Interview: Michael Peña on 'Gracepoint,' 'CHiPs,' 'Ant-Man' and more
VICTORIA, BC and LOS ANGELES, CA. It's a double-dose of interviews with Michael Peña about his new FOX drama "Gracepoint."
Back in May, I sat down with Peña on the Vancouver Island set of the "Broadchurch" remake.
At the time, the versatile actor, whose credits range from "End of Watch" to "Eastbound & Down" to the upcoming "Fury," didn't know the answer to the big mystery of "Gracepoint," specifically who killed his character's young son.
By the time we talked on video in Los Angeles in August, Peña was a little bit more guarded about the show's mysteries, though he was much more willing to discuss his potential upcoming movie version of "CHiPs," which may or may not happen.
But it's nice to have both interviews available. In the print interview from the set, Peña discusses what attracted him to this particular television and his personal approach to the character, as a father himself. He also talks about how he imprinted parts of himself on Mark Solano.
And above, he talks about the things he can't say about the different tones of his various projects and a couple upcoming movie roles.
Check out the video above and the Q&A below.
"Gracepoint" airs its third episode on Thursday (October 16) night at 9 p.m. on FOX.
HitFix: So now, when a project like this comes along, what is the allure of it being 10 episodes-and-done, of knowing that you're not making a 150 episode TV commitment?
Michael Pena: Yeah, for me it's like a film, and plus I was able to read five scripts. And also I like this kind of television as opposed to the 22-episode because it's like you can read the pilot; the pilot could be great and then your character like you don't know what happens and all of a sudden you could have a much bigger part or the part changes the way that you don't like. In a movie you read the entire thing and then you're like, "Oh I like this a lot. I want to do this movie, or at least audition or try to get involved." That's what was great about this one I was, "Oh wow he's got an amazing arc already." And then I talked to Anya Epstein and Daniel Futterman, the showrunners, and they told me where the character was going to go. I was like, "Awesome." And so that's cool, but it's like doing a film. I don't know if I could be on one job for a year and then plus not be able to do any movies. I was really stoked.
HitFix: How far into the arc of the character did Anya and Daniel take you?
Michael Pena: I read half of it and then they told me – they didn't tell like who the killer was going to be or whatever, and I still don't know and it's almost over – they told me where he was going from that point. But the first five episodes were so awesome and they were so well written that it was a no-brainer. I just said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah right away."
HitFix: If it turns out to have been your character, will that make sense with what you have done in the last nine episodes?
Michael Pena: I think it will make sense with everyone, to be honest with you. It's cleverly written that way so that you can – we were having the discussion like who it was going to be, who it was going to be and my castmates we were like, "Come on just to tell me" and they're like, "Sorry we just can't let it out." So I think you can have a backstory for just about everyone, Jesus, just about everyone.
HitFix: If it turns out to be you again, will you feel annoyed at not having known from the beginning? Would you have preferred to have known?
Michael Pena: No. I don't think I would do anything different in all honesty because when you read it you're like "I don't know..." even me I was like, "Maybe it's him. It could be him. You just never know." They wrote it so that it can possibly be everyone, or like signs of it and then they let you off the hook and then signs of it and then they let you off the hook, do you know what I mean? That's true with like Kevin Rankin, Josh Hamilton, me, Steven, like every dude basically. You know what? [He pauses for a while, as if going through a mental checklist.] Jesus, yeah just about every single character.
HitFix: And when you do your own amateur detective work, what sort of are you basing your suspicions on? What…
Michael Pena: Well, you know, it's just who like I suspect, who spent the time with him or who was around him that day. And you don't want to give too much away so I'm like, "This is an interesting question." Yeah, or whoever Danny didn't like, my son. That's all I can say dude.
HitFix: Did you watch "Broadchurch" and when?
Michael Pena: I didn't. I just basically read the script. And to be honest with you, I wasn't looking to do any television, but my manager, he sent it to me and he's like just read it, Daniel Futterman who wrote "Capote" wrote to this one and I'm like, "That's pretty cool." So I read the first script and I was like, "Wow okay." And then I read the second, third and fourth to see if they were as strong and I think I read up to six and I think by episode two like after I read that one I was like "I'm in." And then I read three, four, five and six and I was like, "Let's do it."
