Although he has been acting in Hollywood movies for more than two decades, Michael Pena remains unassuming and modest. In Mumbai to promote the Netflix show Narcos: Mexico, the fourth season of the highly successful series, Pena described himself as “a working actor, not a movie star”.
Though he sounds unduly self-deprecatory, 42-year-old Pena is actually being disarmingly honest. His filmography is rich with memorable character roles, such as in Crash, Lions for Lambs, End of Watch, American Hustle, Ant-Man and The Martian.
In Narcos: Mexico, Pena plays American Drug Enforcement Administration agent Kiki Camarena, who is dispatched on a posting to Guadalajara, Mexico. This brings him into contact with the ambitious drug lord Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, played by Diego Luna.
To prepare for the part, Pena had to binge-watch the three previous seasons of Narcos, each comprising 10 episodes. Besides that, he said his research including reading a lot about Kiki: “online and the Time magazine article on him. But what was most useful was talking to Kiki’s wife Mika. That helped me better understand his motivations and why he put himself in harm’s way.”
Narcos: Mexico will be streamed on Netflix from November 16.
Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, the subject of the first two seasons of Narcos, was larger than life and globally infamous. When creative producer Eric Newman shared the story of Miguel Felix and Kiki, Pena said he was unaware of them.
Yet, knowing how Kiki’s story ends, Pena was interested in playing the part for a number of reasons. “First of all, I had never heard of him till Eric Newman told me about him,” Pena said. “He was such an interesting man though, so driven and motivated. I thought that was really cool and it was an honour to play him. Also, in the first season, it felt like the DEA had a smaller part, like it was mainly about Escobar and the DEA was in the background a bit. But now it’s about how this guy is part of the DEA and is here to stop the bad guys.”
So how much room was there for Pena to interpret a character based on a real person?
“It definitely gives you some guidelines, but with every character you have to decide what those guidelines are, otherwise you will be all over the place and you won’t be able to tell the story,” Pena said. “His tenacity, determination, focus, and resentment towards injustice gave us a clear-cut motivation as to why he did things the way he did them. If he hadn’t done, then the cartel might have become a huge power in Mexico – an unregulated power taking over the government. And – if it had blown out of proportion – maybe America would have had to fight 10 times more than what they are tackling now.”
Born in Chicago to Mexican parents, Pena was unable to travel from America to Mexico till the age of 12. But now, he has just shot almost an entire series of Narcos there.
“It’s sad because my mother is not with us anymore and I wish she could have seen me as a working actor – I am not a movie star or anything,” he said. “It would also have been nice for her to go to Mexico. It would have been cool.”
From working with Oscar winners to being a part of the Marvel universe to leading Narcos: Mexico, Pena says he feels “blessed” to have had the opportunities that have come his way. “I feel fortunate to have any kind of cool part,” he told Scroll.in. “Especially growing up poor – and I am not rich by any means – but I am somewhat comfortable now, it been a blessing. But you have to keep working I guess. Working on Marvel has been as fantastic and cool as working on Narcos.”
Dressed in a blue and black shirt, black trousers and high top shoes, Pena looked distracted at times, or perhaps he was just exhausted from the whirlwind promotional tour, which began in Singapore during the Diwali weekend. His eyes lit up when golf was mentioned, though.
“Are there good golf courses in Mumbai? Do a lot of people play?” asked the avid golfer. When told that golf wasn’t an easily accessible sport in India, Pena remarked, “In America, anybody can play and a lot of the professionals didn’t grow up rich. They grew up playing on public courses. There are 15,000 courses in America – imagine that. But the next time I am in India, I would like to play a round.”