Mars attacks: Character actor Michael Pena takes off in The Martian

THE MARTIAN directed by Ridley Scott, written by Drew Goddard from the novel by Andy Weir, with Matt Damon, Jessica.


THE MARTIAN directed by Ridley Scott, written by Drew Goddard from the novel by Andy Weir, with Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kate Mara and Chiwetel Ejiofor. A Fox release. 141 minutes. Opens Friday (October 2). See listings.

Actor Michael Pena has donned a lot of onscreen uniforms.

From Fury, Observe And Report and World Trade Center to his turn as Jake Gyllenhaals partner on the force in End Of Watch, hes played a lot of cops, soldiers and firemen.

So has someone like Bruce Willis, he tells me, looking relaxed during the TIFF press day for The Martian. He does action movies. I love them, too, and nine times out of 10 youre probably going to be some kind of cop. They lend themselves easier to action movies. Im doing CHiPs next the big-screen adaptation of the classic 80s TV series but its completely different role than, say, End Of Watch.

Pena dons a different kind of uniform in The Martian, Ridley Scotts big-budget adaptation of Andy Weirs novel set in space. Hes Rick Martinez, one of the astronauts who leaves behind Matt Damons Mark Watney and then must try to get him back.

Did he bone up on rocket science to prepare for the role?

I started to delve into it, and then I thought, You know what? Its going to take at least two years to get all the information, says the actor whose big break came playing the locksmith who protects his kid in an invisible cloak in the Oscar-winning film Crash.

So Im just going to study the script. Sometimes reading the script is all the research you need. Otherwise, you get paralysis through analysis.

Pena lights up when I mention the cool spaceship scenes in which he and fellow astronauts Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara seemingly floated around in zero gravity.

I wish more people could take set visits, he says. The sets were fucking massive and so intricate. In the tunnel we go through with zero gravity, the entire roof was gone, and there was this computerized mechanism up there taking us from one place to another, hitting every mark.

And for the Mars scenes, filmed in a red-coloured desert in Jordan, he remembers these huge fans that probably had to be brought in by cranes. The cleanup was crazy.

Anyone whos read Weirs book knows that the spirit of the book is pretty light. The stakes for Watney are high, but hes got a sophomoric sense of humour.

And the character of Martinez is also a joker something Pena can relate to.

I used to work in a bank, he explains, and something interesting happens when youre doing work thats boring. Youve got to beat the boredom somehow. And you do it through humour.

Lately hes made a name for himself with his comic work. A couple of years ago he had a hilarious scene imitating a sheik in American Hustle. And last summer he stole all his scenes in Ant-Man, playing an ex-con who helps Paul Rudd pull off a heist. Penas character had an accent and upbeat attitude that gave all his lines a gut-busting spin.

I modelled the voice after someone I know, he says, logging into Facebook and showing me a friend of a friend speaking.

The vocal rhythms of his cop character in End Of Watch, he says, were modelled after pal Danny Masterson.

Mimicking people was his entree into acting, he says, laughing.

In school, classmates used to pay me 25 cents to imitate nuns and priests.

Guess the habit paid off.

Pena on working with Ridley Scott:

On how TIFF has been good to him, starting with his breakthrough role in Crash:

See our review of The Martian here.

glenns@nowtoronto.com | @glennsumi

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