HitFix: Your character in the original he has a lot of I would say unpleasant sides to his character. So it doesn't become whether or not we think he did it or not but it's just sort of whether we like him, we can dislike him even if we don't think he's a killer. Is your character here similarly sort of unsavory in various ways?
Michael Pena: I don't know. I try to justify all my actions and I try to make it so – because I didn't see it; I don't know how he did it -- but I just wanted to make sure that like people knew that like it was justified. Like if I was the dad of the kid who just got murdered I would act the same so it's good to have a justification from it. It doesn't excuse it, but I want people to relate in a way, even if it doesn't happen to them. Like the anger, it's just not like irrational, you know what I mean? It's just justified. After I'm done with this I'm going to go watch.
HitFix: You are? Okay. Are you looking forward to that?
Michael Pena: Yeah, Because if it's anything as good as the scripts are then it's going to be good, but I hear it's really good.
HitFix: It's very good. Your character here obviously, as you say, your son died; it's pretty horrible stuff. How much time do you spend in character, how low do you spend it? Like how much time are you spending being miserable on set each day?
Michael Pena: It depends on the day and what I'm doing. I usually need to like keep it the simmering for whatever because that's the only way I know how to do it, you know what I mean? Either not talk to anybody and simmer, simmer, simmer, or like just get upset. But it's a different because you just can't be like "I'm going to be angry." It's a specific type of resentment, anger, unexpressed resentment, do you know what I mean? Because there's times I'm sure that everyone has that this is what happens where when you get anger and you're like, "Why me?" Like "Why did it happen to my family? This happens to other people." And that's a specific kind of anger where it could be spiritual but at the same time you're just trying to understand and like the confusion, but at the same time you had loss so you just focus on that for a day and it takes you to wherever you have to go.
HitFix: But that also sounds kind of unpleasant.
Michael Pena: Yeah. I mean it's not, you know, it doesn't feel good. But that's the only way that I know how to do it. And scenes where of course the grief comes out, you just really have to focus on that one thing. Like the kid dying or being dead you're like, "Oh no," and then you also, as a person, you dislike those scenes; you don't want to do those scenes, do you know what I mean? So you're just like, "I can't believe I got to do this damn thing and then your heart starts beating." It's pretty unpleasant but in a way it has to be done.
HitFix: Several people have mentioned that Virginia spends a lot of time in high emotion and that she's frequently crying. And several people talked about how sort of she can turn it on and off and it sounds like that's not your method. So what is it like sort of having actors with very different ways of reaching that same emotional point?
Michael Pena: Yeah, she does it pretty easily. Like I don't know. That's the only way I knew how to do it. And from my experience it's tough for guys to cry. I don't know, she's really good at it. I can't do that very easily so I have to work at that. And also she comes from the theater so she knows how to navigate things and she's really good with that and I kind of just set it up so that I don't really know what I'm doing. I know the dialogue and it sounds kind of weird but like I know that I want to get here but how am I going to get there every take? No idea, do you know what I mean? It's just a way that I knew how to do it.
HitFix: Is that is scary for you at all?
Michael Pena: It is. It is because it's like you know what you're going to say but the way that I memorize my stuff is by rote. So I'm like [mumbling] and then I just memorize the ideas and the images. It's almost as if I was giving you directions home or whatever. So I got to see it and that's all I memorize is like the images. Just like people thing. They describe whatever they're seeing so that's all I need. And then whatever the director tells me that he wants and then I just do both, just describe whatever I am looking at.
HitFix: What are your thoughts on this very interesting experiment that David is going through on this, doing the same show only it's a different show and he's playing the same character only he's a different character? Like how foreign an interesting does that seem as an acting exercise to you?
Michael Pena: It sounds really cool actually to be honest. And also he's done a lot of theater so he's used to doing like seven shows a day or nine shows a day or something like that. But to do the same character like in a different country? And he's doing really well too so it seems like a pretty damn cool exercise.
HitFix: Yes. But is it one that you would like to do? Whether it's a theater-type approach or…?
Michael Pena: Yeah. I mean of course. I think it would be interesting. Like if I did the same character but like I did it in Spanish? That would seem pretty cool.
