01/11/2013 05:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'Gangster Squad' Star Michael Peña Discusses Shooting And Turning Into 'History Buff' After Films

By Ikam Acosta


Gangster Squad, set in the 1940s and 50s, chronicles how the LAPD fought to keep East Coast mobster types out of Los Angeles. Sean Penn plays a ruthless mob boss, Mickey Cohen, born in Brooklyn, but wreaking havoc in Los Angeles with his drugs, guns, and prostitutes, all under the protection of the well paid cops and politicians under his control.

Michael Peña recently opened up what it was like filming his latest movie, Gangster Squad, and how doing research for it inspired him to become a history buff. In the film he played Officer Navidad Ramirez, one of the officers chosen to take down the group of corrupt cops involved with Mickey’s mafia racketeering.

Peña, who plays a Latino officer, explained:

Ramirez joins after the Gangster Squad, and he forces himself in, and he wants to be part of the cause. I personally like that because there’s not a lot of Latinos in period pieces so I thought that was really cool to start off with. The Gangster Squad in itself is a group of off-duty police officers that decide to go to war with the biggest mafioso at that time, and that was Mickey Cohen. He had everybody on the take, meaning a lot of cops at the time, and he was getting everything he wanted. Always wanted to be in control of all of Los Angeles, and we didn’t want to let that happen. So we declare war on the guy.

Although Michael has played a cop before on television’s The Shield as part of the Strike Force team, he didn’t really get to play a full-time cop until his previous film, End Of Watch. He said,

That was eye-opening. That was present-day. What was cool was that I had the new style training, and then I went back and played somebody form the 40s. You kinda had to unlearn a bunch of the techniques like drawing a gun.

The mood of the script was different from his previous cop roles, so Peña really had to re-read the script and find the right mood for the film. Gangster Squad had a totally different feel from his previous role in End Of Watch. Peña explained,

The previous role was grittier and more realistic. In this one, the guy was a great cinematographer, so he shoots it really grandiose. We had to wait around for the lighting to be perfect, and the shots looked amazing the way you were lit. And it felt different. I don’t think I’ve ever shot a movie like this.

I asked Michael whether he discovered a lot of mob-related corruption back then as he was researching for the role. He said,

I’m getting to be quite the history buff. The thing I’m doing now is watching a lot of forensic files, that stuff is amazing to me. Now they’re catching them after they committed stuff 20 years ago. And going into the 50s and the 40s and even the Al Capone era, I couldn’t believe how some of these guys were able to do the stuff they were able to do. It’s always eye-opening.

Gangster Squad is a film about the special unit of dedicated LAPD cops who fought odds to take down a criminal racketeering enterprise that would threaten even the bravest of street-wise officers. Led by Sergeant John O’Mara, played by Josh Brolin, and Jerry Wooters, played by Ryan Gosling, these group of men do everything they can to tear Mickey’s criminal world apart.

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