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Michael Peña Is His Own Kind of Star

‘CHIPS’ may be a flop, but it’s the latest reminder that Peña is one of a kind

(Brian Taylor Illustration)
(Brian Taylor Illustration)

Saturday evening, I watched CHIPS, the movie reboot of the sitcom from the ’70s and ’80s. I’d read beforehand that it was a not-that-great movie, and so I wasn’t very excited to see it. But I also knew that one of the stars was Michael Peña, so actually I was super excited to see it, because Michael Peña would be one of my picks if you and I were talking about who the three or four most interesting actors working right now are.

Three Big Things About Michael Peña

What I don’t want to do is turn Michael Peña into some sort of Hollywood totem or avatar for Mexicans (or Latinos), because he deserves a broader and more nuanced consideration than that, because here’s the first of the three big things about Michael Peña: He is a fantastic actor. Absolutely. Undeniably. Inarguably.

In his movies — and I’m going back to, say, his role in 2004’s Crash, where he played a just-trying-to-get-by locksmith — he has been funny (Ant-Man), and he has been intelligent and noble (Lions for Lambs), and he has been charming and capable (The Martian), and he has been handsome (literally all of them), and he has been empathetic and sympathetic (Frontera), and he has been conniving (War on Everyone), and he has been the coolest version of masculine (End of Watch). I could keep going, truly. He has been so many things, so many different times. He is, in no uncertain terms, immensely talented.

BUT. Michael Peña has been all of those things in movies while also being Mexican, which, I’m saying, come on. How often does that happen? Has it ever happened? Or, more specifically: Has it ever happened the way it’s happening with him? Because here’s the second big thing about Michael Peña: He has been all of those things in all of those movies while also being Mexican, yes, but he has done it enough times without the crux of his characters’ existences being that they are Mexican. I mean, he played Cesar Chavez in 2014’s Cesar Chavez, sure, but that was literally the point of that particular movie, you know what I’m saying? There’s a difference between doing something like that or some things like that (another example was in 2014’s Frontera, where he played Miguel Ramirez, an illegal immigrant who gets caught up in a murder), and only doing something like that.

It’s an interesting situation made even more so by the third big thing about Michael Peña, which is: He’s not trying to escape his heritage or his ethnicity. As a matter of fact, he’s literally making sure that it doesn’t go ignored. To wit, recently I read an interview with Peña in The Guardian where a writer sat down with him for a bit and asked him questions about this and that. It was part of the lead-up to the release of War on Everyone, a movie that quietly came out earlier this year that Peña costarred in. During the interview, Peña, the son of Mexican immigrants, talked about how if he gets a role in a movie, and that character doesn’t have a Latino name, he asks them to change it to one. “So maybe some Hispanic kid might hear that and be inspired,” he said, and I wish I could fully explain how fucking dope of a move that is, other than to say it’s a fucking dope move.

These are some of the characters Michael Peña has played in movies since 2012:

  • War on Everyone: Bob Bolaño
  • The Martian: Rick Martinez
  • Vacation: (He’s listed as “New Mexico Cop”)
  • Ant-Man: Luis
  • The Vatican Tapes: Father Oscar Lozano
  • Fury: Trini “Gordo” Garcia
  • Frontera: Miguel Ramirez
  • Cesar Chavez: Cesar Chavez
  • American Hustle: Paco Hernandez
  • Gangster Squad: Navidad Ramirez
  • End of Watch: Mike Zavala

That’s a lot of Mexican (or Latino) names. It’s very, very beautiful.

When Michael Peña is in a movie, I get to watch it and I get to say, “Whoa, that guy sounds like I sound.” I hear that push and pull of his consonants that’s immediately recognizable to anyone who’s grown up in a Latino house in a Latino neighborhood in America, and I promise you it feels so good.

When Michael Peña is in a movie, I get to watch it and I get to say, “Whoa, that guy has dark brown hair and dark brown eyes and he looks like all the people I grew up with,” and I promise you it feels so good.

When Michael Peña is in a movie, I get to watch it and I get to say, “Whoa. Wait. Hold on. That’s a Mexican. He’s a Mexican,” and I see it all happening, and I also see there is no compromise, and I also see there is no caricaturization of who he is, or what he is, and I promise you it feels so good.

And all of that is great and all of that is very important, definitely, for sure.

But what’s most important is that he’s good. He’s so good. He’s such a good actor. Earlier I mentioned Crash, and Crash today is mostly regarded as a bad and clunky movie, but the scene in it where Peña’s character lies on the floor and talks to his daughter about how a fairy gave him a cloak when he was little that would protect him — that’s such a great acting moment.

(And again, when I’m watching it right now, the whole thing is beautiful, yes. All of the different tricks he does — where he changes pacing and changes levels and moves in and out of the sentences — that’s all super-strong stuff and elite stuff. But the way he pronounces “lived” at the 1:17 mark and “stupid” at the 1:23 mark — he does so in a very Mexican way [or Latino way] and I love it so much.)

Maybe a more recent thing to highlight is the way he decided to steal all of the scenes he was in in Ant-Man, the most entertaining of which were the two storytelling scenes:

Or maybe another good one was the opening to Lions for Lambs:

In that movie, he played a wildly smart and well-intentioned student who bypassed attending Harvard Law School (or any other fancy post-grad school) so he could join the Army to serve in Afghanistan.

My favorite Peña performance, though, and what’s generally regarded as the best Peña performance yet, is his Mike Zavala in 2012’s End of Watch, a cop drama that ends with him [REDACTED] while [REDACTED], only to [REDACTED] later on. I don’t even want to link to it because this is a situation where either (a) you’ve seen the movie and know exactly the scene that I’m talking about, and so you don’t need me to show it to you again because you remember the brilliance and can still feel it; or (b) you’ve not yet seen the movie, in which case I definitely do not want to ruin it for you because that whole movie is a special piece of work, and the way it works its way to the ending is truly outstanding.

So what I’m saying here is: Following Michael Peña’s career isn’t a thing where we (and I say “we” as in “Mexicans [or Latinos]”) have to just be happy that we have a guy Hollywood is letting be in some big movies. We get to be proud that he’s so good in them.

A recap of those big three things:

  1. Michael Peña is a fantastic and interesting actor.
  2. Michael Peña is a fantastic and interesting actor who is Mexican, but he’s worked at making sure that the majority of his roles are not things that only a Mexican could play, or would play.
  3. Michael Peña is a fantastic and interesting actor who is Mexican, but he’s worked at making sure that the majority of his roles are not things that only a Mexican could play, or would play, and he’s done so while also making sure that each of his characters is still recognized as Mexican.

Individually, each of those things is important, but all bundled together like that, they become massive.

And so, right now, in real time, exactly as I’m writing this sentence, I’m realizing that it wouldn’t even matter if I wanted to make Michael Peña a totem or an avatar. He has already assured that that will not — and cannot — be the case.