HitFix: Now in recent years you've done a pretty good job I would say of not getting typecast in either comedy or drama, you've sort of been able to go back and forth. How do you think you've been able to do that and do you feel like the industry would like to put you in one box or the other and you're just saying, "No thanks, I'm going my own way"?
Michael Pena: Not really. I'm kind of like a nerd where I really love great stories and great books. So I basically just go for the writing and whatever I got to do to get that job, hopefully I can get it. And it's cool because my character was not written Latin, but it was just a cool part. I was like, "Yeah I definitely want to do that." As far as like comedy and drama, you're right I haven't been typecast. I've been really, really lucky I guess. That's all I got to say.
HitFix: You say the character wasn't written as Latin but do you think that there was any Latin aspects that then inflected itself into the character as it progressed once you came on?
Michael Pena: I do. I mean I like to add... People have like Latin friends that are first generation, like even when I went to prep school. And there's certain things that bleed in so I do plan that part out. I would be like I'd like to do this or every once in a while say, "Yeah, mija." You know, things like that that I think are interesting and cool.
HitFix: And speaking of that, I was talking to Madalyn and she said that she wanted to make sure that her character sort of came across as kind of a daddy's girl and she made sure that she wanted to be extra close with your character. What was that dynamic like and what was the relationship you guys have had?
Michael Pena: It was great. I mean she's a great girl and we have a lot in common in the way. Like we love music and she's a really good dancer. And I was like, "How do you do that? What is it?" And her mom is really funny so she's always there and so we get to hang out. But she's like one of those people that like it's easy to hang out with and Virginia as well. And it's interesting because I have a son, I don't have a daughter so like to hang out with her I'm like oh that's kind of cool.
HitFix: Did having a son yourself did you have any reservation?
Michael Pena: Not reservation but like I can – Whenever you can relate to a character you tend to want to do that part. And it's because I had a kid I'm like, "Oh I can't even imagine." So it's in a way like you do this for like every dad possible.
HitFix: Well, that comes back almost to fear again. Because when you say I can't even imagine some people would say would go I can't even imagine that means I can't do it. It sounds like you say I can't even imagine and that is what drives you.
Michael Pena: Yeah because it's horrible, it's a parent's worst nightmare. And I don't even use my real kid for this part. You know how people gravitate towards that? I was like, "The dialogue and the story was so good that I just have to focus on the kid" and that was enough. Just the idea of it was enough.
HitFix: And is your son out here on the island with you?
Michael Pena: No, no, no. I go back because it's tough... You got to go through to Seattle and then here or Vancouver then here and I was like, "Oh, forget it." I'll just go back even if it's for two days.
HitFix: So just like an extra big hug when you get to him at the end?
Michael Pena: Or sometimes he's like, "Hi dada dada." He's like mad at me and was like, "Where were you?" I was like "I told you I was working." "When is it going to stop?"
HitFix: You talked about not wanting to do TV…
Michael Pena: It's not that I didn't want to…
HitFix: Sorry. You just weren't looking for it. So does this sort of change your perspective at all? Does it say okay this is the kind of TV that actually maybe I do want to seek out? This is a good…
Michael Pena: Yeah. I think two years ago I was like, You know what? I'm open to TV," because right now there's killer stuff going on. There's everything from like "Walking Dead" to "Game of Thrones" to "House of Cards." You know the quality of TV now is just way different. The first script was written like a film, like where you have freedom as an actor instead of like hitting your mark, saying your line, blah, blah, blah. I try to change it up a little bit. And then sometimes it comes out word for word and sometimes like the moment is inspired by something else. Like in film, just finished the movie "Fury" and sometimes we wouldn't even – like we understand the scene completely because we spent months and months rehearsing, and then on the day it would be something completely different. David Ayer would be like, "Say this and say that and say this, you know what, that line doesn't work here. Why don’t you…" and then we would do that? So that was pretty awesome. And I've had freedom here, but if it's this kind of writing then like yeah.
HitFix: With David, you having worked with him before, does that sort of make you feel safer to do something like that?
Michael Pena: Yeah. Yeah he's amazing and he's a buddy. He's just a good buddy of mine so it's like my second movie with him in like three years so it definitely... But I had one week off in between these projects. I went from that to this and I'm like, "Oh what am I doing?" It was tough.
"Gracepoint" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on FOX.