Interview: Michael Pena's adjusting to the view from up there

'End of Watch' star looks back on growing up in Chicago and leaping into Hollywood

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Michael Pena

Actor Michael Pena, who is promoting his film "End of Watch," is photographed at NoMi in the Park Hyatt in Chicago. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune / September 21, 2012)

Michael Pena wanted to sit closer to the floor-to-ceiling windows at NoMI during a recent lunch — and who wouldn't? The trendy restaurant on the seventh floor of the Park Hyatt hotel offers customers a scenic view of Michigan Avenue and the Water Tower building, and in the case of Pena, who shares top billing with Jake Gyllenhaal in the upcoming film "End of Watch," a far different view from the one he was used to growing up in Chicago.

Pena was raised by his once-undocumented Mexican parents in the North Lawndale area across from Douglas Park, which he said was swarming with gangbangers and drug addicts. He worked at Harris Bank in the Chicago Board of Trade before quitting to move to Los Angeles, his current home, to pursue acting 16 years ago. "I might go to the Board of Trade later to see who still works there," said Pena, 36, midway through a full day of press for "End of Watch," a found-footage cop film in theaters Friday.

Pena has quietly built a resume that includes two Oscar-winning films ("Crash" and "Million Dollar Baby") and one that was nominated but lost ("Babel"). Next year he will appear in "Gangster Squad" with Ryan Gosling and Sean Penn and star in a Diego Luna-directed biopic about Mexican labor leader Cesar Chavez. And yet Pena, who has also appeared in films with Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood and Eddie Murphy, has a hard time seeing himself as a celebrity, as I learned during lunch.

(The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.)

Michael: I love the style of this place.

Luis: You picked it, right?

Michael: No, (the publicists) did. … I'm usually taking a nap at this time. I was up, like, at 5:30 a.m.

Waiter: Are you gentlemen ready to order any food?

Michael: Can I get the sweet corn soup? And then can I get the Farmhouse Bowl (salad) and the spicy tuna roll. I think that should be enough food, right?

Waiter: Absolutely.

Michael: This is for …?

Luis: The Tribune.

Michael: I grew up reading the newspapers, mostly the sports section. I was a wrestler and would check to see if I was ranked. I went to Marist (High School) originally and went downstate a couple times. I ended up not being able to wrestle my senior year because I had a broken nose and dislocated … everything (from wrestling).

Luis: Where is your cauliflower ear?

Michael: I got it drained. I had a girlfriend at the time, and she didn't want me to have that. It looked nasty. Those guys who have girlfriends that don't give a crap, that's real love.

Luis: What made you want to wrestle?

Michael: I loved WWF as a kid. I went to try out and was like, "What kind of wrestling is this?" There weren't any body slams. No top ropes. I used to be that out of it. I was like, "I'm leaving." As soon as I was about to leave, the coach was like, "Are you going out for wrestling?" "I'm thinking about it." So I was stuck. I wasn't the strongest guy — kind of like acting. I wasn't like the most good-looking guy. I was pretty average. The No. 1 thing is the motivation to win. How am I going to beat this guy? In acting, I'm going up against models. How will I get this part?

Luis: Did you wrestle with family members?

Michael: No. My brother would kick my (butt), but not anymore. When I was 17, I went from 5 (foot) 3 to 5 (foot) 9 in like a summer. I saw him yesterday at the ("End of Watch") screening. He's a corrections officer and was there with co-workers. He came up to me and said, "Congratulations, Mike. I'm proud of you." It was really kind of a special moment. There aren't too many moments where my big brother says that. He didn't even say that when he saw me in "Crash." For me, ("End of Watch") is one of the most gratifying roles I've done. "Crash" is definitely one as well. I felt like I knew the character and was living the character in both cases.

Luis: I saw you say on "Lopez Tonight" that your parents crossed the border.

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