Michael Pena on Getting Real in David Ayer’s ‘End of Watch’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

Actor Michael Peña has already played a few cops in his career, but in David Ayer’s “End of Watch” he gets to play his most realistic one yet. It also marks the biggest role Peña has had so far in a career which has seen him give excellent performances in “Crash,” “World Trade Center” and “Observe and Report.” Taking on the role of LAPD officer Mike Zavala reminded Peña of his days growing up in Chicago, and his preparation proved to be far more intense than he ever expected it to be.

Peña grew up in a particularly rough area of Chicago where the lure of gang life was always strong. The actor, however, said he “never wanted to be in a gang” and that he “didn’t want to follow anybody’s orders” as he always thought of himself as an individual even when he was really little. Still, playing Mike Zavala brought up a lot of memories of those days:

“I grew up in the ghetto, and the thing is when there were problems, I knew when to get away. But police go to the problems,” said Peña. “I didn’t do that growing up. Seeing it through Jake (Gyllenhaal’s) eyes, it re-ignited what I always knew, but I guess I had buried it. I’ve been living in Hollywood for the past 15 years. And reality just smacks you in the face – that feeling of potential danger everywhere.”

Like his co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, Peña spent five months training with the Los Angeles Police Department which included ride-alongs which lasted 12 hours a day. There was also a good dose of weapons training, martial arts, boxing workouts, and lugging around chest cameras which were also called body cams.

“We did so many damn ride-alongs, dude,” said Peña. “At first it’s brand new, it’s awesome, and it’s amazing. You almost glamorize it in a way. Then you do ten more, and you start getting a little bored. Then ten more after that, you really get into the spirit of it. It was almost like a sport. We really wanted to get into the mindset of what it’s like to be a police officer.”

As for the body cams, Peña remembered them being “so heavy” and “gnarly.” It turned out though that some of the hardest things he had to do in “End of Watch” were not actually physical.

“I was driving a whole bunch,” Peña said. “Then you have the director (David Ayer) in back, which can be pretty nerve-wracking. Sometimes I didn’t know where life began and where the acting started.”

Pena and Gyllenhaal had never worked together before making “End of Watch,” and it apparently took some time to get the sense of brotherhood two cops can have.

“It took three months to click,” said Peña. “There’s a lot of pressure to play like brothers. We had to spend a lot of time together to opening up to each other as well as tactical training, rehearsing. Three months later we had a good rapport and we put that in the movie.”

It was also all the hard-hitting dialogue which Ayer came up with that made the working relationship between Peña’s and Gyllenhaal’s characters feels like a real brotherhood. Peña also admitted he and Gyllenhaal did very little in the way of improvisation on the set as neither of them wanted to mess with the director’s script.

“Nine times out of 10, you aren’t going to come up with something better,” Peña said.

Peña has certainly earned his moment in the spotlight, having given one memorable performance after another. His terrific work in “End of Watch” is not only a major step forward for him, but it also allows him to break through certain barriers which have been placed upon actors throughout the years:

“The script was written for actors like Jake Gyllenhaal and me – a Latin dude. It had to be a Latin dude, there is so much Latin (material) in it. Ten years ago, I don’t know if that would have been the case. I don’t know if it would have been so easy to do.”

SOURCES:

Brian Brooks, “‘End of Watch’ Star Michael Peña Sees Racial Barriers Coming Down in Hollywood,” Movieline.com, September 19, 2012.

Chris Vognar, “Michael Peña on ‘End of Watch:’ ‘We did so many damn ride-alongs,’” The Dallas Morning News, September 21, 2012.

Madeleine Marr, “Talking to ‘End of Watch’ star Michael Peña,” The Miami Herald, September 20, 2012.

Jake Gyllenhaal on His Intense Police Training for ‘End of Watch’

As Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer Brian Taylor, actor Jake Gyllenhaal finally gets to play a cop for the first time in “End of Watch.” Written and directed by former South Central Los Angeles resident David Ayers, the movie follows two young police officers played by Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena who are marked for death by a notorious cartel after they confiscate money and firearms from them. Although it was shot in 22 days on a budget of just $7 million, Gyllenhaal did not skimp on the details and went through a seriously intense preparation which extended far beyond him simply getting a buzz cut.

