Michael Peña comes from humble beginnings. His parents, who moved to Chicago from Mexico where they were farmers, gave him and his brother the comforts they could. But his father’s factory job and his mother’s career as a social worker meant Peña had a modest upbringing. He remembers rushing with his brother to catch episodes of Fantasy Island and gawking at the glittering fantasies that the mysterious Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalbán) offered his many guests. He may not have watched the show religiously, but its memories are wrapped up with wanting to live out imagined daydreams that weren’t readily available for him in his Chicago neighborhood.
“I guess maybe we had a couple of fantasies like that,” he tells Remezcla over the phone as he looks back on the inspiration behind his new movie Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island. “Like we wanted to be the richest people in the world and know what that would look like. And that was around the same time as Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous — what turned out to be Cribs later.”
Both shows, for Peña, gave viewers a chance to see how the other half lived decades before social media allowed all of us to get a glimpse into people’s large houses and jet-setting ways. “You really didn’t get to see too much of life so somebody else’s fantasy seemed like a really great thing to look into.”
But where the classic TV show seemed to revel in sunny fantasies that occasionally went awry, the 2020 incarnation goes for an even darker tone. Peña’s Mr. Roarke, still in his signature white linen suit, has invited a group of young guests to test out his “Fantasy Island” in the hopes they’ll get to live out what they most desire and then fly back and tell their loved ones how amazing this supernaturally-tinged oasis in the middle of the ocean truly is. Of course, coming from the studio that has brought you Get Out, The Boy Next Door and Paranormal Activity, this newer iteration of this late 70s drama goes heavy on the scares, turning everyone’s fantasies into terrifying nightmares. Yes, there’s a big guy eager to use small buzz saw on your hand, a panic room that gets plenty of use and even a military operation in Venezuela that’s bound to end up in a bloody mess.
“I wanted to play the character with this kind of old school charm that Ricardo had”
As the film shuttles between scenarios that involve the army, an engagement dinner and even a torture-riddled revenge fantasy, Peña’s Mr. Roarke remains a cool presence throughout, never revealing his own connection to the island’s inner workings. And while stepping into Montalbán’s shoes would feel intimidating to any one of us, the War on Everyone and Cesar Chavez actor admits he didn’t let that bother him. “What I tried to do is handle the language the same way that he did, you know? Instead of trying to make it fit me I wanted to play the character with this kind of old school charm that Ricardo had.”
For an actor who easily transitions between laugh out loud roles to dark dramatic parts and seemingly everything in between — he casually reminds you in conversation that he’s starred in five different Best Picture nominated films, for example — Peña’s career would have felt all but unimaginable to that kid who’d casually join his parents when Fantasy Island was on, when he had perhaps an all too pragmatic kind of fantasy he wished to make come true: to make enough money to buy his mom a house.
Sadly, she didn’t live long enough for Peña to do that (“It’s one of those failures that really kind of gets me in my life,” he adds somberly). But as he looks back, he’s proud of having been able to get to where he is right now, on the brink of premiering a film made to be enjoyed. One that hopefully will also inspire kids like Peña himself to one day dream big and make it out of their neighborhoods and onto the big screen after all.
Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island opens February 14, 2020.