Michael Peña on the long road to the big-screen Chips reboot
Michael Peña still recalls the meeting with his agents where he laid out his career goals.
“I remember saying: ‘I want to learn how to do comedy’. I was mainly a dramatic actor,” he says.
After appearing in films such as End of Watch, The Martian and Fury, Chicago-born Peña could hardly complain about his lot. But after reading books by acting gurus Michael Shurtleff and Sanford Meisner, he wanted to tickle some funny bones.
“They all talk about humour – and to learn how to find humour in drama,” says the 41-year-old.
“And then I thought about it: there’s so much humour in regular life. Just playing the actual drama is not real. Even if the stakes are really high, sometimes people do say something funny out of nervousness or out of anger. If you really watch an angry, angry person, they’re really funny. Like road rage for instance – if you’re not in it, it looks ridiculous.” Peña now has achieved more than he could have wished for. After comedic performances in Marvel superhero movie AntMan and in the corrupt lawmen tale War on Everyone, he stars in Dax Shepard’s Chips, a reboot of the old 1970s and 1980s TV show about buddy cops working for the California Highway Patrol.
“I watched the TV show – I was a big fan of it,” says Peña, who plays Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, a role played by Erik Estrada in the original.
Peña, who met Estrada before production began, cites this update as an action-comedy in the Lethal Weapon mould, making it a little different from the TV show, which ended in 1983 after 139 episodes and six seasons.
“You can’t really make a movie with the tone of the TV show,” he says.
“The humour has changed. The action sequences have changed. It is so much more visceral these days – any action sequences, you have to feel like you’re really in there.”
Ever loyal to his projects, and perhaps an indicator of just how keen he was to try his hand at comedy, Peña was attached to the film for three years.
“Three years of ‘ is it going to happen? Is it not going to happen?’ It was tough,” he says. “Even in the table read, I didn’t know if we were going to get greenlit fully or if they were going to push the start date. After the table read, they gave us their blessing and we were off to the races.”
The film is written and directed by Shepard, who also stars as Jon Baker, Ponch’s partner, a role played in the original TV show by Larry Wilcox. Unlike in the TV series, Baker is a hapless rookie, inept at everything but riding his police motorcycle, while Ponch is an undercover FBI agent on the hunt for corrupt cops. In re- ality, the California Highway Patrol probably is not the coolest branch of the police force to be a part of.
“They’re usually sheriffs – they basically write [speeding] tick- ets,” says Peña. But these new versions of Ponch and Baker pursue a bunch of crooked cops, led by Vincent D’Onofrio, who have stolen US$14 million (Dh51m), ensuring plenty of high-octane action alongside the laughs.
“You can feel the comedy is coming but it is very real,” says Pena.
What about riding one of those big police bikes? “I’m not good. I’m not good,” he admits.
“If you got on one of those cop bikes, they’re really heavy. Then you have to feather the clutch and it was really tough. I dropped the bike once, for sure. I got off of it – I didn’t get hurt, not even close. But a bike is not something you want to mess around with.”
is in cinemas from tomorrow. Check tomorrow’s Arts&Life for our review
Michael Pena in Chips.