Actress Elizabeth Peña, who had roles in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “La Bamba,” “Lone Star,” “Rush Hour” and “The Incredibles,” died Tuesday in Los Angeles after a brief illness, according to her manager, Gina Rugolo. She was 55.
In addition to her film work, Peña had multiple television roles, including a starring role as a Latin American housekeeper in the 1987-88 sitcom “I Married Dora.” She had a recurring guest role on “Modern Family,” playing the mother of Sofia Vergara’s character, and appears regularly on the current crime drama “Matador.” She also directed a few episodes of television shows and was a founding member of the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors.
Peña was born Sept. 23, 1959, in Elizabeth, N.J., and spent part of her childhood in Cuba with her family. Her father, Mario, was an actor, writer and director, and her mother, Estella Margarita, was a producer and arts administrator.
When Peña was filming “Lone Star,” the 1996 John Sayles film set on the Texas-Mexico border, she worked hard to portray her schoolteacher character properly.
“In the United States, all Spanish-speaking people are lumped into one category,” Peña said in a 1996 interview with the Dallas Morning News. “But we’re all so different. Argentinians are completely different from Mexicans. Mexicans are completely different from Cubans. Cubans are completely different from people from Paraguay and Uruguay.”
Peña spent time on both sides of the border absorbing the atmosphere. “I recorded people’s voices to get the proper inflection,” she said.
“I crossed the border a whole bunch to collect a lot of history. I would sit for hours looking at the women, how they dressed. I talked to people. I hung out. I shopped at the stores to see what kind of clothing was there and what food was eaten.”
In the last decade, Peña also branched out into voice acting, lending her voice to Mirage in Pixar’s “The Incredibles” (2004) and to characters in the television series “Maya & Miguel,” “Justice League” and “American Dad.”
Peña is survived by her husband, Hans Rolla; her daughter, Fiona; and her son, Kaelan; as well as her mother and a sister.
For more news, follow @raablauren on Twitter.