INTERVIEW: Pena and Jimeno Talk ‘World Trade Center’

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I had a chance to sit in on one of the more inspiring roundtable interviews I’ve ever done as I sat down with actor Michael Peña and the man he plays in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, real life survivor Will Jimeno.

Will was at the World Trade Center when it collapsed and I think his sense of duty and honor shine through even in print. Take a look as the boys discuss the movie, Oliver Stone, the conditions, and what Will went through on that fateful day.

He actually does look like you…

Will Jimeno: I’ve gotten heavier since my injuries; I’ve dropped thirty pounds since the movie because I used to look like a gorilla. I said for my first cameo I should be on the Empire State Building. I’ve got some pictures from before and when I was back at 200lbs and we do look a like. But more important than that is we’re both people persons.

Michael, You go from Crash, Million Dollar Baby, now World Trade Center, three huge ones in a row.

Michael Peña: Clint Eastwood said he would consider it a favor if I did his movie, but to be honest with you if Clint asked me to say “yes, sir,” I’d be like yeah, I’ll do the job!

So you’ve got three in a row that could win best picture…

Michael Peña: Well, you don’t think of those things.

How many hours were you down there?

Will Jimeno: I was buried for a total of 13 hours, Yes, I was conscious the whole time. It’s sort of a blessing but at the same time a horror. We had to live through every single thing; it wasn’t like we could take a break. I had made my peace with God. I wasn’t just resting there, I was ready to die. When you talk about Oscar nominations I would hope they do. Because this is all true. The film is 95 percent accurate. You have the real people, we didn’t do this for money, we didn’t do this for fame. We told Oliver on set, if you ask for advice and don’t follow it I’m going to tell the truth. I’m not here to defend anyone. This is about all this around us and it’s important for people to know the good that came out of that day. And when you’ve got an actor like Michael Pena to bring that across to the normal guy just like he did in Crash. When does that little piece in Crash with the little girl my wife said “That’s you, that’s your love for your daughter.” Combine that with Oliver’s talent in storytelling and you walk out of the theater feeling different than I walked out of United 93. With honor towards United 93 I still walked out of it with nothing.

Well no one there lived to tell the story…

Will Jimeno: Yeah the difference here is you have me here. If I died Hollywood is going to say “we thought (this is what happened).” As human beings, as Americans what do we do? Do we not turn around and look at the good in things, confront our demons? And look at how we conquered that day. Edmund Burke said it best, the English Philosopher, “All that evil needs to conquer is for good men and women stand by and do nothing.” There were good men and women that day. Five years later the way I think about those that died, I remember their smiles, I remember their kindness. So why not turn around and say, hey, let’s not talk about the terrorists, let’s not continually see the buildings fallings. They want to make this work. This film is going to be good 20, 30, 40 years from now when you can tell your children “Bad things happened that day, but let me show you the good.”

What is the pressure like playing a guy like Will?

Michael Peña: The story is something that I didn’t hear about before, I didn’t know if I wanted to do a 9/11 movie, there were a lot being tossed around in Hollywood at that time. I read it and I felt an immense duty right off the bat, I was fortunate enough as an actor to read a story that’s not only uplifting but full of hope and love, based on a true story. On top of that Oliver Stone is directing it. We’re never going to forget that day but we’re going to be reminded that there was something that day that was a Godsend. Some people don’t like meeting the real person because of the pressure. I just did a lot of research; I lived with him and his family for a week. And then we were rehearsing during the week with Oliver and on the weekends I’d come by and just ask him questions. There is a lot of pressure and you’ve got to make sure you don’t do an imitation of it. You do the same physical behaviors as him. I had to personalize it for myself. He helped me out a lot. To ask him to revisit and relive those things, he just had such a sense of duty.

You had to have felt this was a special project, right?

Michael Peña: I remember shooting and after some scenes crew guys were crying and coming by and shaking my hand. That doesn’t happen usually. Oliver Stone was just really helpful as well. I don’t know how many times I’m going to experience that in my life, so I just wanted to enjoy it. I hear so many people say I wish I would have enjoyed it more and I didn’t want to be that guy.

How did the script come about Will?

Will Jimeno: Originally we wanted to write a book, and Oliver does a great job of encompassing everything in two hours but there is a lot more. Jim Nolan from the Philadelphia Daily news had written an article on us, he was a cop reporter, and he said yeah, he’d like to do a book. Then he wanted me to meet a movie agent. I didn’t see what the big deal was but out of respect for Jim Nolan I gave it a chance. It wasn’t until two years later someone saw and respected what we wanted to do. It was about the heroes, it was about those angels that died, it was about the strength of our wives, and how we as humanity came together that day. It took me a while to learn that. The screenplay is pretty much our story, tweaked a little bit. These people, (who made the movie) even if they’re not nominated (for an Oscar) are going to go down in history and will be able to say “I did something good for humanity.” An Oscar doesn’t even capture what these guys did.

You weren’t able to go back to work because of your injuries…

Will Jimeno: I tried. I was hoping. But my injuries were severe, that’s another lesson for cops and firefighters, that you can be injured on the job and be forced to retire before it’s time. The film has kept us busy but usually I just try and concentrate on my daughters. I’m still rehabbing, believe it or not, it’s not over for me. The day it will be over is the day they bury me.

What was the filming in these conditions like for you Michael?

Michael Peña: It was the hardest role I’ve had to do.

Will Jimeno: The conditions were nasty.

Michael Peña: People were dropping like flies, getting sick. I really felt like I had Will’s spirit. I’m a bit more laid back then he is but for the film I really exercised that part of myself. It helped me out. To be resilient when they are dropping stuff and your nose is caked with dirt.

What was the most you filmed trapped under something?

Michael Peña: Like six hours for the first week or so. Again, the sense of duty, I’m not going to complain with Will on set.

Will Jimeno: I didn’t see Hollywood here. They wouldn’t feed these guys.

Michael Peña: We had very little time to get this one scene, we had a small window of ten hours, and if you ate it would take too much time.

Will Jimeno: We finally had to say get this guy food. All the actors really gave of themselves. From Nic on these people worked really hard.

Do you miss police work?

Will Jimeno: I miss it immensely. I get called to speak at police academies and that helps. Through this story if we can touch one soul that’s worth it because that’s what a cop does.

Do you think something else will happen to New York City at some point?

Will Jimeno: I think so, but the deal is we have so much perseverance and such pride and honor that we’re going to overcome it. New York City, and the Port Authority (whom Will worked for) is a target rich environment. The airports, the bridges, the tunnels. We got hit in 1993 and survived. We got hit in 2001 and survived. You want to talk about heroes? The cops are on the front line today. We’re prepared and we’ll act. The bottom line is we won’t change our lifestyle, that’s how we conquer evil. Things happen in life but we’re going to continue forward.

World Trade Center hits theaters on August 9, you can check out eight clips from the film here and read my interview with director Oliver Stone right here.

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Weekend: Nov. 15, 2018, Nov. 18, 2018

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