There’s a scene in “Fury,” the story of a seasoned tank crew in World War II, where the men share a meal with two German women during a short break from all of the death and destruction.
Michael Peña, who portrays Trini “Gordo” Garica, launches into a long speech that on the surface sounds like it’s all about horses. It’s what’s not being directly said that’s important
“When you read the script it sounds interesting. But, once you add all of the subtext then it really is powerful,” Peña says.
It was powerful writing that drew Peña to the film written and directed by David Ayer, which also stars Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman and Jon Bernthal. The movie reunites Peña and Ayer, who worked together on “End of Watch.”
The Chicago born Peña has appeared in a long list of films and TV shows, such as “Crash,” “Gangster Squad,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “American Hustle,” “The Shield” and “Cesar Chavez.”
Not only does he have “Fury” hitting theaters this week, he’s also starring in the new FOX series “Gracepoint.” He plays the father of a young boy who is murdered in the American version of the British series “Broadchurch.”
Peña was so concerned that he get the most out of the words Ayer had written for him in “Fury,” he spent five months preparing to shoot the scene. That went along with six weeks of training to learn how to drive the tank.
Much of the film has the actors crowded into the small space inside the armored vehicle. Getting in and out of the tank left bumps and bruises, but it was important for Ayer for them to work in the tight confines.
“David set up the environment — just like he did on ‘End of Watch’ — and told us you guys will become brothers. The only way this film works is if we become close and we really did get close. I just hope that translates to the screen,” Peña says.
All of the actors dealt with the same limitations. The close quarters made it difficult to use their body language in a scene, plus Peña had the other distraction of driving the tank. But, he knew he had a specific job to do.
“I felt like Shia, Jon and I were there to set the scene of 1945,” Pena says. “That’s why I played the character as being very old school, especially with the way he talked. His accent was Mexican American talk from back in the day,” Peña says.
His role in ‘Gracepoint” is more contemporary. Peña jokes that he didn’t have to do a lot of research for the TV series because playing someone suspected of a crime they didn’t commit is nothing new for a Mexican-American.
As for playing the father of a murdered child, all he had to do was think about what it would be like to lose his 5-year-old son.
“I can’t even fathom like losing my kid. But the scenarios were built so that it was easy to go in there,” Peña says.
There was also an emotional connection to playing César Chàvez in the recent feature film about the founder of the United Farm Workers. Peña’s parents were originally farmers who and emigrated from Mexico to the United States.
His preparation for “César Chávez” was different. Peña felt more of an obligation to match the way the leader spoke and carried himself. Generally, his method of playing a role is to use his imagination to fill in the character’s history. In the case of “Fury,” he imagined Garcia’s parents were huge believers in the American Dream and he was in that tank to help protect it.
Next, Peña is joining the ranks of actors appearing in comic book-inspired movies. He’s in “Ant Man.”
“I really feel blessed to be in a movie and TV series that is so good. A lot of my friends keep telling me I work too hard and should take a day off. It wasn’t always like this,” he says. “I was a struggling actor for years. Now that these great roles are coming along I don’t want to stop.”