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Article updated: 9/21/2012 4:17 PM

Chicago's Michael Pena: a touch of Brando and bravado

Chicago actor Michael Pena plays an L.A. cop in David Ayer's new street drama "End of Watch."

Chicago actor Michael Pena plays an L.A. cop in David Ayer's new street drama "End of Watch."

Chicago actor Michael Pena plays an L.A. cop in David Ayer's new street drama "End of Watch." Pena admits stealing a little bit of Marlon Brando.

Chicago actor Michael Pena plays an L.A. cop in David Ayer's new street drama "End of Watch." Pena admits stealing a little bit of Marlon Brando.

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You have a touch of Brando about you, I said.

Michael Pena looked surprised.


"I don't know about that ..." he modestly said.

Yes, I repeated, definitely a touch of Brando.

"Maybe," the Chicago-born actor said, "that's because I stole a lot of stuff from him. Like his behavior, the way he does things. How he doesn't over-announce everything. He's like a little slice of life."

Pena goes full-metal Brando, at least in terms of naturalistic acting, in David Ayer's thrilling new cop tale "End of Watch." Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal play police officers sharing their lives on a day-to-day basis.

For Pena, the daring "End of Watch" leads an impressive resume of movie roles in such diverse fare as "Crash," "Babel," "Million Dollar Baby," "World Trade Center" and "Tower Heist." Not bad for a high-school dropout who grew up the son of former Mexican farmers around 16th and California.

"I had no reason to drop out," Pena said. "I guess I just wasn't diggin' school. I loved math and AP calculus. I didn't care for anything else. So many times I would raise my hand and ask, 'How am I going to use this in my life?' There was never an answer.

"Chemistry and history? How was I going to use that? At least I understood how math was important, to balance your checkbook and stuff. Interest on car loans. But studying the Renaissance?"

Pena said he knew he could handle numbers, so he went to work at a local Harris Bank. That was when his best friend's mother told him he should become an actor.

"She said I was good at imitating people," Pena said.

At his first audition for the TV movie "To Sir With Love 2," 19-year-old Pena showed up feeling sick from drinking too much beer the night before. The casting director asked, "Can you act?"

"You tell me," Pena replied.

He auditioned for "To Sir 2" five more times before finally landing a role as a "featured extra." That was a start. In 1996, Pena headed west.

"I gave myself three months to make it," he admitted. "Gee, I didn't realize how naive I was. Some people sacrifice for years and years and they're gifted actors and they don't make it until their 10th year sometimes."

One month passed. Then two. Then, during the third month, Pena nailed a supporting role in the comedy "My Fellow Americans." On set, he met his fellow cast members.

"I didn't know who they were," Pena confessed. "I met Jack Lemmon. I met James Garner. And I go up to this woman and say, 'I'm Michael Pena. What's your name?'

"People really looked at me. And she was Lauren Bacall. The director was like 'I can't believe he said that ...' She's an icon, you know?"

Are you a natural? I asked.

"I don't know how much of a natural I am," he said. "I studied what I thought were the best movies I could find. I started off with 'A Streetcar Named Desire.' I must have watched that 100 times. Stella! Stella! The acting was amazing in this movie.

"I wanted to do that stuff. But I couldn't pay for acting classes. Auditions were my acting classes."

What's the best thing about being Michael Pena? I asked.

"I gotta be honest," he replied. "I try to pay more attention to other people than I do myself. I think that's kind of a trap, especially like growing up in Hollywood.

"Truth is, I'd rather be interested than interesting."

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