The actor in conversation…

To mark the release of David Ayer’s World War II actioner Fury this week, Clash’s Paul Weedon sat down with actor Michael Peña, the man responsible for piloting Brad Pitt’s tank, to talk boot camp, how good directors are not unlike favourite uncles and how to avoid getting murdered by Marvel.

Warning: Fury spoilers ahead

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You recently described working with director David Ayer as akin to “having a root canal”. 

It’s absolutely true.

Care to elaborate?

We all had big scenes in the movie. My scene was the dinner scene. And, man, I f*ckin’ rehearsed that thing for five months. Everyday – looked at it, thought about it, thought about different alts and thought about what it really means and the reason is because, from the context surrounding that scene, you know what the scene is about, but if you were to just look at the actual dialogue, you’d be like, “Well, what is this scene about?” So you have to work on it. It’s mainly subtext. This whole movie, you’re saying one thing but you mean another.

So everyone had that scene. I had, like, three of them where I’m a nervous wreck. And it’s funny, when you put so much in to it, it’s almost like you add more pressure to yourself because you want it to be good. I remember Jon [Bernthal] had one scene with Brad and he had it down on the calendar. Shia [LaBeouf] had one where he was praying and I thought he did a beautiful job with that. And Logan [Lerman] had it right off the bat where he first comes in. You know, it’s not an easy scene. We rehearsed that scene maybe way more than one hundred times.

You’ve worked with David before on End Of Watch, and he’s killed you off twice now. Historically there have been plenty of famous director/actor pairings where directors have a tendency to kill someone they enjoy working with. The Coens famously like to see Steve Buscemi suffer.

(Laughs) Yeah!

Is your relationship with David one of those relationships?

(Pauses) He’s a buddy, man. It’s so funny. I’ll go to his house and have dinner and it’s a completely different thing. I mean, David’s such a bright, smart guy, but he never rubs it in your face. You always leave the conversation knowing that you’ve learned something. But I think, when it comes to filming, I think he just likes to see me suffer. (Laughs)

But I do think I’m lucky to have that kind of friend, you know what I mean? He writes for Latinos and Latin Americans. I mean, he’s the only one that would write something like End Of Watch and he wrote me this part. He’s married to a Mexican woman and he just thinks outside the box and not everybody does that. Even Latin directors don’t often have Latin actors in their movies.

And presumably that shorthand helps you a lot on set?

It just makes it… that’s where that “root canal” phrase came from. It’s tough to do a movie like that. I mean, after End Of Watch it took me two months to decompress and not feel like a cop, you know? Fury was the same – in fact, maybe even longer, because it was so brutal. I don’t know how to explain it.

David knows a lot about me and I’ve told him everything there is to know. So he would talk to me in Spanish to direct me and it would get me more in to the role, you know? I think he’s a special dude. He’s a buddy of mine and I’m glad that he’s doing well.

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[Being in the tank] was horrible. It was really, really bad…

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You guys have discussed the amount of research that went in to your roles. Did you speak to veterans?

I did speak to veterans, but the thing that was really odd and kind of unnerving was there weren’t a whole lot of Latin people who were acknowledged for fighting in World War II, and that kind of pissed me off a little bit to be honest with you, because there are a lot of people that should be acknowledged. The worst thing that could happen would be for those people to be forgotten. Nobody wants those people to be forgotten and so it’s even nice just to be in the frame.

But in terms of research it was all hands on. I was really driving the tank. Everyone was really doing their post.

What was it like actually being in that tank with the guys?

It was horrible. It was really, really bad. And in the beginning, because even getting into it, the hole was this big (gestures a tiny crawlspace), so you’d have to squeeze in there somehow. And it was tough, but I think after, like, two months – because we did pre-production for two months – it was like nothing. You had your route, and you knew what the easiest way in was. You didn’t even think about it. It was like going up and down the stairs.

And you did the military training too, right?

Yeah, we did, but you know what: it was perfect because we only did the boot camp. We weren’t talking like soldiers in a contemporary way. It was 1945 and they were rushed through boot camp and some of the guys didn’t have a lot of training. You just shot. And the guns that you had weren’t the best. So that was exactly the type of boot camp that we needed to have.

I guess Logan had less training than you guys to remain in keeping with the character, then?

He did actually, sometimes. That’s really interesting. Yeah, he did. Sometimes he would be excluded. We all really cared about the project and we’d be like, “Where the hell’s Logan?” But I think David’s sick, twisted mind set that up somehow, so it worked perfectly.

Changing tack slightly, you’ve worked quite prolifically in television as well as film. A lot of Hollywood actors have been working in TV recently. What do you feel the appeal is for actors today, which TV didn’t necessarily offer in the past?

It’s funny because I’ve done two TV shows in 10 years. I did Eastbound & Down, which was six episodes, but I shot that in three weeks and then I did a miniseries, Gracepoint, which we shot in four months, and that’s mainly been it. But when you’re deciding amongst shows, you’ve really got to go for the writing and the storytelling. Is it entertaining to me? Because if it’s not entertaining, you’re not going to get the jokes and you’re not going to get everything that story has to offer and I think that makes you a liability. If you accept a job that you’re not right for… you just shouldn’t.

And you’ve worked with some directorial legends in your career – Werner Herzog, Robert Redford…

Oliver Stone, Clint Eastwood… David Ayer…

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I seriously have a fear that if I even start talking about Ant-Man, there’ll be some red lasers on my face…

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The list goes on. You’re working with Ridley Scott at the moment on The Martian. What do you tend to take working under the direction of each of these unique talents?

It’s really simple. It’s almost like your favourite uncle, or whoever it is, you know what I mean? They’re just the best storytellers. If you listen to Dave [Ayer], he’s able to really tell you and paint exactly what he’s talking about. So it’s like my dad and my uncle would have the same story, but my dad would defer to my uncle because he’d be fantastic at telling it.

I think that’s the way it is to be a director, but with the language of camera and set design. There’s a lot that goes in to it, but that’s when you really have, what I think is really important, to have a voice.

And I love working with David. It’s like a root canal.

Finally, you’re working on Ant-Man at the moment…

(Takes a sharp inhale of breath)

That tells me there isn’t a lot you can tell us.

You know what, dude? Not unless I get shot. You know what I mean? I seriously have a fear that if I even start talking about it there’ll be some red lasers on my face. They’re probably recording me right now. But I get it. I get the secrecy. At first I was like, “These guys are being ridiculous.” But then you look at the scripts that get leaked. They just don’t make as much money. And the guys who are the really big fans, they kind of end up messing it up for each other. I’m like, why would you want to do that?

So I guess the pressure’s on as an actor to stay as quiet as possible.

Yeah, exactly. And, plus, I want to surprise people when it comes to that. This one’s a little bit different because even if I told you the entire story, it’s different. And Marvel relies on a lot of twists and turns.

Right, we’ll wrap up before Marvel step in. Thanks Michael.

Right on, man.

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Words: Paul Weedon

Fury is in cinemas now.

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