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'Fantasy Island' Star Michael Pena on Filling Ricardo Montalban's Shoes and 'Ant-Man 3'

The Hollywood Reporter logo The Hollywood Reporter 14/02/2020 Brian Davids
Michael Pena wearing glasses © Rich Polk/Getty Images

Twenty years ago, Michael Pena could only fantasize about auditioning for leading roles. Now, he’s leading movies like Fantasy Island with regularity. Based on ABC’s hit TV series that ran from 1977 to 1984, Pena plays Mr. Roarke, the enigmatic overseer of Fantasy Island, which is the same role that Ricardo Montalban made famous 43 years ago. Pena strived to capture the essence of Montalban himself, rather than his version of Mr. Roarke, as well as other Mexican artists and intellectuals like Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón.

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“I studied Ricardo Montalban more than I did his particular character, and I wanted to channel him a little bit… including the accent,” Pena tells The Hollywood Reporter. “When you meet anyone that’s as intelligent as [Alejandro González Iñárritu or Alfonso Cuarón], they have a quiet command of attention and respect, which is what I saw in Ricardo Montalban and his performance. Although I’m not him, I almost played him in a weird way like what if I was his son who was carrying on the tradition.”

With Avengers: Endgame in the rearview mirror and a recent report that Peyton Reed was beginning to develop Ant-Man 3, Pena is just as eager as the audience to find out what’s next for Luis — as well as what happened to him during the Decimation.

© Marvel/Disney/Kobal/Shutterstock “I have no idea [if Luis disappeared or not]. Ant-Man 3 is not going to be shot for another year or so,” Pena explains. “After my involvement in the first two Ant-Man movies, we really won’t even know what’s going to happen until one-to-two months before we film. Right now, Marvel is in a really cool position where they can break hearts by who they bring back and who they don’t. I can’t wait to find out.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Pena also reflects on Fury and End of Watch with David Ayer, his experience on the upcoming Tom and Jerry and how he handles jukebox-like requests to play his Ant-Man character off set.

Since Dora and the Lost City of Gold shot in Australia and FantasyIsland shot in Fiji, am I noticing a trend in your recent choices?

(Laughs.) Yeah, exactly. Tom and Jerry also shot in England. I guess it’s just moviemaking. Even before that, Narcos: Mexico was shot in Mexico. When you do a limited series and any kind of movie, the exterior shots are really important, and they want to be able to capture those on location. It’s different than a television show where you might shoot it on a soundstage. With Fantasy Island, you really want to see it, and it’s quite impressive what they were able to capture.

I wouldn’t blame you if you just wanted a break from Atlanta or Albuquerque.

(Laughs.) Yeah, I guess there are some people that actually do that, right? They film wherever it is that’s great. I mainly go off of the script, and then I ask where it shoots.

So, Fiji actually had a soundstage for all the cave scenes and what not?

No, we were actually in a cave…

Wow, I’m shocked.

Yeah, it was amazing. We had to hike up quite a bit. It was a twenty-minute hike just to get up into the cave, and once you were there, your mind was blown. It was unbelievable.

Does a unique location like Fiji only help your performance, as opposed to creating an island setting via green screen?

To be honest with you, I’ve been doing this for so long that sometimes you just get used to acting with a tennis ball. What’s most important is to have the other actor there. I know that there are some actors who do their side, leave and then have a stand-in come in. That’s the worst case scenario.

Michael Pena standing in front of a tree © Provided by The Hollywood Reporter

You and your castmates looked like you had some fun together during your off days. When you hang out with your castmates off screen, does that usually help your on-screen chemistry in your experience?

Sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, it can be a bit of a distraction if you’re too comfortable. I want to take it — not seriously — but I like to make sure that we focus on the job when we’re there and then have all the fun you want afterwards. To be honest with you, my family was with me, and I just golfed. That’s kind of my thing. I don’t make it too complicated.

David Ayer’s sets got pretty close by the end of each shoot, right?

Yeah, because you’re going through a lot of hardships and challenges on his sets. The training is also really tough. He also writes different kinds of movies that somewhat mirror method acting a bit. It’s not exactly method, but it really does put you in the scenario or time and place. Those kinds of movies — the way he sets it up — definitely affect what you’re doing. For instance, with Fury, we were right by the tank most of the time. We got pretty close as a team, and we rehearsed a lot. We also stayed with each other. It was like a brotherhood when we were filming. 

Maggie Q et al. looking at the camera © Provided by The Hollywood Reporter

When playing a mysterious character like Mr. Roarke, do you opt for as little backstory as possible? If you know too much, could that knowledge inform your performance subconsciously and lessen the mystery a bit?

You want to do research and make every character as different as possible. That makes it exciting and challenging. I studied Ricardo Montalban more than I did his particular character, and I wanted to channel him a little bit. I had just done Narcos: Mexico, and a lot of the artists or intellectuals in Mexico like Alejandro González Iñárritu or Alfonso Cuarón have a very healthy vocabulary. So, I wanted to embody that and portray that as much as I could in the film — including the accent.

From “smiles” to the accent, you definitely seemed to be honoring Ricardo Montalban’s Mr. Roarke, while still creating your own version of the character.

