Michael Peña on Starring in His First Horror Film & Growing Up Fearing the Chancla

Since starting his movie career in the early 90s, Michael Peña has been nothing but consistent in booking roles in everything from indie dramas to mainstream comedies to cable TV shows. To say his stock has risen over the last 20 years is an understatement. The list of directors and actors he has worked with would make anyone awestruck: Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone, Robert Redford, Matthew McConaughey, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sean Penn, Jennifer Lawrence, just to name a few. Not to mention how many films he’s been in that ended up earning a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars (four, with two wins!).

As impressive as Peña has proven himself to be since breaking into Hollywood, this summer marks his busiest ever. In Marvel’s Ant-Man, he stars as Luis, a friend of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who helps set up a heist that eventually gets Scott access to the Ant-man suit. Peña also stars in The Vatican Tapes as Father Lozano, a priest who attempts to save the life of a young woman possessed by the devil. In his third film of the summer, Peña has a small role as a New Mexican police officer in Vacation, the next chapter in the Griswold family franchise that started in 1983 with comedian Chevy Chase.

During an interview with Remezcla, Peña talked about his first role in a horror movie, if he ever thought about saying no to Marvel, and how he feels when critics refer to him as a “scene-stealer.”

You’ve never really been in a full-out horror movie before. Does not having tried something in this industry make a project more attractive to you?

“Anything that makes me kind of uncomfortable or nervous, I want to look at that role a little bit more.”

Yeah, it does. I try to switch it up from movie to movie just because you want that challenge. You don’t want to be complacent and lazy. It’s almost like doing sports. You don’t want to play against one team over and over again. You want to explore. [The Vatican Tapes] was definitely an exploration. Anything that makes me kind of uncomfortable or nervous, I want to look at that role a little bit more.

When it comes to horror movies, there are a lot of people – even horror movie fans – who won’t go near movies that have anything to do with the devil or being possessed. What do you think it is about these horror movies that make them more frightening than your run-of-the-mill boogeyman movie?

Regardless of where you grew up and what religion you grew up in, I think most people believe in good and evil and the possibilities of evil overtaking you. That’s really interesting to me. I remember when I was a kid, I grew up Catholic and used to think about those things. I would ponder, “What would happen if evil took over?” There are some people that have done some very evil things and you can’t comprehend why. I definitely have an interest in that. For the most part, I believe the majority of people are good. But there are those people you wonder if they are possessed or what happened in their lives. Something got activated and those people changed.

You said as a kid you thought about those things, so would you ever play with things like Ouija boards or other items some people believe open the door to evil?

“I would always try to avoid playing with anything that would involve my mom throwing her shoe at my head.”

I would always try to avoid playing with anything that would involve my mom throwing her shoe at my head. I definitely did not want to go near the Ouija board. That’s why now I have this morbid curiosity. I was told not to do that kind of stuff. My mom believed in dark sprits and stuff like that. She used to rub an egg all over my body and then put it in a cup of water. I was like, “Really? That’s going to get rid of the evil spirits? OK, whatever you say, ma.” We didn’t have a lot of money and she just wasted a perfectly good egg.

You’re pretty busy this summer. You also star in the superhero flick Ant-Man. When a studio as massive as Marvel comes calling, do you automatically have to say yes?

I guess it would depend on where your career is at and what you want to do. For me, if I was going to be in the Marvel Universe, I’d want to be a part of that universe as opposed to playing a role that didn’t mean anything to the story. I wanted to read the script first. As soon as I read it I was like, “Oh, this is awesome. Let’s do this.”

People are calling you a “scene-stealer” in Ant-Man. You also stole scenes in the comedy Observe & Report. How do you feel about that distinction as a “scene-stealer?” Is it good for the movie? Do you think it’s good for you as an actor?

I don’t think I really steal the movie because the movie is not called Luis. You know, I’m starring in CHiPs with Dax Sheperd, so when you have a lead role like that, you really don’t want to play a crazy, crazy character unless you’re someone like Jim Carrey who can carry a movie that way. You want to do what you can do and tell the story. A lot of times it’s the role of the supporting character to come in and do a crazier character. Even the bad guy is always a little bit different. That’s the job of the supporting character. When I did Cesar Chavez or End of Watch or even Fury, I really couldn’t go all-out crazy.

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Maybe Luis is a spin-off Marvel can work on for the future. How do you think Luis would fare putting on Ant-Man’s suit himself?

[Laughs] He would probably go back and forth a lot, from ant size to human size. He’d probably mess up a couple of times. That would be funny.

Since these Marvel movies are starting to connect with one another more as we get more of them, maybe Luis can find his way into another storyline in the Marvel franchise. Who would you like to see Luis interact with if given the chance? I think he probably has enough swagger to ask Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) out on a date.

Oh my God. That would be so awesome. That would be so great.

Back to The Vatican Tapes really quick: I’m sure you know Pope Francis is earning a reputation for being a pretty progressive pontiff since he started back in 2013. Do you think he’d get a kick out of a movie like this?

You know, I would want to know what he would say about this movie. I wonder if he would really like it or if he would say, “Nope. Never gonna happen.” It’s based on a lot of true accounts of people really being exorcised. Wait. Is that right? Exorcised?

‘The Vatican Tapes’
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Yeah, that’s the right word.

“When I read it, I thought it was different. I hadn’t seen anything like that before.”

Oh, OK. It sounded weird, like someone is exercising. Anyway, when you look online there are a lot of people saying that something like that can really happen and that it really does happen. Some people have these weird pictures of exorcisms. I haven’t seen any video yet, but I would love to see that.

Every year we get about one or two exorcism movies. What do you think makes The Vatican Tapes different from all the others?

I think it’s because it’s more of a psychological movie as well as a horror movie. It’s not just a gory kind of movie. I love those kinds of movies. I just felt like this one was different. You try to do movies like this more often so that they give people a different take instead of the same one over and over again. When I read it, I thought it was different. I hadn’t seen anything like that before.

How is a comedy like Ant-Man different from something like Tower Heist in terms of how you confront the comedic elements?

I think Tower Heist was more of a heist movie. I didn’t really feel the freedom to do what I wanted to do. It was kind of like a machine. In Ant-Man, I was able to do a little bit more acting. We were able to improv. This one is more my speed. I just want to keep doing all these different genre movies. That ignited even more when I had a kid. He filled me up with a lot more energy and more insight into the world. Now, I’m watching all these animated movies with him and he’s really into it. It’s making me a fan of movies again. When I first started acting, I used to watch three or four movies a day. As you get older, you just don’t watch as many movies. But now, I’m watching a lot.

‘Tower Heist’
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How old is your kid?

He’s six.

So, what movies are popular right now with him?

Oh, God, he loves Inside Out.

Which is your favorite character?

I actually really like Sadness. At first, you really hate her. It’s like, “Get away! Don’t touch that memory!” Then my kid is like, “See, Dad, there’s sadness in everything and there’s a balance.” I’m like, “OK, dude. Who are you? Gandhi?”

Now that you’ve got this comedy stuff down, do you think you’d ever like to try stand-up?

Oh, man, I thought about doing stand-up, but it’s so hard. I’ve done interviews and talk shows that I thought were funny. Sometimes they don’t turn out that way. I really think you have to put years and years into something like that, where you’re writing jokes and writing something new all the time. You also have to be yourself. That’s already tough to do as an actor. You’d have to be funny and feel funny and do funny things. That’s such a tough job and there are professionals out there who have been doing it their whole lives. I love stand-up comedians. Maybe one day, man. Maybe one day.

Ant-Man, The Vatican Tapes, and Vacation are currently in theaters.