Gyllenhaal underwent five months of serious training with the LAPD, and this included going on 12-hour ride-alongs through various crime-ridden neighborhoods. These ride-alongs had a schedule which started at 4:00 p.m. and went through to 4 a.m., and he went on them as much as three times a week.

“On my first ride-along in Inglewood, someone was murdered. We were the second car on the scene,” Gyllenhaal said of his experience. “That was definitely a wakeup call. We were involved in stolen vehicle chases. You see domestic violence, disputes that turn violent. You really see your city differently after that.”

Gyllenhaal admitted to getting a little nervous at times as he and the police rode up on crimes involving domestic disputes, attempted murders and stolen cars. The actor pointed out, however, that he was with some pretty amazing officers who made him feel very protected in such a dangerous environment. In addition, he went to a dojo in the mornings for fight training and also got a lot of exposure to weapons and tactical training as well.

“We did training with live ammunition and training with the SWAT Team a few times a week for six-hour sessions,” Gyllenhaal said. “We had to learn tactic exercises and moving exercises with live ammo and then we did fight training in Echo Park. David Ayer, our director, his best friend has a dojo, so we trained there in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting too. Eventually, after getting the crap beaten out of you and being on the street, you start to actually come into the role and feeling like you really can play the part.”

But one of the most interesting stories regarding his preparation to play Officer Brian Taylor involved him getting shot by a taser.

“I did get tased. We were at the police academy, and they asked us if we wanted to try it out and me being me said, ‘Yeah, of course, yeah!’ Actually, they gave us a choice between pepper spray and being tased,” Gyllenhaal recollected.

When it came to choosing getting tased or pepper sprayed, Gyllenhaal’s decision proved to be a well-informed one:

“Pepper spray is long and painful, it lasts for like 45 minutes and the taser just lasts for five second,” Gyllenhaal said. “But afterwards it’s actually kind of relaxing. After you’ve had thousands and thousands of volts of electricity going through your body.”

It looks like Gyllenhaal’s preparation for “End of Watch” has really paid off as he is getting some of the best reviews of his career. It is clear playing a police officer has had a tremendous impact on him as he talked of the stigma cops constantly deal with when they are out on the street in uniform. He has also gone on to say how the experience of making this movie has completely transformed not just his idea of law enforcement but of Los Angeles as well. When all is said and done, watching this film will do the same for the audience.

SOURCES:

Colin Covert, “Jake Gyllenhaal’s education on the mean streets,” Star Tribune, September 22, 2012.

Zac Shull, “Q&A: Jake Gyllenhaal Talks ‘End of Watch,’ Training with Police & If He Gets Pass for Speeding,” Baller Status, September 21, 2012.

Justin Harp, “Jake Gyllenhaal: ‘I was tased while preparing for End of Watch,'” Digital Spy, September 18, 2012.

Fury

Fury movie poster

When it comes to David Ayer, you know he’s not going to slack off when it comes to researching his movie’s subject matter. His movies like the brilliant “End of Watch” and the underappreciated “Sabotage” had characters dealing with a vicious reality which they are forced to contend with on a regular basis, and Ayer makes us feel how frightening this reality is whether we want to be a part of it or not. That remains the case with “Fury,” a war film which takes us all the way back to the final days of World War II. It features all the usual characters we expect to see in a war film from the hardened Army sergeant to the innocent rookie, but you come out of it knowing what it feels like to be in a tank.

Brad Pitt stars as Don “Wardaddy” Collier, the commander of a five-man tank crew which is ordered to make a final push into Nazi Germany during World War II. Don is saddled with a battle ready crew which includes Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Cpl. Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). After losing one of their members, they are suddenly saddled with the most baby-faced rookie imaginable in Army Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). Don doesn’t like Norman’s presence one little bit as he feels it threatens everyone’s safety, but his superiors force him to take him on regardless of his objections. As a result, Don is forced to make Norman grow up a lot sooner than he wants, and it’s all in the name of survival.

