End of Watch has been called ‘the best cop film ever’ by French Connection director William Friedkin. It was certainly a challenge to make, its star tells Alistair Harkness
OH man, it was brutal,” says Michael Peña. The 36-year-old actor is talking about making his new film End of Watch, and specifically the five months of training he and co-star Jake Gyllenhaal did in preparation for their roles as police officers patrolling the drug cartel-controlled streets of South Central Los Angeles. “The first time Jake went on a ride-along, he saw someone die right in front of him. It was crazy. And I remember going to a domestic disturbance call and all these people showed up with, like, melted faces from being beat up. Which was tough.”
Peña has many more tales, of meeting witnesses who’d been shot in the face to prevent their testimony, and of starting to feel paranoid himself that arrestees might be following him home at night after clocking him at the police station (“That was scary”).
If he paints a vivid picture, it’s in keeping with the film. Written and directed by Training Day screenwriter David Ayer, End of Watch takes vérité filmmaking to new levels thanks to its found-footage shooting style, naturalistic acting and willingness to adapt to the challenges of shooting a $7 million (£4.4m) movie with Hollywood stars on the streets of LA.
“We’d rehearse things a hundred times, but when you have to make things look improvisational it’s a lot harder than it looks because we were constantly having to do five things at once,” says Peña. He illustrates his point by admitting that he crashed the cop car in which his and Gyllenhaal’s characters spend much of the movie. It only happened once, but it remained in the film. “That chase at the beginning …” – he makes a skidding sound and claps his hands together, mimicking a collision – “… that was real.”
That same level of authenticity extended to some of the fight sequences. During one arrest scene in which Peña’s character, family man Mike Zavala, goes mano-a-mano with a gang member intent on slapping him down, neither actor pulled their punches.
“We were hitting at about 50 per cent and I’ve got to give it up to that guy, he was tough: the first take I got a bloody nose and that dude broke his hand. That’s the kind of movie it was, but I’m only in this body for so long, so if it’s a special movie, I’ll do it and go all out.”
That commitment certainly seems to be paying off. Having broken through in the Oscar-garlanded Crash and played 9/11 hero Will Jimeno in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, Peña has been picking up the best notices of his career for End of Watch, with no less a figure than William Friedkin, director of The French Connection, proclaiming on Twitter recently that it “may be the best cop film ever”.
High praise indeed, though Peña was just excited to be doing a different type of film, even if he was a little worried that Ayer’s decision to shoot the film on-the-fly might miss the nuances of his and Gyllenhaal’s performances. “I was completely wrong on that front though,” he says, “because he caught everything and more. He was covering so many angles there were times when he was shooting where I didn’t even know he was shooting. And to do this, but have a completely scripted movie, was just a ballsy move.”
As was focusing it so intently on the odd-couple pairing of Peña and Gyllenhaal. Although the film is a police procedural, the action thriller elements don’t take precedence over the character work.
“There were seven-page scenes of just us talking and that doesn’t usually happen in a cop movie,” notes Peña. That camaraderie didn’t exactly come naturally, however. “Being forced to be someone’s best friend is like being forced into marriage,” elaborates the actor, whose working-class upbringing in Chicago was in stark contrast to Gyllenhaal’s more gilded path into movies.
“He grew up in Hollywood, his parents are Oscar-nominated screenwriters, his sister’s an actress. My brother works in a jail, my dad works in a factory. I don’t have a mum.
“I also have a kid and a family and he’s a single movie star, you know? So there wasn’t a lot to relate to, but we just kept going at it. We loved the script and loved the story and were really passionate about it and I think that’s what inevitably led us to have this bond.”
Peña has certainly had to work long and hard to get where he is. At his first open call audition back in the mid 1990s – for a role in To Sir, With Love II, a belated, Chicago-set sequel to the 1967 British film featuring Sidney Poitier and Lulu (“I loved the first film with Lulu,” beams Peña) – he was called back six times, only to be told finally that he wasn’t getting a part because he didn’t have enough acting experience.
“I was like, ‘Dude, what do you expect?’ So they stuck me in the movie as a featured extra.” From this, however, he managed to “hustle” his way into the business.
“It was a blessing to get started, but to actually finish was a motherf*****. I’ve been acting 17 years and it took me ten years to get to Crash and Crash only came out seven years ago.” If that’s indicative of the barriers facing Latino actors, thing seem to be changing. He credits Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna’s performances in Y Tu Mamá También with changing perceptions about the types of roles Latino actors can play in films and, coincidentally, he has just finished working with Luna, having taken the title role in Chavez, a biopic of Mexican American civil rights activist Cesar Chavez that Luna has been directing.
Before that Peña will be seen as another cop, this time in period blockbuster Gangster Squad with Sean Penn and Ryan Gosling. “I wouldn’t want a supporting role in an OK movie,” he says of his current career strategy. “I just love movies and I chase parts now that I consider cool.”
• End of Watch is released on 23 November. Gangster Squad is released on 11 January.