Ant-Man’s Michael Pena: ‘They Let Me Run With It’

The Ant-Man star talks improv on the set, doing comedy and The Martian.

After the first press screenings of Ant-Man were held last month, there was a consensus building that actor Michael Peña was the movie’s scene stealer. Peña plays Luis, friend and cellmate of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and part of Lang’s heist team. It is a tip that Luis gets — visualized in one of the movie’s two clever “tip montages” (think of a cinematic game of “telephone”) — that sends Lang into the mansion of Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), where he discovers the Ant-Man suit that will change his life. Luis, who’s also revealed to be improbably knowledgeable about wine and art, gets his hero moment later in the film when he and the team are recruited by Lang and Douglas to help save the world.

Peña is terrific in the part and gets a chance under director Peyton Reed to stretch his comedic muscles, something we’ve only seen intermittently in his previous films like End of Watch, Fury and American Hustle. He continues to land a broad range of parts, with an adaptation of the TV show ChiPs and Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated sci-fi thriller The Martian both coming up, the latter of which he touched on in our interview below.

Den Of Geek: People were really talking about your character stealing the show a little bit. Have you seen some of that online?

Michael Peña:  The only time that I really go on Twitter is to promote, because what sucks is there’s some weird trolling going around. Even if you are well-intentioned, there’s some mean people behind a keyboard. You are like, “I’m just not gonna do it.”

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Have you heard it from people in interviews?

No. I heard that the movie is great. Hopefully I have a job if there’s a sequel.

This was a character who changed a lot and who got more to do as the script changed (note: the original script by departed director Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish was rewritten by Paul Rudd and Adam McKay).

When I first came on, in all honesty, it wasn’t that big of a role. I initially wanted just to work with Edgar Wright. I have a six-year-old kid, so I don’t really watch too many movies. I’ve watched Inside Out and Up, things like that. And I really enjoyed them. What’s funny is that this is almost an animated movie but with real people. When I read Edgar Wright’s script, I was thoroughly amazed and just how detailed it was. Every script always goes through rewrites so that everyone loves it. And then Marvel…it was so weird shooting this movie. It’s almost like we shot the majority of the film and then they knew that there were going to be reshoots. It reminds of Woody Allen, how Woody Allen shoots, where he’s going to shoot and then he’s going to give himself good time for reshoots or additional photography to be like, “Oh, this is working. Let’s do this. Oh, this is really working. Let’s go more here.” Literally, they wrote me like five scenes or something like that in reshoots, which was fantastic. So I guess I’m lucky that I was able to make the cut.

When did the idea of him being this secret expert on wine and art come about?

That was a new thing. There were these two writers…God. What were their names? Two really young writers (note: the writers were Gabriel Ferrari and Andrew Barrer, who contributed during shooting but did not receive any final writing credits on the film). It wasn’t Wright and it wasn’t Adam McKay. It was literally these two young writers that came in, these two hotshots, and they wrote this huge monologue. They gave it to Marvel and Marvel said, “Yes. Let’s do it.” I had like 12 hours to prepare for it, but really it was like three because I had to sleep. I said, “How the hell did you guys make this up?” It was like, “I don’t know man…”

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So that team, they came up with the tone of it and it was perfect. Literally, they would help me out with little lines here and there and I would bounce things off of them, because you can do improv, right, and then there’s improv that never gets on the screen. You can make the room laugh, but it’s like reading a comic. It’s like what’s going to make you laugh in the comic? It’s not necessarily playing the room, it’s playing the story.

Was the Edgar Wright script vastly different to the one that we see now?

No.  There’s things that were more pronounced. But he cracked the story of Ant-Man. That’s a huge thing. Hopefully his fans are going to be thankful about this movie. But he cracked that story.

Did Peyton give you an idea of how those “tip montages” would look?

No. You know what’s funny? I tried out two ways to do it and I’m like, “It’s not working. It’s not working.” I was shittin’ the bed literally. It was not good. Then the only thing that I knew was, “Oh, I remember this one guy in my old neighborhood.” So I emulated him. And he just sounds funny. He acts funny. He’s always smiling or whatever.

So when that scene was presented, it was actually written that this person is going to say this and that person is going to say that, cinematically like a dub smash or like a drunk history. But it’s exposition, really. And it’s the hardest thing for me to do. And Peyton was like, “Don’t worry about it.” He had no pressure on me. He’s like, “We’re going to cut away to this person so you can do whatever you want.”

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Because I got it the night before, I couldn’t memorize three, four pages. So I literally was just mumbling sometimes to try to get to it. [laughs] What was funny is that it ended up in the movie. I would try to fish my way somewhere around to the next point and sometimes I’d be like, “I lost it. Where am I going?” And he’s like, “No, no! Just keep going!”

You walk onto a Marvel set, is the feeling any different from other film productions?

I just did a movie with Ridley Scott. Fuck, man. That guy is…I hope to do more work with that guy. A good director is like a good coach. You want to play for him. You want to really show him your good stuff. You don’t want to let that person down. Ridley Scott is one of those guys. Peyton is the same way, but he’s so energetic, and positive, and loves comic books, and really loved what he was doing. He would always be like, “Just try it. Just try it.” It was always like going to acting class. It was really just trying to explore — a lot of people say that, but it actually happened on this move. And it’s odd that it’s in a Marvel movie, because when I see a Marvel movie it looks so airtight. I’m like, “I don’t know if I want to improv and mess up this scene.” But they let me run with it.

Talk about working with Ridley, because we’ll see you in The Martian later this year.

It’s a sci-fi movie and I love sci-fi. Shooting with that guy as just unbelievable. He had five cameras at one time. He was actually juggling five cameras perfectly. And he’d be on his mic and telling everybody what to set up. It’d be the difference between like shooting something, the vehicle, wherever it is, from here to here. And he’s like, “Yes, yes, yes. Perfect.”

It’s always interesting when a director is so involved, but you have no idea what he’s doing. Then when he would show us the final product, it was like, “Oh, that’s why you went from here to here, because you are keeping the perspective the same.” He’s amazing. He’s cut it in his head. And it’s almost like I think he memorized the script, which is a hard thing to do for any director. He would be like, “Mike, on scene 86, did you like that line?” I was like, “I don’t know what that line…Scene 86…” I memorized my lines, but I’m like, “I have no idea…”

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I think he’s got a photographic memory. So he storyboards everything. The look of it is amazing. I’m glad to be in both movies.

Ant-Man is out now in theaters.