Exclusive: Michael Peña ‘Reports’ on the Dramatic Shift to Comedy

In the first of four interviews with the stars and director of Observe and Report, Michael Pena shares his excitement at stepping into the comedy world, the freedom of improvisation, and insults my hand-writing.
By  · Published on April 6th, 2009

Asking if Michael Peña has ever run from the cops is not my first question, but it’s probably the most pressing. You can’t just start off with that, though. It’s something to ease into – especially if you’re going to somehow connect it to the art of acting. Luckily, Peña begins our conversation on stabler ground – by suggesting that we do cartwheels around the echo-chamber-big hotel ballroom and then criticizing my handwriting for being far too small.

After a brief handwriting lesson (I showed vast improvement), we dig into a more serious discussion about moving from one major genre to the other. So far, we’ve seen Peña in a spread of dramatic roles in films as diverse as The United States of Leland, Million Dollar Baby, and Babel, and he’s done it all without Jheri curl of aviator sunglasses. With Observe and Report, Peña is stepping into a different world altogether, where he has to shrug off his dramatic skills, throw on some gold chains, and go toe-to-toe with Seth Rogen while Jheri juice slides down his cheek. It could be overwhelming, but the actor claims his excitement propelled him through the process.

“There’s no fear – there’s this excitement. It’s not like going to the dentist. It’s more like going to Six Flags,” Peña says. When I call it nervousness, he rightfully corrects me. “I think nerves stop you from doing things. Make you stop and maybe make you withdraw. Then there’s excitement where you can’t wait to do it. You know what I mean? And you don’t know how you’re going to do it.”

The actor is definitely jumping into the deep end before getting his feet wet when it comes to R-rated comedy. He holds his own against some comedy heavyweights while bringing a dynamic element to a movie that doesn’t quite fit into the comedic mold or the dramatic mold.

“I feel really comfortable with going for the reality of the drama, but I’m not much for the comedy of it. You have to make people laugh or you have to be true to the character in such a way that makes people laugh. It’s a whole different thing,” Peña says. “I actually think [the improv] feeds it, because you have to be really loose, and you have to be able to really talk to the person off the cuff, and really communicate and interact with them. Sometimes you feel so stuck – like with me – I have a problem sometimes where I’m so stuck in what I plan to do, that I don’t interact as much in dramatic work. You have to hit these beats, these certain spots – not that you plan how you’re going to get mad, but you know that you might get mad. So, yeah, it’s a different world.”

Here’s where the cops come in.

I bring up the theory that you can’t write and edit at the same time and expect to create good material. Peña jumps on the concept and likens it directly back to improv – “You’re actually writing out loud. That’s exactly what it is. It’s creative imagination.” Of course, improvisation is a lot like running from the cops. If you stop to think about what you’re doing, you’ll trip and fall on your ass. If you just let your instinct take over, you’ll look back after you’re safely away and wonder how you scaled a 12-foot fence.

Peña, who admits to running from the cops at least once in his life, adds another layer to the analogy: “It’s like going to the fence and thinking about it…there’s no time to think. You’re instincts take over. That’s the one thing…my girl is a writer, and it’s gotta be really instinctual. It just takes a lot of discipline to make yourself sit down and write – to make it all instinctual – because if not, I can tell when a writer is taking the easy way out…it’s almost like you’re reading a different script. Pages 1-90 were awesome. What happened?”

No doubt that the tie between writing and acting is a strong one, especially considering the construction of both. I have no idea how the conversation derailed into meaningful territory, but Peña has a way of making jokes while creating meaningful statements. Something tells me I should have taken him up on his offer to do cartwheels.

For as much as he’s done, and now having accomplished a successful transition showcasing his range, Peña is noticeably humble. And I think, based on his excitement at talking about his craft and considering this statement, I know why:

“I sound like a dork, but I love acting. I don’t know why, but when you do a good scene and it’s in the can, you just get a good feeling. You actually get this euphoric kind of – you just get a high, a performance high.”

Observe and Report opens this Friday – April 10th nationwide. Be prepared to start quoting Peña’s character Dennis soon thereafter.

Related Topics: , ,

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.