You name it, Michael Peña’s been great in it: comedies, dramas, blockbuster cinematic universes, best picture nominees. This weekend, one of Hollywood’s greatest scene-stealers takes one of the lead roles in CHIPs, the hard-R action-comedy reboot of the beloved TV cop show. Peña talked to EW about the legacy of the show’s original star and his future in the Marvel universe.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Were you a fan of the show growing up?
MICHAEL PEÑA: It used to be an event to just watch this force of nature, Erik Estrada, do his thing. As a Latin guy, it was amazing to see another Latin guy on television. There weren’t that many, especially back in the day. When there were, they were mainly bad guys, so it was cool to see a good cop as a Latino on television.
Did you get any lessons about playing Ponch from Estrada?
He did a cameo [in the CHIPS film]. He showed up and lit up the set. If it had not been CHIPs, I think he would have been a star in any other TV show or movie.
Your costar Dax Shepard, who wrote and directed the movie, made it an R-rated action-comedy. What was it like pushing the franchise in such a different direction?
Dax really wanted to modernize it. He amped up some things. It’s more humor that I brought to Ponch. When you watch the series, it was a family drama. So now it’s almost like the nerds that watched CHIPs grew up and made themselves into Ponch. [Laughs.]
Do you think Latino representation has gotten better since Estrada was starring in the original CHIPs?
You have to think of it in two ways. Me, Diego Luna with Star Wars, Gael García Bernal with Mozart in the Jungle, Jacob Vargas, Clifton Collins in Westworld, all those guys — we’re working actors now. There’s a lot more of a Latin presence. But if you were to say how many Latin movie stars there are? I don’t think there’s many international movie stars like a Will Smith, Dwayne Johnson, or Tom Cruise.
Just in your own career, do you think the situation in Hollywood has evolved?
The first 10 years, in the break- downs for different scripts, they wouldn’t be open to other ethnicities until the 13th part. And it would be one scene, four lines. That’s the only thing I went out for. All my roommates were going out and potentially starring in different movies. As a 19-year-old kid, it would be kind of disheartening.
You had a great role in Ant-Man. Are you coming back for the sequel?
I really don’t know. They haven’t quite picked up my option yet. I know that they’re filming the second one in July or something, and I have not been cleared yet.
For more from Michael Pena, check out this week’s issue of EW.