Yeah, the thing is when you meet anyone that’s as intelligent as those guys [Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón], they have a quiet command of attention and respect, which is what I saw in Ricardo Montalban and his performance. Although I’m not him, I almost played him in a weird way like what if I was his son who was carrying on the tradition (even though it’s not in the movie).

Do you remember watching Fantasy Island at age six or seven, or did you catch reruns years later?

I watched it because my parents used to watch it. They loved it. It was after The Love Boat on Saturday nights, and my parents were huge fans of those shows. So, obviously, I became a huge fan of those shows as well. I was just curious about it because it’s a place where you could have your fantasy fulfilled, and then, a lot of times, the fantasy wasn’t exactly what you initially thought out, which anybody can relate to.

Do you show up on set knowing exactly what you’re going to do with your performance, or do you feel your way through it once you can account for all the on-set variables?

I feel my way through it in rehearsal. I make sure that I know what I’m doing while I’m rehearsing the thing. I like showing up already prepared, but at the same time, I’m also open for changes, which happens a lot.

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Actors often work twelve to thirteen-hour days, at least, which must be quite taxing both mentally and physically. Do you tend to turn yourself off before and after a shooting day so that most of your energy is saved for when you need it on set?

Yeah, I do and I don’t. I’ve been doing this for so long that it doesn’t really affect me as much as people think. My family is with me a lot of the time too. I love it to be honest with you. I still love rehearsing, talking about it, getting a deeper understanding for character and story and how I can implement ideas in a different way. It might sound nerdy to a lot of people, but to me, it’s a lot of fun. It’s just really rewarding.

Unfortunately, Latin American characters still represent just 4.5 percent of Hollywood’s speaking roles, and of those roles, they’re often criminal-type characters. When it comes to actors like you, Diego Luna and Pedro Pascal, do you consider yourselves examples of progress or exceptions?

Of course, you can look at it from a negative light, but Parasite was just named best picture. I’m proud to be part of this generation where change is happening — and happening in a big, big way. The opportunities that I have now are definitely not what I had twenty years ago; I couldn’t even audition for lead parts twenty years ago. I have some Caucasian friends that say, “It’s so hard for me right now because I don’t have as many parts available to me as I did before,” but I think they still hold 80 percent of the business. I think that’s the number or around there. So, my friends are feeling it a little bit, but imagine if their number was 4 percent like ours? So, a lot more still has to happen. I think the percentage of Latinos in America is close to 20 percent, but it’s not being represented right now in Hollywood. I still think we’re moving in the right direction, and by no means do I want it to slow down. So, that means we have to keep on working so that one day, it won’t be an effort to make it happen. It’ll just be the way it is.

Michael Pena standing in front of a window © Provided by The Hollywood Reporter

You were lauded for your work as DEA Agent Kiki Camarena on Narcos: Mexico Season One. Are you eager to watch the new season as a fan starting this week?

Yeah, for sure. I’ll probably watch it next week after I go check out some Fantasy Island. I’m a big fan of [showrunner] Eric Newman and the show. I’m just a big sucker for good stories and good storytellers in whatever different genre. For instance, I thought Jeff Wadlow’s Truth or Dare was a really cool concept, and he just told the story so well. That’s why I jumped on to Fantasy Island because he could actually tell a story within his genre. And the same thing goes for Eric Newman. He’s just a gifted storyteller, and I’m a fan, obviously.

Since Ant-Man’s Luis is known for his storytelling ability, have you been asked by producers or whomever to recap their kids’ lives in birthday videos or something similar?

Yeah, I get that but not very often. I do get that for some reason — and I decline. The thing is, when you have amazing writers, somebody like Kevin Feige overlooking it and then you’re reworking it and reworking it, it takes a long time to actually get it right. So, when somebody asks me just to recreate it on a whim, it’s not something that I jump to and want to do automatically. I get it, though, but sometimes, you just want a role to live in the movie.

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Is it canonically known yet if Luis disappeared via the snap or not?

Dude, you know what? I have no idea. Ant-Man 3 is not going to be shot for another year or so. After my involvement in the first two Ant-Man movies, we really won’t even know what’s going to happen until one to two months before we film. I have no idea what’s happening to be honest. Right now, Marvel is in a really cool position where they can break hearts by who they bring back and who they don’t. But, I’m still interested even though I have no idea what’s gonna happen, and I can’t wait to find out.

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What immediately comes to mind when you think back to your End of Watch experience?

Just the work that we put into it, the amount of care and belief in the story. It was hard work that seemed like a 9-to-5 job for four months — but with David Ayer and Jake Gyllenhaal.

How did Tom and Jerry go?

Oh, man, that was so cool. Sometimes, you show up on these movies, and the actor is still trying to find it. I don't know if they’re not prepared or whatever, but it happens every so often. But, Chloe Moretz was so on the money… She knew the script, and she was just awesome to go back and forth with. And Tim Story is just a stud. There are some directors who are good indie directors or good dramatic directors, but he’s a big movie director. He’s meant to be doing big movies. It didn’t seem like work when we were on set with the guy. He just wants fun, and fun is what we gave him. You always want to perform for your director, because he’s your first audience, and he was really easy to perform for. There’s a certain freedom that you want, especially for that kind of family movie. And sometimes, you don’t want that freedom. You want there to be a little bit of an edge and a little bit of tension. You can definitely sense that on some films.

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