Michael Peña, back in the war on drugs

Ledger-Enquirer - - Movies - BY KATHRYN SHAT­TUCK New York Times

Even be­fore sign­ing up for “Nar­cos: Mex­ico,” Michael Peña knew there would be no hap­pily-ever-after for his char­ac­ter, Kiki Ca­marena, a real-life agent for the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion. “If you look at the Wikipedia page, you know that he was tor­tured and killed, and he sac­ri­ficed him­self, ba­si­cally,” Peña said of Ca­marena’s mur­der, which made head­lines in 1985.

But that grisly end­ing didn’t dampen his de­sire to take on the role, or di­min­ish the sus­pense in Sea­son 4 of the “Nar­cos” fran­chise, now on Net­flix.

The first three sea­sons of “Nar­cos” chron­i­cled the as­cent of the Colom­bian co­caine em­pires from the 1970s through the mid-90s, start­ing with the reign of Pablo Es­co­bar. “Nar­cos: Mex­ico” trav­els back to the mid-1980s and the rise of the Guadala­jara car­tel. Ca­marena re­quests a trans­fer from Fresno, Cal­i­for­nia, into this realm, where he plans to cut a crop of would-be king­pins off at the knees.

It’s a Who’s Who of drug lords: chief among them, Miguel Án­gel Félix Gal­lardo (Diego Luna), the most pow­er­ful traf­ficker in Mex­ico be­fore his ar­rest in 1989. (Joaquín Guzmán Lo­era, known as El Chapo and cur­rently on trial in Brook­lyn, sim­mers in the back­ground.)

It’s also an ex­er­cise in fu­til­ity, with the line be­tween good and bad blurred and bloody as gov­ern­ments on ei­ther side of the bor­der pub­licly sup­port drug erad­i­ca­tion, while pri­vately turn­ing a blind eye to thou­san­dacre mar­i­juana fields and ram-

pant war­fare.

On Dec. 14, Peña can be seen play­ing yet an­other DEA agent – this one trail­ing an el­derly courier for a car­tel – in “The Mule,” di­rected by and star­ring Clint East­wood, who first cast Peña as the boxer Omar in “Mil­lion Dol­lar Baby,” which won mul­ti­ple Os­cars, in­clud­ing for best pic­ture, in 2005. Peña has also spent time this fall shoot­ing the live­ac­tion “Dora the Ex­plorer” movie in Aus­tralia, op­po­site Is­abela Moner and Eva Lon­go­ria.

Peña, 42 – who is Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can and one of Hol­ly­wood’s big­gest Latino stars – lives in Los An­ge­les with his wife, writer Brie Shaf­fer, and Ro­man, their 10-year-old son. In a phone in­ter­view, he talked about the al­lure of the car­tel, work­ing with East­wood and his crowd­pleas­ing role as the mo­tor­mouth side­kick Luis in “Ant-Man.”

Here are edited ex­cerpts from the con­ver­sa­tion.

Q: What was your ini­tial re­ac­tion to the role of Kiki?

A: I thought, I don’t know if I want to play an­other cop, es­pe­cially for eight months, be­cause I did it in (David Ayer’s “End of Watch” with Jake Gyl­len­haal). But this was a fan­tas­tic role. I thought, wow, this guy, he’s full of a lot of tough love, and he’s just com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Also, the world was dif­fer­ent. It was a time when the DEA was fairly young in this coun­try as well as in Mex­ico, so it wasn’t as or­ga­nized as it is now. Kiki is the kind of guy that just wants to stop the bad guys be­cause he doesn’t like in­jus­tice in the world, and those guys should pay and go to jail. And he knows in his heart of hearts that if you’re a bil­lion­aire and you spend half a mil­lion dol­lars on a school (like Pablo Es­co­bar), you’re buy­ing those peo­ple.

Q: I hate to ad­mit that I some­times found my­self root­ing for the car­tels.

A: You do root for them in a way, be­cause – and this is by no means a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of what they do and who they are – they all come from very poor coun­tries. And even if you win and you’re do­ing great in life, the best you can do is, like, 10th place. That’s like, clean­ing toi­lets some­where. The ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem isn’t very good. Com­pa­nies from other coun­tries come in and ex­ploit that, and they keep (their work­ers liv­ing) pay­check to pay­check al­most by de­sign. And so it’s very com­pli­cated, but in their mind it’s eas­ily jus­ti­fi­able as to why they ex­e­cute their plan to be­come drug lords.

Q: And now you’re play­ing yet an­other DEA agent in “The Mule,” your sec­ond film with Clint East­wood.

A: Same job, com­pletely dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters. This one is a wise­crack­ing guy. It’s al­most, like, just me. East­wood is the kind of di­rec­tor you’re just like, “What do you want me to do? I’ll do what­ever.” When you’re in a TV show, you have to pretty much do what­ever is on the page, be­cause there’s so many mov­ing pieces. But with him, you re­ally get to ex­plore.

East­wood is one of those guys that cast me early on. Back in the day, I au­di­tioned for “Mil­lion Dol­lar Baby,” and in his break­downs there was none of that (racial cat­e­go­riza­tion). There was just like, “Here’s the char­ac­ter.” He’s al­ways go­ing by his own rules. There’s no la­bel­ing when it comes to a Clint East­wood movie.

Q: By “break­down,” you mean … ?

A: Fif­teen years ago, it was re­ally, re­ally tough be­cause there were these break­downs for (cast­ing) where it would specif­i­cally say, “Lead part: Cau­casian; sec­ond part: Cau­casian; Cau­casian, Cau­casian, Cau­casian. And it wouldn’t be un­til the 10th part that it would be open to African-Amer­i­cans. And then it would be up to “15: open to all eth­nic­i­ties.” So the best that I could do back in the day was 15th place. I was of­fered gang­ster parts all the time. Nowa­days, that doesn’t ex­ist.

Q: Let’s talk about “An­tMan.” In Oc­to­ber, di­rec­tor Pey­ton Reed said there were no plans for a stand­alone movie for Luis. Is that dis­ap­point­ing?

A: No. It started off as a small part, and then it ended up be­ing some­thing re­ally cool. And there was never, ever any talk of that any­way. It’s all good.

Q: Will there be a third in­stall­ment?

A: I have no idea. They’re fig­ur­ing it out. And even if I knew, I’d still have to give you the same an­swer.

EMILY BERL New York Times

Michael Peña stars in the se­ries "Nar­cos: Mex­ico” as well as the Clint East­wood film “The Mule.”

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