Like many people, the L.A. cops “End of Watch” star Michael Pena joined on ride-alongs couldn’t help but get a little excited around his famous co-star, Jake Gyllenhaal.
“It was kind of funny. Everybody’s like, ‘Jake! Jake! Jake! What’s up?,’” says Pena, 36, who grew up at 16th and California and went to Marist High School in Chicago. “And as soon as we went on patrol they were like, ‘Yeah yeah, yeah, hold up a sec.’ They were policing. They were super cool cops.”
In “End of Watch,” opening Sept. 21, viewers get a rare, intimate look at police work. The film from writer-director David Ayer (who wrote “Training Day”) follows officers Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Pena) as they patrol a particularly dangerous part of south central L.A. The actors endured five months of training for the roles, including five-day-a-week workouts with three days of sparring and four-to-six hours of weapons training twice a week.
During the nightly ride-alongs with officers, Pena says, he saw people shot in the face and arms and a “bloody mess over here, bloody mess over there.”
Pena, who still has family in Chicago, including a brother who works as a sheriff at Cook County jail, talked at the Park Hyatt about growing up in Chicago, where his bike was stolen, and how he and Jake assisted police officers.
How aware were you of violence in Chicago growing up here? I’m not sure how much was going on near you or how much you’ve heard about things now, but the homicide rate is up something like 37 percent over last year.
Is there a war or something going on between gangs?
There’s just a lot of bad stuff all the time.
I remember I had my first bike for half an hour. I got beat up and it got taken away. It was pretty brutal.
How old were you?
Thirteen, or something like that. No, 10. I was 10 years old. The thing was, I think half of the people that live there are actually alive. It was pretty brutal. It depends if there’s a major war between gangs. It’s kind of a weird effect—one person shoots one guy, then they retaliate and they retaliate and they retaliate. It goes back and forth like ping-pong. The police have to try and stop it as best they can.
How long did you wait until you got another bike?
Oh my God, I think my dad built me a bike. [The one that was stolen] was like a Huffy, BMX bike, which were super-awesome at the time. We couldn’t afford it very much. That was like my birthday present. I think he got like the body of a bike, which wasn’t even really like a bike, it was like a motorcycle. So heavy, dude. And he built the fork, like welded some things and actually built the fork; it was so hard. The wheels were small. [Laughs.] I never got made fun of, though.
And no one stole it.
Nobody wanted to steal it. I could literally leave it with a bow and they’re like, “Man, I ain’t gonna steal that.” ‘Cause who’s gonna sell it, dude? With the welding and stuff. Dude, nobody’s going to sell it.
How did you react physically when you saw shootings during the ride-alongs? I’m sure you’re trying to play it cool, but was there a moment when you jumped?
Yeah, for sure. Especially the first day of shooting. They did their gang signs, like, “Get outta here, man!” We weren’t shooting on soundstages, man, that’s for sure. We were shooting in the thick of it. And they were beeping and trying to get us out and there was a loud pop. And all of us, including the real policemen, went for our weapons. I was like, “I got a fake weapon. What am I gonna do?”
You heard that off-set?
Yeah, it was literally like (pop).