With award-winning films like “Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash” and “Babel” under his belt, Chicago-born actor Michael Peña has built himself a strong resume with the work he has been a part of for the past few years. In his most recent movie, “Shooter,” Peña plays Nick Memphis, an FBI rookie who gets caught up in the middle of a governmental scandal between an ex-Marine sniper (Mark Wahlberg) and the U.S. military.

Taking time to talk to me while L.A., Peña discussed the last seven years of his career, why he decided to quit his day job at a bank and jump into the film industry and his upcoming film “Lions for Lambs,” which stars Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise.

It’s been a busy three years hasn’t it?

It has been a busy three years. Actually, it’s been a busy seven years. I started like seven years ago doing “Siempre Fi.” Steven Spielberg produced that, so that was really cool. I just kept on doing really cool work with a lot of people. My first supporting role was with Joaquin Phoenix and Ed Harris in “Buffalo Soldiers.”

What made you want to go into this business?

I was working at a bank and my best friend’s mom told me to go to an open call and I didn’t. You don’t think acting is possible. Then she made me promise her that I would go to another open call.

Did you go and line up for the part?

There was like 3,000 other kids and I just lined up. The producer asked me, “Can you act?” And I said, “Well, we’re going to find out.” I was like, “I work at a bank, dude but let’s try it out.”

Did you get the part?

I auditioned seven times for the lead but I didn’t get it. I got a featured extra part and I thought I had it made.

So, when did you decide to move to L.A.?

Two weeks after the movie finished I was in Los Angeles. I liked it. It was something I could do. At 19 years old I was like, “Why not? Anything can happen.”

What did people at home say? Did they say, “You have a good job, what are you doing?”

Not when you’re living in the ghetto. They’re like, “Do you’re thing man.”

How did you get ready for the role as an FBI agent in “Shooter?”

I went to go meet FBI guys. I met this one real rookie and he was eager as hell to be a good FBI agent. It’s one thing to read it in a script and one thing seeing somebody actually wanna be a good FBI agent. I asked him, “Why (do you want this) so much?” He said these FBI guys have the real-life experience that is unlike anything else – the way they interrogate, the way they can tell if you’re lying. It’s like moving out when you’re 19 years old. You don’t think that you’re gonna have to pay for gas, electricity and your like, “What’s going on?”

When did you get an agent?

I didn’t get an agent until my second or third gig. I didn’t even know you needed one. I just kept going to open calls. I thought that’s the way Marlon Brando did it.

How did you find out?

When somebody told me, “Hey,you need an agent!” I was like, “Wait a minute. You want me to pay 10 percent to somebody? Why can’t I just go to these open calls myself?” Then I found out that not everything has an open call.

What was it like working with Mark Wahlberg on this?

It was great. He’s a professional. He’s really prepared. Each and every day, he doesn’t complain. He just kept an intensity for the whole shoot. We would golf to unwind a little bit. I’m still trying to beat him.

He said he could take money off you on the golf course.



Is that what he said?

Yeah, really. He said he could stop working for a while and take money off you.

It’s because were playing on Thursday and he’s trying to get into my head.

Now you’re doing the film “Lions for Lambs” with Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep  and Robert Redford.

Just saying is kind of weird. At first Meryl was attached to it. And then Tom was attached and Robert. Then they asked me if Iwould like to have a meeting with Redford and I was like, “Are you kidding me? Robert Redford?” So,  I met with him and told him what I thought about the character. A few
weeks later I got a call telling me that I got the movie.

What have you learned about yourself as an actor over the past seven years? Have you evolved?

I’d like to think so. I try to be as pratical as possible. I try and not be too heady. But at the end of the day, it is the actor’s job to communicate the play or movie to the audience. I think I read that in a David Mamet book. Most people don’t go to the movies to see a performance. They want to be entertained and they want to see a story. How am I going to tell the story? That’s the one thing that I focus on.

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