Elizabeth Peña, the husky-voiced, Cuban American character actress who brought grit and sensuality to her portrayals, including her breakout role as a revolution-minded maid in the Paul Mazursky satire “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and a battered wife in the Luis Valdez drama “La Bamba,” has died. She was 55.
Her death Tuesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles was confirmed by her manager, Gina Rugolo, who said Peña died after a brief illness. No other details were given.
Peña appeared in 45 films during her three-decade career. She played a self-absorbed woman whose New York apartment is invaded by aliens in the sci-fi fantasy “batteries not included” (1987), which starred Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. She was well-received as the girlfriend of Tim Robbins’ disturbed Vietnam veteran in “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990) and as the love interest of Chris Cooper in director John Sayles’ “Lone Star” (1996), which brought her an Independent Spirit Award for best supporting female actor.
She also was the voice of the seductive villainess Mirage in “The Incredibles” (2004), the animated box-office hit about a family of superheroes.
Her frequent television work included a recurring role on the Emmy-winning ABC sitcom “Modern Family” as the mother of Sofia Vergara’s character. Most recently, she appeared on “Matador,” a spy drama that premiered in July on the El Rey cable network.
She spoke often of the struggle to avoid ethnic typecasting, playing her share of pregnant girlfriends and housekeepers. She said she turned down director Robert Redford’s offer of a role in “The Milagro Beanfield War” because, she told The Times in 1987, “I didn’t want to play another Mexican.”
Nonetheless, Peña “did extremely well. She was always working,” Valdez said Thursday. “She was quite judicious in what she chose to take on. Even if the part was shallow she gave it a depth that increased the quality. She was able to really make contact with the character from the inside out.”
Peña was born in Elizabeth, N.J., on Sept. 23, 1959. When she was about five months old, her parents took her to their native Cuba. They remained for the first several years of Fidel Castro’s rule, in part because her father, Mario, was jailed after writing a poem critical of the government.
When she was 8, her father was permitted to travel to a theater festival in Canada, and he managed to cross into the United States. Later, her mother, Estella Margarita, left with Peña and her younger sister “on the last plane leaving for the next five years,” Peña recalled in the Dallas Morning News in 1996.
They settled in New York, where her parents founded the Latin American Theatre Ensemble, a bilingual, off-Broadway company. Peña discovered her calling when she attended one of her father’s plays and was “blown away” by an actress playing a mother whose son has been killed.
“I literally felt like I had levitated off my seat,” Peña told Back Stage West in 2001. “I sobbed and I ran to my mother and father and said, ‘I want to be actress!’ My father was happy. My mother was miserable. She thought it was a phase, but the phase kept going.”
By the time Peña graduated from New York High School of the Performing Arts in 1977 she had acted in 40 plays. In 1979 she made her film debut in “El Super,” a Spanish-language production in which she played the teenage daughter of Cuban exiles in New York.
In the mid-1980s, frustrated after a number of minor TV and film roles, she moved to Hollywood and quickly set her sights on a movie Mazursky was developing.
“I thought, I know Paul Mazursky as an actor has played a Latin, so there must be something in there for me,” she said in Back Stage West.
She began sending him photographs every week — “shots of me with long hair, short hair, smiley face, crying” — but got no response. Finally, she went to the main gate of Disney Studios, where Mazursky had an office, and talked the guard into taking her demo tape to the casting director.
Less than an hour later, the casting director invited her to read for the part of Carmen, the fiery maid to a nouveau-riche couple played by Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler. She bought a sexy dress and falsies to amplify her breasts before reading for the famous director.
“When I was done he looked at me and said, ‘You’re perfect, love you! I want you to audition with Richard Dreyfuss, but you’ve got to lose the [falsies],’ ” Peña recalled. “So I flung them out and had another three auditions and got ‘Down and Out in Beverly Hills.’ It was like a dream come true.”
Her first marriage, to William Stephan Kibler, ended in divorce. Besides her mother and sister, she is survived by her second husband, Hans Rolla, and two children, Fiona and Kaelan.