End of Watch star Michael Pena, 36, has been around the movie scene for nearly 20 years. In a career that began with a number of independent films, Pena’s breakout came in 2004, when he appeared in Million Dollar Baby, in which he played a boxer named Omar, and Crash, in which he played the locksmith Daniel Ruiz. Both films went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture at the 2005 and 2006 Awards, respectively, and gave Pena the boost he needed to land roles in high-profile films such as Babel, World Trade Center, Observe and Report and 30 Minutes or Less. After its first week in theaters, End of Watch has been both a critical and commercial success.

Pena was raised in Chicago by his two hardworking parents. His father worked in a button factory and his mother worked as a social worker. Self-described as shy at Hubbard High School in Chicago, Pena didn’t give acting a real shot until he was encouraged by a family friend to audition for a film at age 19. He got the part in To Sir With Love 2, and soon after he started taking lessons from an acting coach and moved to Hollywood. His acting career was at times a struggle to get by with smaller films, but ever since his successful 2004, he’s been a staple in major motion pictures ever since.

Despite their different backrgounds, Pena was able to bond with co-star Jake Gyllenhall on the Watch set. “He grew up in Hollywood, you know, in Hancock Park, and I don’t know if he was uber-rich but it wasn’t like a poor area,” Pena told Uinterview exclusively. “His sister is a fantastic actor, you know, dad’s a director, mom’s a screenwriter — an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter. And I lived in a little apartment with I don’t know how many people, and my parents came from Mexico and were farmers.”

Pena has been a busy man as of late, appearing in five films in the last two years. His next role is that of Detective Navidad Ramirez in Gangster Squad, alongside Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn and Emma Stone. Gangster Squad is scheduled for release in early 2013.

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Q: You've previously played roles in law enforcement based dramas such as Crash, World Trade Center, Shooter, and now with End of Watch. If you weren't such a great actor, have you thought of this being an alternative career for you? - Siobhan Goddard
Q: Can you describe your preparation for End of Watch? How did you get into character? - Hal Sundt

Well, physically we did sparring like three times a week against these kids from Echo Park that want to be professionals and that was a lot of fun. Just kidding — it was brutal. I did a lot of weapons training, because the thing that we wanted to do was, we didn’t want to look like actors, because when you just tell an actor to do something and then you're coaching him they have a lot of attention on the gun and how you walk and doing all that stuff. And we just wanted to be done with that so like, it took us a while, but you know we practiced that for five months. And then we also went on ridealongs. We must have been on like 40 ridealongs. And that was telling as well. I think that is the one, mentally, that affected me the most because you see people that are shot in the face and the limbs and what not and it’s not a laughing matter. And Lord knows, we tried to shake it off and it’s really tough to shake it off. Jake [Gyllenhaal] actually saw somebody die in his first ride along. And it’s kind of a brutal, you know. We saw videos of what the cartels are really doing and they’re just, it’s a whole different world with those guys. Plus we were rehearsing a bunch and our director/writer David Ayer, who wrote Training Day, he was in the Navy and he knows all these cops and he knows all these criminals as well, the gangsters. And also we had an adviser who a lot of this stuff is based off of and he would tell us these stories and I was like, 'How did you think about it?' We’d just keep replaying different scenarios and be like, 'Wow, man.' And then, I don’t know when it happened, but after that like after three months or something, I was like, 'I feel like a cop.' I wouldn’t be able to phone it in right now if we did re-shoots, I’d be like, 'I don’t know where, I’d have to do some sparring or something.'

Q: As two talented actors, what did you and Jake Gyllenhaal learn from each other during filming? - Hal Sundt

The most difficult thing was definitely [the bond], because you know after the first meeting I had with David Ayers he goes, 'You guys are going to be brothers.' I’m like, 'What?' He’s like, 'You guys be best friends, dude,' and it was like, 'Yeah, we can act,' and he’s like, 'No acting, you guy’s gotta become best friends,' and I was like, 'Well how? Alright.' So literally we hung out every day for five months, you know, Saturdays and Sundays off, and uh, first two months, I gotta admit, maybe two and a half months it wasn’t happening and I was like, 'Man,' because he’s so different. He grew up in Hollywood, you know, in Hancock Park, and I don’t know if he was uber-rich, but it wasn’t like a poor area. His sister is a fantastic actor, you know, dad’s a director, mom’s a screenwriter — an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter. And I lived in a little apartment with I don’t know how many people, and my parents came from Mexico and were farmers. I had my bike for 30 minutes, he still has his bike. We were two different people, so we had to find a common ground and we were able to do it after three months of ridealongs, that’s when you’re like, 'Ok.' Because sometimes you have to step out of the car and the police officers are doing their traffic stops and people sometimes gather around and I remember a couple times it was like, 'Oh God, we could definitely get into a fight,' and then we’d look at each other and be like, 'I got your back, you got my back, let’s go.' And those kinds of moments really lead you to have a real kind of brotherhood where I know that if I got into any trouble out there, I’m positive that Jake would have, that we both would have fought it out with whoever it was that was trying to attack us.

Q: Growing up in Chicago with one of your parents being a social worker, did that experience help with some of your recent acting roles? - Siobhan Goddard

It was tough because here’s the thing, when you live in a bad neighborhood, I didn’t really know that it was a bad neighborhood until I left, you know what I mean? So it was what it was. It wasn’t like, 'Oh man, I live in a bad neighborhood. I live in the ghetto.' It just is what it is. And then finally when I left for Hollywood I was like, 'Oh whoa.' It actually made me nervous being in meetings with people that are 'professionals.' Actually that was nerve-wracking, in all honesty, more nerve-wracking than walking home and you can tell that some gangsters [are around] because I knew how to deal with it, that’s all I grew up with. So I actually had to revisit that from an exterior viewpoint and be like, 'Oh wow, this is it.' And it’s completely different now looking at it since I’ve been in Hollywood for 17 years.