Who Is Michael Peña?
Michael Peña is an actor whose resume ranges from superhero movies and action flicks to character studies and comedies. His projects include Crash (2004), World Trade Center (2006), End of Watch (2012), The Martian (2015) and Ant-Man (2015). As a child, he was influenced by Latino performers such as Erik Estrada, Edward James Olmos, Esai Morales and John Leguizamo. At the start of his acting career, Peña refused to change his name to more easily land roles. Hoping to inspire young Latinos, Peña has only portrayed characters with Latino names, asking some productions to rename his parts to accomplish this. Peña is a Scientologist, but prefers not to discuss his religion. He and his wife share a son.
When Was Michael Peña Born?
Michael Peña was born on January 13, 1976, in Chicago, Illinois.
Peña's parents were farmers who immigrated to the United States from Mexico. Peña was just a year old when his parents were deported; they opted to leave him and his older brother with another family instead of taking them to Mexico. They were able to return to the United States after about six months, and the family reunited. His parents obtained their green cards when Peña was 12. His father worked in a factory, and his mother became a social worker.
Peña spent his childhood in an unsafe part of Chicago, with gang members and shootings nearby. "I saw people die right in front of me. It's normal when it's all you know. I didn't realize I lived in the ghetto until we moved out," he said in 2015.
Peña initially attended Marist High School, but had to leave the Catholic institution after two years because his family couldn't pay the tuition. He graduated from Hubbard High School.
Why Did Michael Peña Become an Actor?
The mother of a friend encouraged a 19-year-old Peña to go to a casting call. This resulted in Peña becoming a featured extra in the television movie To Sir, With Love II (1996).
Peña liked acting and moved to Los Angeles in 1996, leaving behind a job at Harris Bank in the Chicago Board of Trade. "I think about where I grew up and how I grew up, my dad was making $25,000 a year," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2006. "Taking a chance wasn't really taking a chance. It was like you were going for something better. To me, there wasn't that much risk involved."
From Struggling to Successful Actor
After arriving in Los Angeles, Peña was cast in the movie My Fellow Americans (1996) and appeared on TV shows such as "Felicity," "Touched by an Angel," "7th Heaven" and "Moesha." However, he struggled to find work at times and even had to live in a friend's van for a short period.
Peña faced a recurring obstacle in Hollywood: When he first started auditioning, most roles were cast as Caucasian. He said in a 2018 interview, "It would be around the 12th character down the line where it was open to other ethnicities, and that's all I had to go on. It was difficult for me to break through, because nine times out of 10, it was some gangster or whatever."
Peña's mother died in 2000. He considered remaining in Chicago after the funeral, but didn't because he was cast in the pilot for the Steven Spielberg series "Semper Fi." The pilot was not picked up, but Peña went on to other TV shows, including "ER," "CSI" and "The Shield." He toured with a band as a drummer while not acting.
Clint Eastwood, who did not racially categorize characters during casting, gave Peña a role in the Academy Award-winning Million Dollar Baby (2004). Peña's career next received a boost when he was part of the Academy Award-winning Crash (2004). After seeing Crash, director Oliver Stone selected Peña to star alongside Nicolas Cage in World Trade Center (2006). In the film, Peña portrayed Port Authority Officer Will Jimeno.
Movies and TV Shows
Success allowed Peña to become more selective with his acting choices. He said in 2021, "At the end of the day, it's always about the story. Always."
Peña's films include Babel (2006), by director Alejandro González Iñárritu, and End of Watch (2012) and Fury (2014), both directed by David Ayer. He appeared in Gangster Squad (2013) and American Hustle (2013) and starred in the title role in the biopic Cesar Chavez (2014).
Peña played an astronaut in The Martian (2015), had a part in Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time (2018) and was one of many Latino actors in the movie Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019). He stole his scenes as Luis in Ant-Man (2015) and its sequel Ant-Man & the Wasp (2018).
In a big-screen, horror-tinged remake of Fantasy Island (2020), Peña took over the Ricardo Montalbán role of Mr. Roarke. He's also had roles in the disaster flick Moonfall (2022) and the superhero comedy Secret Headquarters (2022).
In addition to films, Peña has acted in series such as HBO's "Eastbound & Down" and Netflix's "Narcos: Mexico" as real-life DEA agent Kiki Camarena.
Peña signed on to play astronaut José Hernandez, the first migrant farmworker to go to space, in A Million Miles Away.
Though Peña knows Latino representation still needs to improve, in 2020 he told NBC News, "The opportunities I have right now are better than when I started acting. And it feels good to be part of a generation that's making some change."
Peña is married to writer Brie Shaffer. The couple share a son.
While making the film My Fellow Americans, stars Jack Lemmon and James Garner introduced Peña to golf. He remains a devotee of the sport.
Concerns about excessive drinking prompted Peña to join a Church of Scientology detox program. He became a church member in 2000. In 2016, he said of his experience as a Scientologist, "For me, it isn't religion like a belief; it's practical things you do."
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