End of Watch: Michael Pena Gives Latino Flavor to Cop Drama

In every cop drama there are bad guys and good guys, and often times, heroes. In “End of Watch” you find all three.

The movie, which opens Friday nationwide, raises the question of the true definition of a hero. Is it the officers that answer the distressed calls, possibly facing danger every day? Is it the person that survives unscathed in a crime-riddled neighborhood; or the wife that endures the daily anguish of wondering if this will be the day her loved one will not return?

“End of Watch” is a harsh look at the realities and horrors of life on the streets of South Central L.A. But amid all the violence, heartbreak and tortured lives, shines a friendship so strong it dares you to look beyond the chaos and into the private struggles of two police officers, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña).

I hold this movie close to my heart. It is not often a Latino character gets written like this.

— Michael Peña

Peña, whose emotional performance in Oscar-winning film “Crash” would jumpstart his career in 2004, shares the top bill here with Gyllenhaal. His portrayal of Officer Zavala continues to seal the deal that he is soon to be an Oscar contender.

The movie delivers the adrenaline rush of a true action-packed film. While his previous works centered on gangster and corrupt cops, this time around writer/director/producer David Ayer (“Training Day,” “S.W.A.T,” “Street Kings”) was driven to open a window into a rarely seen world of law enforcement. With a cast headed by Gyllenhaal and Peña, and featuring Anna Kendrick, America Ferrera, Cody Horn, Natalie Martinez and Frank Grillo, “End of Watch” is a powerful story of family, friendship, love, honor and courage.

Gyllenhaal, who also wears an executive producer hat on this film, had a hand in selecting Peña as his partner for the film. The two actors spent five months together undergoing extensive police, tactical and fight training, and police ride-alongs, preparing for a friendship that would last a lifetime, both on screen and in real life.

End of Watch

Opens on Friday nationwide.

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal (Officer Brian Taylor), Michael Peña (Officer Mike Zavala), America Ferrera (Officer Orozco), Anna Kendrick (Janet), Natalie Martinez (Mrs. Zavala), Frank Grillo (Sarge), Cody Horn (Officer Davis), Cle Sloan (Mr. Tre) and Yahira Garcia (La La).

“From the get go Jake said ‘hey this is our movie,” Peña told us. For his part, Gyllenhaal was clear on how it should play out: “I’ve been in films where my character drives the whole movie, and is required to carry every scene. This film is different,” he said. “We’re two pieces of a whole. This doesn’t work without either one of us.”

Officers Taylor and Zavala are very different people. Gyllenhaal’s character comes from a wealthy family in Davenport, Iowa, joined the Marines to rebel against his parents and later came to L.A. and become a cop. Zavala emerged from the streets of East L.A., was an amateur boxer and is married to his high school sweetheart.

The relationship between married Zavala and Taylor, the eligible bachelor, plays out mostly in between the brutal action they confront on the “watch.” It is in these “guy talk” sessions that we get to know who these characters really are, their philosophy on dating, the ideas on the merits of love and marriage, the risks of their chosen profession and Zavala’s advice to Taylor to marry “a Mexican girl."

Having grown up in South Central and being married to a “Mexican girl” himself, director Ayer knows a thing or two about Latinos and writes from first-hand knowledge, something Peña appreciates.

“I hold this movie close to my heart. It is not often a Latino character gets written like this,” he said.

As for Gyllenhaal, making this movie has left a lasting impression on him.

“This movie changed my life," he said. "The Hispanic culture I was surrounded with that Dave (Ayer) introduced me to and being around Mike (Peña) was family to me; the culture was so inspiring.”

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