on me there. Especially in Hollywood, with egos and anxiety and fears and stuff, he's like... he wants people to be funny.
M/C: Last night, he told me that back when they were casting "Undeclared," he'd seen you...
MP: He mentioned that last night?
M/C: Yeah, we were talking, and he was, like, "We saw Michael for 'Undeclared,' and I loved him then, and when he went off and started doing drama, I kept watching it and thinking, 'But that dude's funny.'"
MP: Dude, you know what? I auditioned with him, and...
M/C: You stuck in his head all these years.
MP: And I remember him. I auditioned actually for two projects with Judd Apatow and didn't get them. And I was a little like, "What are we doing?" Because I didn't know how to improv. When was "Freaks and Geeks"? Nine years ago? Nine years ago, I was like, "Improv?" I'd just started getting auditions, and hearing about it, and I was just getting into acting, right? I was, like... you just, you get more comfortable as an entertainer, and now I'm like... now I can do it. I remember him being so funny and so real. I walked in and was like, "I'm sorry, guys, I grew this moustache and goatee and shaved my head for this part that I'm doing. Just a little reinforcement of some social stereotypes. Nothing to worry about. I'm cool." And they laughed and they're like, "Whos the hell is this guy?" I tested for both shows, it didn't happen... and I... I went off to go do "Crash" and all those other things.
M/C: I just love that it came full-circle and that you're at this comfort level now where you really came ready to rock out with them.
MP: Yeah, it's pretty cool, 'cause I always wanted to do comedy. But, like... it's just awesome that they get my humor. What they think is funny, I think is funny, and I've... I've never been good at, like, big acting or whatever.
M/C: They love the intimate, and that's what I find really hilarious. Small, private humiliations.
MP: [laughs] Yeah.
M/C: I mean, "East Bound and Down" gives me social anxiety and panic attacks. And that sort of comedy feels new. You can trace the line from maybe John Cleese and "Fawlty Towers" to Ricky Gervais to...
MP: Ricky Gervais, dude.
M/C: And there's that evolution of the cringe. That's just reality. The best laughs in real life are involuntary, where someone does something and you can't help but react.
MP: Yeah... that's true. And these darker parts are such a great set-up. It keeps the audience... like you make them think, "God, this is such a bummer," and then you hit them with something. POW! It puts you in this frame of mind where anything can happen.
M/C: Was there anything you shot where you were sure no one would ever see that joke? Something so dark...
MP: Yeah, I mean, I know that there was a couple of times where we were, like... there was one time, and it's probably going to be in the outtakes, where I was talking to Jesse Plemons, and I was telling him, "Me and Ronnie, we're greater than best friends, and for you to come in here and join our team and steal my best friend..." And the whole rant just got crazier and crazier, and we shot it for like 20 minutes...
M/C: I'm amazed by what did make it. The montage of Dennis showing Ronnie the way... it's fucking crazy...
M/C: I'm amazed the MPAA didn't get involved. It's one thing for the studio to say yes, but for the ratings board to be cool...
MP: I think that when you're doing a comedy and it makes you laugh, there's a certain... like you can reject it, and it's okay. It's not promoting it or making it seem cool. I think that's when you get into hot water. And I couldn't tell last night... I couldn't hear. Were people laughing at the montage?
M/C: Oh god... yeah... that was a great crowd to see it with. That was like a rock concert. And at the end... I won't say what happens... but I'd seen it in the editing room, so I turned around to watch the crowd. And it was the best reaction. First there's shock and recoil and then... there's a second... two seconds... and then they have to laugh. It just comes ripping out of them.
MP: That's what Jody's so brilliant at...
M/C: And I think it's because we're so used to safety in comedy. In both horror and comedy, you should never feel safe.
MP: You've got to have some danger, right? Dude, when I saw the final cut, I was laughing just as much as anyone else. Some of those lines... "Maybe I should tell the perp Bruce is out there." Hilarious. "Why the fuck would I blow up Chik-Fil-A? It's fucking delicious."
M/C: Oh, god, Aziz kills.
MP: Aziz kills. He's got two great bits. The delicious bit and the fuck you. Oh, god, and when he gets punched...
M/C: The blood spray sells it.
MP: Onto the camera, right?
M/C: And what other film would ever take the time to develop Aziz as a character?
MP: He's so good. You have to.
M/C: I don't know anyone who's worked with any combination of this talent pool who's had a bad experience. If you come to play, you're going to have a good time.
MP: Yeah, dude. I think there's like a new thing going on here, and hopefully I'm in it now.
M/C: It's exciting. Watching the evolution of all these guys since... god, since "Anchorman"... it's been really exciting.
MP: Now, how did you see all that stuff early? Do you work for Warner Bros?
M/C: Which stuff?
MP: "Observe and Report." 'Cause we're Facebook buddies...
M/C: I went to the editing room, and Jody showed me... I don't know... half an hour of the movie? Maybe more?
M/C: And that's when I saw the Dennis scene.
MP: Holy shit, dude. So you work for...
M/C: My website. HitFix.
MP: Oh, that's awesome. And that's when you hit me up on Facebook? After you saw the early stuff?
M/C: Right. Just to tell you how crazy it looked.
MP: You've got to give some real credit to Donald De Line, because he really backed up Jody.
M/C: It feels indie. Like this is happening under the radar. Which makes it even weirder to think that it's Warner Bros.
MP: That's the beautiful thing about a producer. He was able to get Jody's vision and expand it just a little more so it fit into the studio system, but without changing the vision...
M/C: I hope it does well for you. And I'd love to see you work with them again.
MP: Thanks, brother. See you on Facebook.
We'll have an interview with Anna Faris tomorrow, and then Seth Rogen on Thursday, with our big Jody Hill interview coming on Friday, when "Observe and Report" opens in a theater near you.
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