For a time, I thought that Norman was going to be like Jeremy Davies’ character from “Saving Private Ryan” in that he would be the wimp who wouldn’t have the nerve to kill the enemy until the very end. Don, however, doesn’t have the patience to wait for Norman to grow a pair and forces him to kill a Nazi prisoner early on. Lerman gives a tremendous performance as Norman, and it’s fascinating to watch him go from being an anxiety ridden soldier to a hardened war veteran who doesn’t hesitate to take out as many Nazis as humanly possible.

There haven’t been many tank movies in the history of cinema. The only ones I can think of are Kevin Reynolds’ “The Beast” which came out in 1988 and the Israeli war film “Lebanon” which depicted warfare as witnessed from inside a tank. It’ll be interesting to see how they compare to Fury which puts you right into these characters’ mindsets as they lay waste to their target without the benefit of ear protection. You come to feel as battered and hardened as the crew does during their patrol through enemy territory where they find themselves outnumbered and outgunned.

It’s hard to watch “Fury” without thinking of Pitt’s performance as Aldo Raine in “Inglorious Basterds,” but he does succeed in making “Wardaddy” distinct from that character whether he is sporting facial hair or not. I always enjoy Pitt’s performances when he’s all dirtied up and free of his movie star looks, and this is one of them. You believe Pitt as a war veteran who has seen countless battles and has long since been worn down by them. But for Don, his main concern is keeping his crew alive, and Pitt is great at making you feel his character’s barely hidden vulnerability which is always on the verge of being exposed for all to see

Pena is an Ayer regular, having worked with him previously on “End of Watch,” and he has yet to disappoint in any role he takes on. As Trini, he gives us a character who was one of the many Latino military officers who fought for America back in the 1940’s. From start to finish, Pena makes Trini a war weary character who is not far from falling apart, and it makes for an intense performance.

I also give applause to Bernthal whose performance as Grady may not get all the recognition it deserves. On one hand Grady is a loathsome character we cannot stand to be around, but on the other he’s just a soldier trying to survive this war anyway he can. It’s rare to see an actor who makes you despise and sympathize with a character simultaneously, and Bernthal succeeds in pulling it off.

Another impressive performance in “Fury” comes from Shia LaBeouf as Boyd. Like Private Daniel Jackson in “Saving Private Ryan,” this guy is a trained killer but also quick to spout off passages from the Bible. Even after taking out a Nazi tank, he will still quote passages from that book with a great passion. LaBeouf got a lot of press for the method work he did on “Fury” which included pulling out a tooth, but seeing this movie is to be assured that all the work paid off for him.

Whether or not you consider “Fury” to be one of the best World War II movies ever made, it is one of the strongest to come out in the past few years. Ayer makes you feel the anxiety and exhaustion these soldiers go through while in battle, and you come out of this movie feeling as battered as they do. I very much liked what it had to offer, and I liked how Ayer didn’t try to sugarcoat reality for anyone in the slightest. That’s what makes his movies so unique and visceral.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2014.

David Ayer Discusses an Unforgettable Scene in ‘Fury’

Fury movie poster

Fury” was written and directed by David Ayer, the man who gave us “Harsh Times,” “End of Watch” and “Sabotage.” This movie takes us back to World War II and stars Brad Pitt as Don “Wardaddy” Collier, the commander of a Sherman tank and its five-man crew. We follow them as they go on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany. They soon find themselves outnumbered, outgunned and saddled with a rookie soldier barely qualified to serve with them. But even as the odds continue to stack up against them, they stay with their tank which they have named Fury as they consider it the only home they have left.

I attended the “Fury” press conference held at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California, and among those there were Ayer and actors Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal and Michael Pena. For me, one of the most memorable scenes comes when Pitt and Lerman enter an apartment belonging to a pair of German women and proceed to make themselves at home by cooking breakfast. Then they are joined by the rest of their crew who treat the women and the gathering with a lot of hostility. But as the scene goes on, we see them slowly regain a part of their humanity as they share stories which reduce them to tears.

