Michael Pena, star of ‘Ant-Man’, ‘Chips’, ‘Crash’ & ‘End Of Watch’ stars in ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ as the voice of Kai. His character is a bit of a hothead who is nonetheless fiercely loyal to his friends, and is first to jump in and protect them in battle, or just offer a hug when they’re down. Roe McDermott spoke to the actor about his expansive career and how his films have helped him to connect with his family.
WATCH THE TRAILER FOR THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE
Did you play with Lego as a kid?
I didn’t as a kid, we had the big blocks, we couldn’t afford the cool ones, so I just preferred playing soccer! But I do have an attachment to them now, because my son is 9, his name’s Roman, and we actually build the Lego Ninjago sets and stuff all the time. He’ll brag to his friends ‘Yeah, I just built a 5000 brick set, it took me five days, what can you do?’
So was your son a big reason you took a role in ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’?
Oh yeah. I didn’t care who was making this movie, I was going to try be in it. I started watching animated movies with my kid, and he laughs so hard. Everyone knows, when you have a kid you’ll do anything to make them laugh. He’s a tough customer, but he loves the whole Lego universe. He talks about it like he just came back from a seminar, like there’s a whole world of Lego stories that only he knows about. So I jumped at the chance to do this. Audiences are going to love it, but I already hit it big at home. My son is so psyched I’m in this movie, he saw it with me and his head nearly exploded three times. He was just like ‘Was that you, Dad?!’ And he thinks it’s the best movie he’s ever seen. Now maybe I can be the cool Dad!
The film has such an incredible cast of hilarious actors, including Jackie Chan, Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Zach Woods & Olivia Munn. With so many funny people and improv experts, what was recording like?
I did a lot of recording with Zach Woods who is in ‘Silicon Valley’ and Kumail Nanjiani who is in ‘The Big Sick’, as well as Justin Theroux and Fred Armisen, and it really put me in my place because I normally do drama, and then these guys come in and it was like the Improv Olympics! Working with all these talented people, some of them comedy writers, and they’re just hopping in there and showing off their dance moves. It was like trying to get into a game of double jump-rope. I was just glad to get in even a little bit!
You have worked with other great comedy and improv stars before, like in ‘Eastbound and Down’ with Danny McBride, who improvises a lot, and you always hold your own.
Yeah, normally what I like to on comedies is to do characters, because it frees me up a lot, but if I have to play myself it’s a little bit more challenging. And these guys are just on a whole other level – they studied it, they write for their show, they do stand-up, there’s no point competing with them, but you try work with them and ask them for jokes and stuff.
Kids are now going to know you as their favourite Lego Ninja, but adults may know you for your roles in grittier dramas, like your break-out movie, the Oscar-winning ‘Crash’. How did your life change with that movie?
I was literally living in a shoebox at the time, and all I was getting offered were gangster roles. I was also a touring musician, I’m a drummer and I was touring with my band and thinking that my life was going to be that of a musician. Because fifteen years ago in Hollywood, it was not cool or easy to be a Latin actor.
Even though I went to prep school, I was still always playing ‘Gang Member Number 2.’ And it makes your dreams change, you find yourself thinking ‘I just want to be the Gang Leader for once!’ But then ‘Crash’ came up and we went to the premiere and a limo showed up. It was the first time I ever went in a limo, and it blew my mind.
While ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ allowed you to connect with your son, ‘End of Watch’ allowed you to connect to other members of your family, right?
Yeah, my brother. See, he’s a correctional officer so he knows that world. After I did ‘Crash’ and ‘World Trade Centre’ he came up to me and gave me a good handshake. But this one, it was unbelievable, he just came up and gave me a hug. That meant a lot, because he’s a tough dude. Doing what he does, his weapons are his toughness and his fists and he’s gotten into fights trying to save lives. So for a guy like that to be affected by the film was really special.
THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE previews on Oct 7th & 8th and hits Irish cinemas on Oct 13th
Words – Roe McDermott