Thursday, May 15, 2008
Most moviegoers have seen actress Elizabeth Peña on the big screen. Though her name might not be easily recognizable, the Cuban-American’s exotic features, smoky voice and deftly rendered characters have appeared in close to 40 films.
Peña received her big break by starring in the 1986 comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills alongside Nick Nolte, Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss. Since then, she has lent her voice to the character Mirage in the 2004 Pixar film The Incredibles, portrayed a demolition specialist in the 1998 blockbuster Rush Hour and won an Independent Spirit Award for her role in John Sayles’ 1996 Oscar-nominated film Lone Star.
This Friday, Peña will be on local screens again as Lolita in How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer. The film, which follows the sexual awakenings of three generations of Garcia women over the course of a summer, is the first movie being distributed by Maya Releasing. Maya Releasing is a new Latino-oriented film company run by Moctesuma Esparza, who is also the founder and C.E.O. of Maya Cinemas, whose Salinas location has helped revitalize Oldtown.
Peña’s father was a Cuban-born actor, writer and director who co-founded New York City’s Latin American Theatre Ensemble. At 8 years old, Peña attended a life-changing performance of the Betrolt Brecht anti-war play Mother Courage and Her Children directed by her father.
“It was like a spiritual experience I had,” Peña says by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “I felt like I levitated off the chair. When the play ended, I could not stop crying. I wasn’t crying because of the play. I was crying because I felt I had made a really big discovery that that’s what I wanted to do the rest of my life.”
While her mother was wary of Peña trying to become an actress, her dad taught her about mime, fencing and Shakespeare, and gave her some important advice. “My father said if you want to be an actress, you have to make sure that it’s something that you love to do so much that you would do it for free,” Peña recalls. “Then you’ve got to find someone to pay you for it.”
Peña says that she immersed herself in theater until a part came along in a 1979 film about Cuban immigrants titled El Super. She moved to Los Angeles and was struggling to make it in the movie business when she landed the part of the maid, Carmen, in Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
“I had 50 dollars and no credit card,” she says of her situation before being cast in the film. “It was over.”
Peña says that working on Down and Out in Beverly Hills was one of the high points of her acting career. She recalls watching Little Richard and Bette Midler jamming together on a piano after a film shoot. “If someone wakes me up, I’m going to kick them in the face,” Peña remembers thinking.
Even though Peña scored roles in great movies like La Bamba and Jacob’s Ladder, she says that it was hard to secure the parts of non-Latina characters early in her career. “I knew I was Cuban and spoke Spanish, but I had no idea that I would be labeled Latina or Hispanic,” she says. “That was a brutal awakening for me when I went out in the real world to get jobs. I didn’t go into this business to play myself. I do that every day.”
The actress says she has noticed a significant change towards Latinas in the film industry since she began working. “If you make a movie with a dog in it and the movie becomes a very popular movie, now there are suddenly 18 movies about dogs out,” Peña says. “I hate to compare us to dogs, but I’m saying it’s obviously been profitable.”
The film industry’s attempt to tap into the Latino market probably helped How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer get made. The film is written, directed and produced by first-time Latina filmmaker Georgina Garcia Riedel, stars an entirely Hispanic cast including Peña and America Ferrera of “Ugly Betty” fame.
Peña says she decided to take a part in a first-time director’s work because she was attracted to the material. “I just thought her script was a very good script, and I was interested in that thing of three women related to each other of completely different times and generations,” she says. “You know, their exploration of their own sexuality or lack thereof. I had never been offered a script with that sort of theme, and I thought it would be an interesting experiment.”
While Peña will be acting in the upcoming film Humboldt Park with Alfred Molina and Debra Messing, the actress is also excited to try and follow in her father’s footsteps as a director. Peña directed an episode of the former Showtime series “Resurrection Blvd.” and was going to shoot her first feature film titled The Last Date Movie until she lost funding for the project. “I just find directing is so much, much less painful than acting,” she says. “As much as I love acting, it would be nice to push other people’s buttons for a change.”
ELIZABETH PEÑA stars in the new film How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer, which opens this Friday at the Maya Cinemas, 153 Main St., Salinas. 755-MAYA.