Like police officers, actors appreciate a great partner at their side. And “End of Watch’s” Michael Pena’s becoming the go-to guy they want covering their back.
Pena’s delivered a consistent string of standout performances in films of virtually every genre since his big breakthrough in 2004 with “Crash” and “Million Dollar Baby” – his subsequent resume includes compelling turns in a diverse array of movies including “World Trade Center,” “Observe and Report,” “Battle: Los Angeles” and “The Lincoln Lawyer.”
For “End of Watch,” an alternately harrowing and humorous found-footage-style narrative from writer-director David Ayer, Pena teams with Jake Gyllenhaal to play two young, capable but sometimes cocky patrol officers working the dangerous and violent streets of South Central Los Angeles while also trying to navigate complicated personal lives.
What was the lure of ‘End of Watch’ for you?
It was the writing. David Ayer wrote a fantastic script. I really wanted the part, but I remember I was a little bit overweight – you know, I showed up kind of plump-y, and he goes, 'What do you want to do?' I was like, 'I'd just love the part, man,' and the first audition went okay. I'm just a big fan of the writing. I loved 'Harsh Times' and obviously liked 'Training Day,’ and I just wanted to be part of that movie.
It's such an intense screen experience. How intense was the atmosphere on the set?
It was pretty intense. We had four months of preproduction, and we were S.W.A.T.ing three times a week. So that kind of puts you in the zone of what it's like, and then we did a lot of ride-arounds as well, and that puts you in the zone of what it's really like to be in South Central. But once we were shooting we just let go and had fun.
Talk a little bit about the police ride-along experience and what you learned.
It’s one thing reading the script and looking at the theory of it, and it's another thing actually going out. And I remember the first time I was filled with intense anticipation as to what could happen, and I didn't know what was going to happen. And when you're on these ride-alongs and these guys are pulling people over and going to a house that like has a bunch of thugs in it or whatnot, it brings up your adrenaline and your awareness level. And I didn't have any training at the time. So it's kind of like right in the teeth of a bear. Like what do you do? What do you do? And these guys, you know, my respect for these guys went up so much because it's not something that I'm used to but it's actually seeing it really happen.
Did you see anything extra scary while you were out there?
Yeah. You saw people shot. You see people that are stabbed, running around. You see women that are beat up and they’re trying to make sure that their husbands don't go to jail. It's a weird, weird thing.
What was the cop skill that you were able to get really good at? And what was the thing that you never quite mastered?
The thing that both Jake and I got really good at is shooting handguns, because we shot so much. It was pretty incredible. And then the one thing that I wasn't too good at, for some reason I just couldn't get it, was the freaking handcuffs, man! Like, really tossing them on there and making it look easy to slip on those handcuffs.
So much of what you and Jake are doing in the movie looks natural and real. How much of it was already on the page? And how much of it did you guys just kind of create in the moments?
Well, I'm going to say 98% of the movie was scripted. I mean, there's some things that we rehearsed, I think, like a hundred times. Because we knew it was kind of like a documentary-esque kind of movie – we knew the kind of camera that we wanted to use, and so that's kind of like the style that you can't really go broad with. You have to keep it as real as you possibly can for this specific style of movie. So we worked really, really hard on trying to keep it as natural as possible – that was a very, very conscious decision – and make it look like improv.