Spinning Platters Interview: Michael Peña and Natalie Martinez on “End of Watch”

by Jason LeRoy on September 21, 2012

Michael Peña and Natalie Martinez in END OF WATCH

End of Watch is unlike any cop movie we’ve seen before. Its distinguishing traits range from its texture — the film is shot and edited to resemble a pulse-poundingly visceral “found footage” documentary — to its thoroughly realized characterizations of LAPD officers Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike (Michael Peña), thrill-chasing partners and best friends who have a tendency to run toward the action while others run away from it. The film plays out like a feature-length episode of COPS as written by Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet; its substance comes from the palpable bond between Brian and Mike, which plays out in a series of remarkably authentic-feeling conversations we watch them have as they drive around on patrol, waiting for that next call, never knowing if they’ll be getting a cat out of a tree or walking into gunfire. This naturalistic and wholly believable quality comes both from the direction and script of David Ayer (Harsh Times) and the committed performances of Gyllenhaal and Peña, with whom Ayer rehearsed for several months before shooting the film to get their chemistry just right. Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez are heartfelt and dynamic as the officers’ better halves.

Ayer coaches excellent work from his entire cast, which also includes America Ferrara and Cody Horn as no-nonsense lady cops, but End of Watch especially deserves to be a star-making moment for Peña. After acting professionally for nearly a decade, he first broke through with his heartbreaking performance as Daniel in Paul Haggis’ controversial Best Picture winner, Crash. He has since appeared in such films as Million Dollar Baby, World Trade Center, and Observe and Report, and played recurring roles on acclaimed TV shows like The Shield and Eastbound & Down. As Mike, Peña oozes charm and humor, displaying an unerring ability to connect emotionally with the audience at every beat of the story; by the film’s conclusion, we think of Mike as a personal friend. Martinez, best-known to American audiences for roles in the Jason Statham flick Death Race and the short-lived but beloved show Detroit 1-8-7,  has several effecting moments as Mike’s wife Gabby, particularly an explosively funny and inebriated speech at a quinceañera about how to keep married sex alive.

We sat down with Peña and Martinez at the very beginning of their End of Watch press tour, just days after Peña had wrapped the much-discussed reshoots on his next film, Gangster Squad, opposite Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone; a scene involving a shooting in a movie theater was immediately scrapped and rewritten following this summer’s Colorado tragedy. We discuss that with him below, as well as the experience of playing an LAPD cop while a bunch of real-life LAPD cops watch you, Martinez’s “research” for her sex talk, and if mastering all the dialogue in End of Watch has them ready for a stint on The Newsroom.

One of the most interesting aspects of this film is its “found footage” approach to storytelling. How did that effect you as actors?

Michael Peña: We had to be conscious of what we were doing. The thing that I really wanted was to make sure our performances were actually going to be captured. I asked David Ayer if there was going to be any kind of traditional coverage, and he said they were going to cover it loosely traditionally, just to make sure they had it. It kind of goes in and out of it. But the found footage thing really gives you a sense of reality, almost like a YouTube-esque feel. David was improvising along the way, coming up with different ways to work the cameras in. He designed a chest shell we had to wear that could hold a camera, he would put a camera on a stick just to move it around, he’d put a camera on the end of a barrel… It was awesome. It enhances the viewability of the film.

You mentioned that David wrote scenes in production that you had to learn on the spot?

Peña: Yeah.

Did that happen a lot?

Peña: [laughs, counts on fingers] I think once a week? I’m not a Method actor, but I felt pretty Method-esque while we were shooting the big quinceañera party scene. We were kinda blitzed a little bit, and by 5am I was like, “I just wanna go to sleep, dude.” And he hands me these pages for a new scene with me and Jake he wants to film before we wrap, and I’m like, “Aww…” I don’t remember shooting that scene. [laughs]

Natalie Martinez: I remember at one point while we were shooting the quinceañera, David just started screaming, “Peaches! Peaches!” And we were like, “What?” [laughs] I guess Anna and Jake in their chemistry read audition had a scene where they were saying something about peaches. So while we were filming, he made them do the scene they auditioned with, which was not in the script! It was just something for them to do in the audition room. So he yelled it out, and they picked up and just did their audition scene together. At all times, you never knew what David was gonna throw at you.

Peña: You need to be on the ball. He’s an exciting filmmaker. He was really having fun just coming up with stuff, almost like a kid. He’s got a new movie coming up, and I think he’s ready to make some big movies.

Speaking of big movies, Michael, you just filmed your reshoots for Gangster Squad. How did you feel about the decision to reshoot that sequence?

Peña: The whole thing was really unfortunate. I haven’t seen that kind of situation too much. Originally, the gangsters come behind the screen and shoot at us, and we shoot at the gangsters, and it’s a big shootout. I think that Warner Brothers did the right thing, even though I don’t necessarily think they had to do it. They already moved the release date January 11. What they did was reshot that sequence and we made it in Chinatown. I think they did it because they didn’t want to seem insensitive. I hope it pays off in the end.

Does it change the narrative?

Peña: No, it’s still a shootout. A shootout is a shootout. You’re shooting at the bad guys. It’s shortened a bit because of production costs; we had a week to shoot the first one, and this time we only had three days. Dude, the only thing that sucks is it was such a great sequence! They changed all of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to look like the old-school Grauman’s. They put in all the old-school handprints. It was pretty special. That’s the only time that I brought people into the set, because it looked so damn cool. My kid was there, he was into it. But in terms of the narrative, from what I read and shot, I think it’s gonna seem pretty much the same.

You and David Ayer have both done previous films with somewhat negative depictions of law enforcement–

Peña: Which one did I do?

