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Actor Michael Peña Takes the Lead

After more than a decade of scene-stealing work, he's finally landed his dream gig—playing Cesar Chavez on the big screen.

Two years ago, during a press conference for the cop drama End of Watch, Michael Peña was asked what his dream role would be. Without hesitation, he answered, "To play Cesar Chavez." The iconic labor leader's life story resonated deeply with him—both he and Chavez grew up as second-generation Americans of modest means whose parents were farm laborers in Mexico (Peña's mother eventually became a social worker). Peña admits that at the time he thought the idea of a Chavez biopic being made in Hollywood—let alone his landing the lead—was a pipe dream: "I'd like to walk on the moon, too, but that's never going to happen."

It's not as if Peña was an unproven talent. His brilliant supporting performances in Million Dollar Baby and Crash demonstrated his ability to turn modest screen time into moments that stick (for more proof, see his billionaire impostor "Sheik Abdullah" in American Hustle). But a top-of-the-marquee role eluded him over his 20-year career—until a long-stalled Chavez biopic suddenly resurfaced in 2012. Peña "did a pair of incredible auditions," according to the film's director, Diego Luna, and audiences can now see the 38-year-old actor playing out his dream in Cesar Chavez, alongside John Malkovich, America Ferrera, and Rosario Dawson. Peña naturally embodied every aspect of his hero, except for one: waist size. "I was eating pancakes and doughnuts every night right before I went to bed," he says about having to gain 30 pounds for the part. "My stomach was stuffed the entire time. It's like trying to sleep on a bowling ball."

Still, the occupational hazards were worth it. Peña says the only parts a Latin-American actor like him could audition for 15 years ago were "Gangbanger No. 2 and 3. Now you see a lot of Latin actors making things happen." And with choice roles in the upcoming cross-border crime drama Frontera, opposite Ed Harris, and the World War II thriller Fury, with Brad Pitt, Peña is undoubtedly one of them—though he's more interested in furthering la causa than his reputation. "More Latinos in the government, in higher, better positions—that was all paved by people like Cesar Chavez," he says. "I'm just doing what I do, but the fact that, as a Latin guy, I get to see what's happening with our country—I'm just glad to be a part of it."

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Why Directors Choose Never-Before-Seen Actors to Carry Their Films

Photograph courtesy of Emily Berl. Styling by Sarah Schussheim. Grooming by Barbara Guillaume for Exclusive Artists. Suit by Calvin Klein Collection. Shirt and tie by Burberry London. Belt and shoes by Cole Haan.
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