In the action-drama “12 Strong,” actor Michael Peña plays Sgt. Sam Diller, a member of a Special Forces military unit that is secretly sent to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban a month after 9/11. Adapted from Doug Stanton’s non-fictional book “Horse Soldiers,” the 12 men journey on horseback through the rough Middle East terrain as they search for the insurgency who are steadfast on destroying America and its ideals.
During an interview with Peña, 42, we talked about how each military and police office role he’s played throughout his career is different, what he thinks about his character poster and what it was like riding a horse during production.
Back when I interviewed you in 2006 for “World Trade Center,” you said, you felt you had a “huge sense of duty for this country and the world to do right by this story.” Is that how you felt going into this “12 Strong,” too?
Honestly, I think that feeling did start off with “World Trade Center” where I played a port authority police officer from New York. That really opened my eyes to everything the men and women of the Armed Forces and all these police officers do for us. They’re a real contribution to our society. Right now, cops are getting a lot of flak, but let’s not forget that a majority of them are good cops – like my brothers. After “World Trade Center,” I did “End of Watch” and I did “Fury” and now I’m doing this movie. I definitely love these kinds of movies. Now, I’m researching the history of the United States and why wars actually happen. There’s always people that want power and to push an agenda. They want people to follow along with their agenda and if you don’t follow, you’re the enemy. That’s always a recipe for disaster.
Do you approach all these military or police roles the same or is each one different?
The stories aren’t the same, so they have to be different. It’s funny, but the only thing that’s the same is the uniform. My characters in “The War on Everyone” and “End of Watch” are completely different characters. Honestly, I like action movies – like when you see Bruce Willis or one of these action guys playing someone from the military or a police officer or an undercover CIA. All those action sequences are badass, whether it’s a war movie or a Marvel superhero movie.
Speaking of badass. What did you think about your character poster for this film?
(Laughs) Dude, I look way more badass than I really am. Dude, I golf for fun. I play chess. That’s about as cool as I get being on the poster.
Yeah, you’re standing in front of this explosion locked and loaded…
Yeah, it’s like there’s this explosion around me and I don’t give a shit. (Laughs) I’m like, “Screw that explosion! I’m going to stand here and hold my gun!”
Did you get to meet Sgt. Diller before or during production?
I didn’t meet Diller, but I got to meet a couple of the other guys whose names were changed. The stories they would tell us were invaluable. That’s what makes moviemaking so cool. Even if you do a war movie every year, the stories you’re privilege to hear… you can’t believe these things happened. You can’t believe these guys did what they did. It’s amazing to hear about what these guys did to protect our country. I mean, if I don’t go without water for a day, I’ll go crazy. These guys went without nourishment for longer than that. It makes all my complaints feel like nothing.
How do you think you’d fare in the military in real life? Do you think you could handle it?
I don’t know. At one point in my life I wanted to join the military, but I became an actor instead. I was in JROTC in high school and I wore my suit and that’s what I wanted to end up doing. But my life just took a different path.
Talk to me about these horses you worked with in this film. Are you an expert rider now?
I rode a real horse, but it’s not like I acquired any major skills. The only skill I acquired is that I learned how to get on a horse.
So, what was the experience like riding this animal for the entire production?
I had this one horse, man. His name was Scratchy or some shit. This horse, I would kick it, and he’d be like, “Man, fuck this. I’m going to stay right here.” I would kick it, and kick it, and kick it, and they would tell me, “You have to kick it harder, man!” So, I would kick it harder, and it would go from zero to 60 in no time flat. There was an actual Navy Seal on the set with us. His name was Kenny Sheard. He was a real soft-spoken, tough dude. He was having a tough time with his horse. I think his name was Itchy. All these horses have different personalities. I ended up really liking Scratchy a lot. But Kenny never got along with Itchy.
I’m always impressed with the way you’re able to transform yourself physically in a lot of your roles. It seems like you’re doing it again for your upcoming film “A Wrinkle in Time.” What is it about transforming yourself that you like so much?
I don’t know, but now that I have a kid, I feel like people become much more expressive. Think it’s a byproduct of experience where you take the most conservative person and all of a sudden you put them around a kid and they start acting differently than they ever would. They start making these dumb faces and things like that. I’m that person. I’ll do anything to make my kid laugh. He makes me laugh, too. He’s a smart kid. He reads a lot. Characters like that bring out the kid in me. I do this for a living, so I’m really fortunate to be able to do this stuff.
You worked with Oprah on “A Wrinkle in Time.” So, Oprah 2020?
Her speech at the Golden Globes was pretty inspiring. Hey, if Trump was a reality star and he became president and Ronald Reagan was an actor and he was president, they maybe Oprah can be president in 2020, too.