Michael Peña is probably best known as Ant-Man‘s best friend Luis, the remorseless, fast-talking crook who provides almost able assistance to Scott Lang while offering a cheerful play-by-play. But Peña, funny as he is, has range. In Wrinkle in Time, he was the personification of a ruthless force known as “IT.” He’s also played Cesar Chavez, a corrupt cop, an astronaut in The Martian and a My Little Pony. The point is, he’s a talent. He’s also a nice guy, a dad, and the son of Mexican immigrants who has retained his own perspective while chasing success in Hollywood.
In his latest film, a sci-fi thriller called Extinction released on Netflix, Peña stars as Peter, an overworked father in a near-future Earth who is plagued by dreams of an alien invasion. These nightmares end up coming true, but not in a way most viewers will see coming. Extinction is a psychological, trippy sci-fi movie that feels like it was either written by Philip K. Dick or Charlie Brooker from Black Mirror (even though it wasn’t). It’s a film about the fears that parents have and a father’s willingness to do anything to protect his family.
It’s also about a lot of other stuff, but Peña asked me not to spoil it so I’m not even going to hint about the nature of the twist. Suffice it to say, the whole thing is emotional and, high concept aside, seems to come from a fairly personal place for Peña, who worries about his family and his community constantly — not in a bad way, just in the way that conscientious dudes do.
Fatherly spoke to Peña about the film, his kids, and his family’s story.
Did you take this part in because you are a father?
I think subconsciously, yeah. I mean, when you’re a dad, you’ll do anything possible to protect your children. Like, I’m crossing the street, there’s this fantasy world you live in as dads like you check in on yourself if there’s ever a close call. I’ll say to myself, ‘If there was a semi-truck coming, was racing on the sidewalk, would I step in front of it to save my kid?’ Yes, I would! I would throw my hands out and take the truck on. That kind of thing. And that’s what’s cool about movies, you’re able to, in fact, do those kinds of things. You can be the hero.
Why do you think we’re seeing so many contemporary movies depict parents as action heroes? In addition to Extinction, I’m thinking of A Quiet Place and Cargo…
I don’t know. But I’m glad that they are. The need to protect your kid now comes in a lot of different forms. I think it’s just time. I think movies can at the very least acknowledge what parents do. Even if you’re just raising your kid in a working-class area, that’s a very noble thing to do. And if movies can just acknowledge people that do that. The movies are fantasy. Parenting is real. I’m glad these kinds of movies are being made.
Do you like doing sci-fi?
Sci-fi comes from reality, I think. These are things come from things people want. I think people have fantasies about things that happen in sci-fi like you wish you could get your memories erased or fight aliens or whatever. I’m into sci-fi, not as much as my son is. I used to read a lot of comics. My favorite comic to date is Preacher. I love that comic, man. It was so engrossing. I couldn’t put it down. I read it in like three days and got horrible sleep.
But comics, like sci-fi, they tackle real issues, you know? And things people can relate to. And that’s why I gravitated toward this: I thought cool, a sci-fi movie I can relate to, awesome.
Your parents immigrated to America from Mexico. There’s a lot of poisonous rhetoric right now about Latin immigrants that makes it sound like there’s an alien invasion. What is it like to hear all that — and see suffering — given your background?
I think the movie is saying that people that look like your enemies aren’t really your enemies at all. My parents were farmers who came to America, learned the language, went to school, got their degrees, you know, they worked hard and did it right. But I think in the real world you can’t make sweeping general statements about an entire country, or a race or a group of people without sounding silly. I feel fortunate to live in a time where more Latins are being hired in the entertainment industry. My only job is to put out good work.
What’s the hardest thing about a working father specifically in your profession?
It’s the time factor. Being away. It’s not really a big problem for me. Kudos to my wife for making it happen. My family comes with me everywhere. I just finished The Mule with Clint Eastwood in Atlanta and they were with me the entire time. More than anything, it’s tough on her. It’s not easy. I’m doing this interview, but my son is in the next room reading his books. Keeping your family close is really important. Being there for your kids is everything. Just you and your kids hanging out. I call it ‘real moments.’ You’re really sharing exchanging real moments and ideas about how you feel about life. And if you’re there long enough, your kids will open up to you. But it’s a constant challenge and a daily challenge.
Basically, it’s about showing up.
I’m super proud of my kid for being an avid reader, being good at school. But things like that are daily challenges that you have to be up for. And whether I’m doing a movie or not, I have to be present in some way. You know when a day didn’t go as well as it could have and when you didn’t quite rise up to the challenge?
But there’s always tomorrow. No matter who is out there and what their profession, the real rock stars are the parents.
-Extinction is streaming now on Netflix.-