A year ago, actor Michael Pena was living in a tiny apartment off Vineland Avenue and Aqua Vista Street in Studio City.
The 30-year-old actor earned a pittance for his role in "Crash." (He played the Latino locksmith who draped his young daughter in an imaginary cloak to protect her from harm.) Even though there was a lot of buzz about him in Hollywood, he was living month-to-month: $465 for rent, $2 for an occasional burger and fries. A box of cereal would last a week, in a pinch. He kept auditioning, determined to hold out for parts he found meaningful.
His manager called him with news: Director Oliver Stone saw "Crash" three times and wanted to meet him. Would he be interested in playing the part of Port Authority Officer Will Jimeno in Stone's new movie, "World Trade Center," the director wanted to know.
"Stone says, 'I like you. I like you for this. Don't tell any of your friends yet. I still need to get the money for the movie,' " Pena recalled on a rare day off from shooting a new film on location in Vancouver. "I'm looking around and I say, 'OK.' Of course I told everyone, 'I met Oliver Stone!' "
Three months later, Pena was on the set, opposite Nicolas Cage, in the first major movie about the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. (It comes out on DVD in December.)
Pena is so busy these days that he's hardly had time to enjoy the attention. The son of Mexican immigrants is now one of Hollywood's most sought-after Latino actors, taking on a variety of roles, from a stereotypical gangbanger to a conflicted Border Patrol agent. Although his resume shows his range, directors and producers say Pena has earned their respect with his ability to play the endearing everyman -- the hardworking locksmith or the cop with the heart of gold.
After a slow start that included a brief stint living in a van, Pena's career is suddenly in overdrive.
He went to New York for the premiere of "World Trade Center" in August and then flew back to Vancouver the next morning to resume filming Antoine Fuqua's "Shooter." (Pena plays the role of an FBI agent in the movie, which also stars Danny Glover and Mark Wahlberg).
And in "Babel," which premieres this month, Pena plays a Mexican American Border Patrol agent. He took the small role simply for the opportunity to work with "21 Grams" director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
The actor, reflecting on his achievements since his breakthrough role in "Crash," said he finds his torrent of success "so surreal."
He wonders if his father, who speaks only Spanish, has fully realized that his son's years of struggle have finally paid off. "When I talk to him, he just wants to know if I'm happy."
Leaving the Windy City
PENA grew up in a working-class family on Chicago's Southside. (His mom, who died six years ago, was a social worker. His dad worked in a button factory.)
Pena fell into acting almost by accident. Shortly after his 19th birthday, the mother of one his best friends told him about a casting call. "I had always been a shy kid in high school, but for some reason she had some kind of sense about me, she thought I should go into acting," Pena said, dressed in black sweats and sipping coffee on a recent balmy Saturday evening in a downtown Vancouver cafe. "I told her that I liked what I was doing. She made me promise I would try."
It wasn't long before Pena had a part in Peter Bogdanovich's movie-of-the-week film, "To Sir, With Love 2."
The casting director suggested an agent in Chicago who recommended an acting coach who gave Pena serious advice: Move to Los Angeles and give Hollywood a try. "He thought that was where I should be," Pena said.
Pena had about $3,000 in the bank and the blessing of his parents. "I figured I could always come back," he said.
"I think about where I grew up and how I grew up, my dad was making $25,000 a year," he said. "Taking a chance wasn't really taking a chance. It was like you were going for something better. To me, there wasn't that much risk involved."
Pena moved into the Oakwood Apartments -- a haven for aspiring child stars -- and started going to auditions in 1996. After that, he rented a place in Los Angeles with three other struggling actors. (He was also homeless once, when no one in the group could manage to secure enough work to pay the rent. He had to briefly live in a friend's van.)
"I was in L.A. like four months and I got my first part. Then I was like, OK, I'm staying," he said. He scored parts on a variety of TV shows -- "Felicity," "Touched by an Angel," "Pacific Blue," "The Sentinel," "7th Heaven," "Moesha."
Still, life wasn't easy: His mother, who had been in poor health, died suddenly in 2000. He went home for the funeral, where he was faced with a decision: Should he move back home? While he was there he got a phone call from his manager, telling him he'd been offered a role in Steven Spielberg's new series, "Semper Fi."
"It's like when something bad happens, something good will happen to rescue you," Pena said. "It was unbelievable. I had to believe my mom was looking out for me."
"Semper Fi" led to parts in "ER," "NYPD Blue," "CSI," "The Shield" and now, roles in a variety of movies.
Pena has since given up the studio apartment for a plush two-bedroom condo in Hollywood, which he shares with his girlfriend. He also has a second place in Vancouver, paid for by the movie production company on his new film.
He keeps Port Authority Officer Jimeno on his speed dial (they became friends during the production of the movie and talk daily.) "He's like family," Pena said.
"Here I was this guy living in a studio and he calls me up," Pena said. "At first it was a little overwhelming and a little scary.... But I knew it was the chance of a lifetime."
Stone said he was impressed with Pena's authenticity.
"He has the face of a sweet everyman, with lovable eyes and a great humor," the director said. "When I think of him, a smile always comes to my face. He has an extraordinary potential future in front of him."