Crash?

Peña: Oh, right, but I wasn’t playing the cop in that one.

Right. But coming off of that and David’s earlier films, the portrayal of cops in this movie is very, very positive. Did that attract you?

Peña: That’s exactly correct. That’s what I liked about this movie. Good guys are sometimes boring to play, but in this one we were able to do it right. There’s not too many times where you actually get to do that, where you’ve got a good family man and a good cop who wants to make the streets safer, but then gets into some shit, so he’s gotta swim out of the shit at the same time he’s doing his job. Our characters are like mavericks, they both wanna be supercops.

You mentioned that there was a constant LAPD presence on the set. Was that inhibiting at all for you as an actor? Did they give you a lot of feedback?

Peña: At the end of the day, it’s gonna be you and the film. So you’ll take it with a grain of salt and say, “Thank you very much,” and if it’s useful and makes it better, you absolutely use it. There’s some things they might not get right then and there, what a certain person is doing; it might be a setup for something else, it could be part of an arc. When people give you advice, you don’t always use it. You just gotta do your own thing. I didn’t feel inhibited. In fact, I felt pretty inspired. I like it when people come into the set who are just all about the movie, because it puts you on your toes and keeps you excited and inspired.

One of the cool things about this movie is seeing two well-rounded positive Latino characters in a big film that isn’t necessarily a Latino movie. Are those kinds of parts hard to find? Do you feel like you still mostly get sent stereotypical Latino roles?

Peña: The last two movies I was up for, the characters weren’t Latin at all.

Martinez: You just happened to be Latin.

Peña: Yeah, they were written for something else. I think after a certain point, everyone is typecast. Good-looking sexy chicks are always getting offered good-looking sexy chick parts. Blonde-haired blue-eyed girls get certain parts. If you look a little nerdy, you’ll end up on The Big Bang Theory. [laughs]

Martinez: If you want someone Latin, you get someone Latin. It’s a little difficult sometimes, because they just want any minority in there. “Ethnicity” is what they call it. So you have your Caucasians, and then you have “ethnic,” which can be Indian, Asian, Black, or Hispanic. Sometimes I’ll go out for a role that will be the Latin role, but it will go to an African-American because it didn’t matter to them. All they wanted was someone who’s ethnic.

Natalie, your biggest moment in the film is the graphic sex speech you give at the quinceañera. How much of that was scripted?

Martinez: It was written that way, talking about “being a freak” and “you gotta give it to him” and all this kinda stuff. But David gave me a little freedom in the sense that he wanted me to make that scene very uncomfortable for Michael and everyone else. [laughs] And I was uncomfortable! Even now I get embarrassed. I was just like, “Oh my god, my dad is gonna see this!”

Peña: Oh no!

Martinez: And I’m making all these hand gestures, and I’m like, “What do these things even mean that I’m doing with my hands?”

Yeah, how did you learn those hand gestures?

Peña: Hey, hey, hey!

Tastefully withdrawn.

Martinez: [laughs] Yeah, that was kind of a trip. We did it the way he wrote it, but he also let me do some research and throw some things in there that would make everyone uncomfortable.

“Research.”

Martinez: “How to suck a dick.”  [laughs] But everyone has these funny names for everything, so I thought it would be really funny.

It’s fun watching Anna’s mortified face in that scene.

Martinez: She was responsible! She told me one of them! We were talking about it, and I was like, “Man, what are the other names?” Because people have all these different names, like “riding the bronco” and–

Peña: She kinda knew them.

Martinez: She told me this one, and I was like, “Whoa, I’m gonna use that!” So one of them is Anna Kendrick’s. She put in her two cents.

This was such a dialogue- and rehearsal-heavy production. After conquering such a beast, did you have a sense of wanting to continue the momentum and keep giving yourselves this kind of challenge?

Peña: I just got done playing Cesar Chavez, and that was a lot of dialogue and a lot of speeches. It’s weird, but you have to prove to yourself that you can do it. In speeches, it’s a whole other animal. It’s harder, because there’s no back and forth to remember these things. There was a speech that was a page and a half long! I was speaking for, like, five minutes. Those were long, long takes. But I think the rehearsal process for this movie helped me for that movie. I didn’t get as much time with the people as I wanted. I think other actors have to discover it for themselves. If you put the time in, it will show in the performance, it will bear some fruit. It got me ready. I haven’t starred in too many movies, but it’s cool that this is one of them, and I’m super-proud of it.

Do you feel like you’re ready to pitch yourself to Aaron Sorkin and start delivering his speeches on the next season of The Newsroom?

Peña: Sorkin, he’s killing it with The Newsroom. There’s that one speech that Jeff Daniels gives about America being 47th in education? And it’s like, wow. Really amazing. It’s really good writing.

Finally, what do you think are the most underrated movies you’ve been in?

Martinez: For me, it was Magic City Memoirs. It’s an indie film, and I think they’re trying to figure out distribution for it now. But it was close to home, because it was all true stories from where I grew up, and my friend wrote and directed it. It’s something that hasn’t actually gotten out there yet, so I’m hoping it will. So I guess it’s not underrated, because it hasn’t actually been rated yet. [laughs] Also, Detroit 1-8-7 was a great show I was on that got canceled. That was a really great show.

Peña: I think the comedies I’ve done, like Observe and Report. It became a cult hit, dude! It made money at the box office, but it wasn’t like a huge smash. And I remember I went to Coachella that year it came out, and oh my god, there were so many people quoting me! And I didn’t have the afro with the mustache and goatee or anything! So that was cool. 30 Minutes or Less was another one I really enjoyed, but Observe and Report more than anything.

End of Watch opens nationwide today.

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