This scene reminded me of a similar one in Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” where a bunch of soldiers jeer a captive German girl when she appears onstage, but they begin to cry when she starts singing a sentimental folk song. I asked Ayer how the scene came about.

“That’s a really good question,” Ayer said. “I did a lot of primary source research, and you realize it’s a workaday world for these guys. It’s sort of a blue-collar existence for these tank crews at this point in the war. It’s go capture the town. Go get this town. Take this hill. Take this ridge. Capture that road junction. You’re given a laundry list of tasks and we think about all these famous battles and all these war-winning battles, but I liken these guys to coal miners. They put on their safety gear and go in and do their work and they come out at the end of the day. And a common pattern was they would capture a town and by early afternoon they’d be in control of it, and then they’d start kicking in cellar doors and looking for wine and looking for food, and they’d make… they locals would cook for them, and they’d do what guys do and pass out and get up the next day at 4 a.m. and take the next town.”

“Something is interesting about that, the idea that you’re in this war zone and there’s humanity and there’s people in there,” Ayer said. “In these movies there’s always a one-sided depiction of either side and of what happens when these people are together in this living room. I imagine this scene as the ultimate Thanksgiving dinner. I think we’ve all had those bad family dinners ourselves. The idea is this crew’s a family, and family can be love-hate. No one can wound you like a family member. No one can hurt you like your brother or sister who just says that one thing that spins you. That was what all the training and the boot camp and the rehearsal and the familiarity was all leading up to, for me, was really that scene. To get these guys as close as brothers so that they can go at each other like older brothers can.”

The other actors echoed Ayer’s sentiments about the dinner scene, and Pena, who plays Captain Trini “Gordo” Garcia, described it as the most intense scene he had to deliver in “Fury.”

“I remember we started shooting and I was an emotional mess,” Pena said. “David said, ‘Let me shoot the other guys first so you can get warmed up,’ and I was like, ‘Dude, I’ve been doing this for five months, buddy. Let’s just go right now.’ Everyone had big scenes and we’d know when the next scene was coming up or when somebody’s big scene was coming up, and we’d try to be as supportive as possible. These guys Bernthal and Shia—we shot it in a day and a half or something like that. I don’t remember. But they were always there tearing up at every take, really supporting me, because it was almost like us against them. It’s like our big brother is playing favorites to this guy (Lerman) and we all took it very seriously. So when I tell the story about the horses, which he never wants repeated, these guys gave me the green light, so to speak, and they were emotionally there for me as well. So that was the toughest.”

Bernthal, who plays Grady Travis, also talked about that scene and how the countdown to it and others that were equally intense loomed over the actors during production.

“We all had those scenes that we sort of circled on the calendar,” Bernthal said. “We could pretty much count down to the hour of when we were going to get to those scenes. It’s sort of like what we were talking about before like family and going for the jugular. For me it felt like, looking back on it, it wasn’t about those scenes, but it was that at any moment everyone here and Shia and Brad and the boss were armed with this information that could cut you down and break you. And because we were familiar and so close with each other, David and the way he kind of orchestrates the thing, he’ll set people loose on people. He’ll set the camera on somebody’s face, and then rip them apart. Sometimes it’s something that another actor says, and sometimes it’s something he comes up with and whispers in your ear.”

“I’ll be honest with you, after just a month of shooting when he would walk towards me, I’d start to shake and sweat, because I know what was coming in my ear was going to break me,” Bernthal continued. “And even though you know what he’s trying to do and it’s for a result, it scares me now honestly just thinking about it. Also, to do that to one of these guys that you love so much, to see them and to get the word to go after that dude, go get him, and like David said, it’s family, so I know what to say to you to press your button. And it becomes this kind of perverse, beautiful game. We’re trying to cut each other down and break each other. That’s what family does. It was uniform among every tank veteran we talked to. You don’t pick your family. You don’t pick your tank crew. These guys are as close as units can possibly get. That’s what we were going for, that familiarity and that bond. It’s just as dangerous as it is lovely.”

Copyright Ben Kenber 2014.