Taking about a year and a half off from making movies after his first child was born at the end of 2008, actor and Chicago native Michael Peña, 35, is getting back into the swing of things.

Not only is Peña dodging alien fire in “Battle: Los Angeles” this month, he also has a role in the courtroom thriller “The Lincoln Lawyer,” which stars Matthew McConaughey as an attorney who practices law from the inside of his Lincoln town car. In the film, Peña plays Jesus Martinez, a man sent to prison for a crime he may or may not have committed.

During an interview with me, Peña, whose last wide-release film was the 2009 dark comedy “Observe and Report,” talked about the challenges he faced going back to work after his year-long break and explained why his role in “The Lincoln Lawyer” hit so close to home.

Since the start of your career, I don’t remember you ever having two movies out at the theater at the same time. This week, you’ll have “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Battle: Los Angeles.” Aren’t you worried about a Michael Peña overload?

(Laughs) I actually have three more movies coming out this year, so I hope not. After my year and a half off, I called up my agent and was like, “I want to come back.” They were like, “Uh…It’s going to be a little tough.”

What was going to be so tough?

Just getting back into the game and getting big roles right away. Some of the roles were going to be a bit smaller. Hopefully it’ll remind people in the business that I’m still around.

Was it hard work getting back into it?

Yeah, it’s always hard work. It’s a cut-throat business. Everyone wants your job. There are a thousand guys who want my job. You have to take the good jobs and ignore the ones you’re not excited about. If you’re not inspired by a role, you probably shouldn’t take it.

So, what drew you to the role of Jesus Martinez in “The Lincoln Lawyer?”

I remember when I was younger, I was accused a couple of times for something I didn’t do. I was just walking home from school in my neighborhood and I was picked up and searched and taken to police headquarters and asked a lot of questions. It turned out they couldn’t find anything on me. There was racial profiling here and there. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong. That really drew me to this role. It’s a role that packs a punch.

The film was adapted from a novel by Michael Connelly. The last time you were in a movie based on a book was in 2007’s “Shooter.” How do you confront a role that offers more than a screenplay to work with?

I tend to normally not read the book. If you read the book and love it you might want the role to be exactly like it, but then the screenplay could be something completely different. If you read the script on your own and adhere to that, I think it makes for a better movie.

What’s usually going on in your head the week a movie you’re in is about to premiere?

You can have “premiere fever” where everything is fantastic and then six months later it’s not. There are always certain aspects that you like about a movie, so it’s hard to be objective. But I think it’s really important to be honest. I’ve been fortunate enough that only two of my movies in the last six or seven years didn’t turn out the way that I would’ve liked.

What makes a movie successful in your estimation?

It starts off with the script. If the script is awesome then hopefully you also have a really good director. The director to me is almost like your favorite uncle who tells you stories. You can have a favorite story and someone can tell it to you and it’ll be pretty good, but then you have this really talented storyteller who you want to hear it from because it’s that much more exciting.

What lessons do you take from a bad experience into the next project?

If somebody promises you something in the script is going to change, ask them to make the change right then and there. I won’t attach myself to something unless that change is made. That’s why some actors bow out of movies they’ve been attached to.

Talk about Matthew McConaughey’s performance.

What was that Joel Schumacher movie he was in – “A Time to Kill?” He did a fantastic job in that. There was real heart in that role. I think his role in this is the same thing. I wouldn’t mind doing some more movies with the guy.

Something I found interesting about the film was that the antagonist is this privileged young socialite who basically get everything he wants in life. Do you think it’s going to be easier for audiences to root against someone like this especially in these uncertain economic times we are in right now?

I think so, especially with everything that’s happening with the economy and all those Bernie Madoff types that get sent to jail but not for that long. If you go rob a bank you would get sent away for more time. To me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. I think having resentment towards certain people is a good thing for our movie.

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