After a decade of struggling to make a name in independent features and with guest spots on television, actor Michael Peña finally emerged as a notable performer with his standout performance in the racially charged drama "Crash" (2005). Prior to his breakout role, Peña made the first major strides in his career with a small, but memorable turn in "Million Dollar Baby" (2004), which made Hollywood finally stand up and take notice. He went on to earn attention as a police detective struggling to reconcile his involvement with the corrupt Strike Team on the fourth season of the acclaimed cop drama "The Shield" (FX, 2002-08). But it was his understated turn in "World Trade Center" (2006) as a Port Authority officer trapped under the rubble after the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City that turned Peña into a sought-after performer. He delivered strong supporting turns in the action thriller "Shooter" (2007), the stately courtroom thriller "The Lincoln Lawyer" (2011) and the action comedy "Tower Heist" (2011). By the time he delivered an award-worthy performance in the indie actioner "End of Watch" (2012), Peña was very much in-demand as an acclaimed actor capable of excelling in a wide variety of genres.
Born on Jan. 13, 1976 on the south side of Chicago, IL, Peña was raised by his farmer parents who migrated to the United States from Mexico. Despite his parents moving to the city to pursue factory jobs, their agrarian spirit never left. In fact, to the bewilderment of their city friends, Peña fondly remembered his father tending to a garden in the backyard, where the family grew corn, tomatoes and onions. Cautioned by his parents to stay indoors when he was young, he and his brother were left to watch a lot of television. When they were unable to watch, they made up their own TV shows - a sign of the future actor's creative juices at work. Despite his blue-collar roots, Pena attended a prep school, Hubbard High School. At 17, he was working as a bank teller when a family friend encouraged him to audition for Peter Bogdanovich's "To Sir, With Love II" (1996), a made-for-TV sequel to the 1967 film with Sidney Poitier reprising his role. Reluctant at first, Peña eventually relented and tried out. Although he did not get the lead role after seven tries, he eventually scored a small part and was hooked.
From that point on, Peña scored a slew of bit parts. He appeared in episodes of "Pacific Blue," (USA Network, 1996-2000), "Touched by an Angel" (CBS, 1994-2003), "7th Heaven" (UPN, 1996-2007) and "Moesha" (UPN, 1996-2001). Peña also began landing parts in feature films, though they were mainly independents like "Star Maps" (1997) and "La Cucaracha" (1999). In 1999, he landed his first recurring role on television, playing Brian "Burky" Burke for five episodes of "Felicity" (The WB, 1998-2002) during the show's second season. On the big screen, Peña had a prominent co-starring role in "Bellyfruit" (1999), an indie coming-of-age drama about three teenage girls (Tamara LaSeon Bass, Tonatzin Mondragon and Keely Vint) who suddenly find themselves pregnant and unprepared to deal with the consequences. Peña next appeared in the Jerry Bruckheimer action film, "Gone in Sixty Seconds" (2000), as well as the smaller, critically acclaimed flick, "Buffalo Soldiers" (2001). Back on television, he went on to appear on "The District" (CBS, 2000-04), the sci-fi series, "Roswell" (The WB/UPN, 1999-2002), episodes of "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009), and two episodes of "NYPD Blue (ABC, 1993-2005), as different, non-recurring characters.
In 2003, Peña had a small role in "The United States of Leland," his first onscreen appearance with Don Cheadle, with whom he became good friends. The following year began his ascent to stardom, thanks to his performance as Omar in Clint Eastwood's Academy Award-winning "Million Dollar Baby" (2004). He raised his profile considerably in the Oscar-winning ensemble drama about racism in Los Angeles, "Crash" (2005). Peña played a locksmith and devoted family man who is confused by a WASPish couple (Brandon Fraser and Sandra Bullock) of being a gangbanger, while fearing for the safety of his family after a stray bullet goes through his daughter's window in their previous home. On television, Peña appeared as a regular on the fourth season of the gritty cop drama, "The Shield," (FX, 2002-08) playing Armando "Army" Renta, a semi-corrupt detective conflicted over his partnership with Det. Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), a loose-cannon whose reigns have been cut by the ultimate bad cop, Det. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis). In "Walkout" (HBO, 2006), a docudrama about one of the milestone events in the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s, Peña starred as Sal Castro, a high school teacher who inspires his Latino students to stand up for their rights.
