Although Michael Pena has mostly played characters in dramatic roles, in his new film Observe and Report, you will see a much different side of the serious actor as he portrays a mall security guard trying to help Seth Rogen catch a serial flasher. Before Pena even said a word, he already had us cracking up with his permed hair and security uniform he wore during the interview. We talked to him about the transition from drama to comedy and what it’s like for him to play opposite of an improv mastermind like Rogen.
Q: We heard you have an interesting accent for this film.
Michael Pena: When I read the script it was written for a white kid with blond hair. I told my agents, “Look can you submit me for it,” because they weren’t going to offer me the part because I’m not known for comedy. They said, “You want to play that part?” and I said, “Yeah I think I can play a guy trying to be black.” So I have a couple buddies – one this guy Rich who is in a band. He’s from Toledo, but he’s got the strangest accent. Then there’s another guy who’s a caddy at Wilshire Country Club and I kind of meshed the two and then just went in with the accent. This was my idea too because the caddy at the country club has big curls, but he’s one of the best caddies that I’ve ever had. He’s really serious and pays no mind to his accent.
Q: Is that your hair or a wig?
Pena: This? It’s my hair dude. Dude it’s tough. I just don’t want to spend that much time in the makeup chair and so I was like dude let me just perm it bro. I swear to God Jody [Hill] was emotional and was like, “Man would you do that for me man? That’s so cool man. Come here man.” I don’t think of it any different because if I was working for Redford or something and if they wanted me to perm my hair, I’d perm my hair. But this one I think adds to it. If you guys see there’s a gold chain, there’s a pinky ring – very subtle stuff.
Q: You said you’re not known for comedy, but I’ve seen you on “My Name Is Earl,” so do you think you’ll start doing more of this genre?
Pena: “My Name Is Earl” was the first one and I’ve got to say I was really, really nervous. It was great doing that. It’s still kind of spontaneous or what not, but it’s still a whole different vibe and it’s still as playful as can be, but it’s just a whole different animal. So I have been trying to ease into it with “My Name Is Earl” and now this.
Q: What is the vibe on this movie like? It seems very loose and improvisational.
Pena: That’s exactly it and the thing is is that the structure is basically the same, but in drama everything is tracked because the screenwriter in the beginning is talking about something in the past or whatever and in the middle there’s a definite kind of objective. The screenwriter wants to have a kind of affect. What affect does he want to have with this scene and in the end it’s like the conclusion or resolution of that will lead into another one. This one it’s like make you laugh, make you laugh, make you laugh.
Q: How is it for you working in this R-rated environment where you can pretty much say and do anything?
Pena: It’s really interesting because I’ll say some outlandish kind of stuff. I don’t know if you guys have seen any of the dailies, but I’ll say some crazy out of this world stuff and the director comes in, “Cool, cool can you do more of that?” and he takes it to a whole different level and I’m like, “Oh my God I think Jesus is going to hate me for this. I don’t want this to happen.” He’s like, “That’s the way to do it man. Just roll with that. Just roll with it man. Let it feed you.” At the end of the day you just pray to God that comes out alright. I think it’s alright. Seth Rogen and Jody Hill – I don’t know if you’ve seen “Foot Fist Way,” but I’m in pretty good hands.
Q: When that kind of improv is happening and everyone is kind of topping each other, how hard is it to keep a straight face?
Pena: I’m the worst at it dude. That’s why I was asking if you guys seen the dailies because I think I’m the worst actor here of all time. I know for sure when you see Seth say really funny you’re going to see my head shake and I look at that when I’m seeing a comedy. I look at the person’s head shake. There’s a couple of times where I have to just look away and pretend like that’s a choice. Somehow filter that in there.
Q: We saw Seth do about four takes of a scene and he says something different each time. Do you say the same line or do you add to it?
Pena: Even in drama that’s the interesting thing. The dialogue doesn’t change, but the action and the intention and whatever the moment gives you depending on the spontaneity of the other actor as well. That kicks in and then sometimes the dialogue changes. On this one you really have to appreciate Seth’s take on it. We’ve done 15 takes on one thing and he says everything differently, but with a different point of view and he changes it each and every time. Me, I do pretty much the same, but not as well. He’s a master at that, plus he’s a writer so he’s got this vocabulary. He’s talking about motives or something like that for candles. I have no idea what that is. So I’ll use that in the scene.
Q: Are you one of the characters who initially wasn’t a mall security guard and Seth recruits?
Pena: No, no I’m mall security along with Seth. I play Seth’s best friend.
Q: So you’re part of that
Pena: Special league taskforce. We’re on our way to catch a pervert. Well that’s the thing, he puts together a team to catch a pervert who’s like just going on an assault of flashing and we’re going to catch that guy.
Q: There’s also some other friends who come into so does your character have interaction with them?
Pena: Yeah, he does a little bit and it’s interesting doing it with Ray [Liotta] because the first day I think all we asked him about was, “So in ‘Goodfellas’…” How can you not dude? It was fantastic working with Ray.
Q: You’ve done a little TV, but you’ve mostly done films
Pena: I started off doing TV though.
Q: Would you consider going back to TV even if it meant signing a five year contract?
Pena: Right now I’m doing pretty well in [movies]. I either get to co-star or star in some movies which is literally a dream come true. You’re watching movies when you’re starting acting and you’re like, “Oh I wish I could so that.” Now I’m doing that so I think I’m going to keep that and ride it out to see what happens. Right now it’s an interesting time because there’s amazing television shows. “The Sopranos,” just even one show in particular. It would be really tough to turn that down if it was going and something like that was starting out and the cable shows. I was on “The Shield” for a year before “Crash” came out and it was like doing an independent film every week. I don’t know. It would be tough, but right now I think movies are the way to go.
Observe and Report opens in theaters on April 10th.