Fresh off Battle: Los Angeles’ opening-weekend win last Friday, Michael Peña hits the big screen again this week with the drama/thriller The Lincoln Lawyer, co-starring Matthew McConaughey as a bottom-feeding criminal defense attorney who works out of his car and lands the seemingly dream client—a rich bad boy who is accused of rape and attempted murder. Enter the Mexican American actor as Jesus, the all-too-convenient suspect. Here, he talks to us about his character, bonding with his co-star, racial profiling, and fatherhood.
Tell us about your character.
He’s just this guy who lives in East L.A. and gets picked up by cops and McConaughey becomes my lawyer. He deals in small-time cases and gets this womanizing rich guy and that’s when the power struggle comes in and my case is similar to the rich guy’s so, well, I don’ t want to give away too much.
Seems from the trailer like your character gets accused of the crime, possibly because he’s Latino and looks rough. Have you ever been racially profiled?
I grew up Latino in Chicago and there are certain times where there is racial profiling and you have to deal with it. It’s hard because I’ve played policemen. I’ve gotten stopped for absolutely nothing, picked up and taken to the police station and patted down and when they find nothing, they say, well, you can go. There’s no apology and really, that’s the only thing you want.
Was that a reason you took the Lincoln role?
It’s for the same reason I did Battle. It had a lot of action and this one kind of makes you a detective. I love trying to guess what’s going to happen next, but with this movie, there are a lot of twists you don’t see coming. It’s a great case of whodunit.
So did you and Matthew play the bongos shirtless together?
It’s funny because he’s not that laid back guy when we were filming and that’s probably because our scenes were so intense. He couldn’t be laid back.
You seem to often play that soulful guy who is sometimes misunderstood by society, as in Crash. But you’ve also done comedies like Observe and Report and HBO’s Eastbound & Down. What do you like best?
It’s really funny because when I do comedy, I can’t wait to do drama and when I do drama I can’t wait to do comedy. Life has given me a lot to work with!
You’ve also played a dad a few times, most recently in Battle: Los Angeles. And you’re a dad in real life. What do you enjoy about the fatherhood gig?
There’ so many things! Sometimes I just like having him in the room with me. That’s all. He’ll show me a book and say, ‘Dadda, this is blowfish. Dadda, this is dolphin, not a fish.’ It just fills you up, those moments.
How has it influenced playing dads onscreen?
When I did Crash, I didn’t have a kid and had no idea what that meant. Now I completely know what that’s like and it’s different than what I could ever imagine. People would say, ‘When you’re a father, you care more about their lives than yours.’ I thought that was impossible. Sometimes you see parents that are disheveled but the kid looks like a superstar—that’s a good parent.