Creating a lot of buzz in a short period of time, Peña captured widespread attention for his performance in "World Trade Center" (2006), director Oliver Stone's tribute to September 11th first responders in New York City. As Officer Will Jimeno, a cop trapped in the rubble with his partner (Nicolas Cage) after the World Trade Center collapse, Peña drew raves for his sensitive family man portrayal. Meanwhile, after making a brief appearance as a border patrol agent in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's murky ensemble drama "Babel" (2006), Peña co-starred in "Shooter" (2007), playing an inexperienced FBI agent helping an expert sniper (Mark Wahlberg) allude capture after he was framed for the assassination of the President of the United States. Following an episode of "My Name Is Earl" (NBC, 2005-09), he was a determined college student encouraged by his idealistic professor (Robert Redford) to do something important in life, leading him and his best friend (Derek Luke) to enlist in the army and fight in Afghanistan.
In "The Lucky Ones" (2008), he was an Iraq War veteran who goes on a road trip of personal discovery with two other vets (Tim Robbins and Rachel McAdams), after which the actor turned to broad comedy with "Observe and Report" (2009), playing a mall guard who helps the head of security (Seth Rogen) track down an anonymous flasher terrorizing shoppers. Following a supporting turn opposite Michael Shannon and Chloë Sevigny in Werner Herzog's obscure "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?" (2009), Peña was a police detective and AA sponsor to a down-and-out ex-salesman (Will Ferrell) in the little-seen "Everything Must Go" (2010). He returned to the small screen with a recurring role on season two of "Eastbound & Down" (HBO, 2009- ) and had supporting turns in a variety of features, including the alien invasion actioner "Battle: Los Angeles" (2011), the low-key courtroom thriller "The Lincoln Lawyer" (2011) and the action comedy "Tower Heist" (2011). Back in the indie world, Peña was an LAPD cop working a dangerous beat in South Central Los Angeles in David Ayer's crime thriller "End of Watch" (2012), a role that earned the actor an Indie Spirit Awards nod for Best Supporting Actor.
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Appeared in "My Fellow Americans" opposite Jack Lemmon and James Garner
Made feature in Peter Bogdonovich's movie of the week "To Sir, With Love 2"
Cast in the independent feature "Bellyfruit" about teenage pregnancy
Landed first recurring role, as Brian Burke on the series "Felicity" (The WB)
Appeared in the Jerry Bruckheimer action film "Gone in Sixty Seconds"
Appeared in the critically acclaimed film "Buffalo Soldiers"
First pairing with actor Don Cheadle in "The United States of Leland"
Played Omar, the wise cracking amateur boxer, in Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" (scripted by Paul Haggis)
Starred as part of an ensemble cast in Paul Haggis' directorial debut "Crash" (Haggis also scripted)
Joined the fourth season of "The Shield" (FX) as Armando 'Army' Renta, a semi-corrupt detective
Played a high school teacher who inspires his Mexican-American students to stand up for their rights in the HBO film "Walkout"
Portrayed Will Jimeno, a NYC cop trapped in the rubble on 9/11 after the collapse of the towers in Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center"
Co-starred opposite Mark Wahlberg in the political thriller "Shooter"
Portrayed a soldier stationed in Afghanistan in Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs"
Co-starred as an Iraq War veteran in Neil Burger's "The Lucky Ones" opposite Tim Robbins and Rachel McAdams
Co-starred with Seth Rogen in the mall cop comedy "Observe and Report"
Acted in the sci-fi feature "Battle Los Angeles"
Landed a featured role in crime comedy "30 Minutes or Less"
Teamed with Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy in the ensemble comedy "Tower Heist"
Cast opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in cop drama "End of Watch"
Cast alongside Sean Penn and Ryan Gosling in crime drama "Gangster Squad"