MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we turn to a new film that captures one of the greatest civil rights movements in America and the man who led it - Cesar Chavez.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CESAR CHAVEZ")
MICHAEL PENA: (as Cesar Chavez) Three days ago, I stopped eating. And I will continue to fast until everyone, and I mean everyone, in our beautiful movement makes a pledge recommitting themselves to nonviolence 'cause we move forward together or not at all.
MARTIN: That was actor Michael Pena as Cesar Chavez. The activist organized farm laborers and fought to secure a living wage and better working conditions in the fields. He was one of the founders of the United Farm Workers Union in California in the 1960s, and his work inspired millions of people in the U.S. and around the world. The film opens nationwide tomorrow, and Michael Pena is with us now. He's with us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, California. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
PENA: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: People are always interested in how people find these kinds of roles. Did you hear about it and just want to be part of it? Did they come looking for you? Or, how did it work?
PENA: Oddly enough, I - you know, I was asked at Comic-Con the year before anybody even talked about this movie. They said, you know, if you had a dream role, what would it be? And it was just a snap answer. I just said, you know, I'd love - it'd be great to play Cesar Chavez, but I don't know much of his story. Nine months later, I got an email saying that Diego Luna wants to meet about Cesar Chavez. And my first question was, like, is it the pugilist or is it the civil rights activists? And they said the civil rights activist. And I said, wow, that's fantastic. So then I met him. I had to audition three times for it.
MARTIN: What did you know about him, and what did you come to find out?
PENA: I have to be honest with you. I mean, growing up with two parents that are farm workers, not farmers - the only think that I knew about him were the streets that were named after him, the schools that were named after him and a little bit of the story that he worked with farm workers. And that's basically about it, which kind of, you know, put a little more fire - me, I'm a Mexican-American, and I don't know about one of the biggest heroes that we have that gave me, you know, added motivation to tell this guy's story.
MARTIN: What were some of the things you found out in the course of preparing for the role? And is there anything that surprised you?
PENA: You know, it didn't surprise me that he was, like, a vegetarian. He actually loved all these vegetables that he was fighting for - fighting for the workers that, you know, that picked them. But also, he was a devout Christian. He read a lot about Gandhi. But the thing that really, I guess, surprised me was here was a guy who was just a strategist, and he was asked to lead the movement because all his ideas were very practical and very good, you know, at the meetings.
I don't know about you, but for me, if I got to present any kind of award, I'm shaking in my pants. I'm like you guys - if you ever see the, you know, the Academy Awards, you see a lot of the big names just get things wrong because that's not the most natural thing to do is to do some public speaking. And that's what this guy was asked to do.
MARTIN: One of the things that I thought that's difficult is that there are still a lot of people around who knew him. And I wonder how difficult it is to portray someone that a lot of people do know?
PENA: Well, I think the best compliment that I could ever get was, you know, his son give me a hug and said, yep, that was my dad. It was difficult, to be honest with you, you know, as an actor playing a person that's very humble and maybe wasn't the best public speaker - probably, like, the opposite of what some of the politicians are today where there's a lot of beautiful talk and they get reelected somehow. And then, you see their statistics, and they're very low, and they haven't accomplished much. And here's Cesar Chavez who accomplished a lot and spoke very little. So there was a lot of pressure with that. But I think, you know, when his son said that to me, I was very excited and very pleased.
MARTIN: How did you go about preparing? I understand that you actually gained a few pounds for the role.
PENA: Well, I gained 30 pounds for the part. And I was in really good shape after I finished this movie "End of Watch." And when I had the meeting with Diego Luna, he says, you need to gain, like, 30 pounds, man, please. And I was like, of muscle - knowing that's not what he's going to say. And he's like, no, just of, like, regular person. And I was like, oh, man. So, you know, I did gain the weight. And thank God that I did because I - you know, this was a man who wasn't prone to violence.
And if I looked like a Hollywood actor guy that was, like, in really good shape, then it doesn't look real and it's not real. And then I actually shaved, like, a little gap in between my teeth. The way he said S's, a lot of the air passed through it. It really informed the way that he spoke. And that was the other thing that I learned. I learned a little bit of organizing. I went to some of the meetings. I actually picked a lot of grapes, you know, just to have a memory of what it's like and what you're actually fighting for and to see the people that I'm working worth. And then also, I started working on his voice. I noticed that there was, like, a different tone in everyone's voice and also a different rhythm.
And to me, that was important because we were doing a film about this man who actually was born in the '30s and '40s or actually lived life in the '30s and '40s. And a lot of people talk like this, you know, where everything was very - the syncopation was very exact and the rhythm and tone was very deliberate. So I started doing that for - I don't know - maybe a month straight. Then it started becoming my own.
MARTIN: What did you come to understand about what motivated him?
PENA: With this part, what I started looking at is the social injustice in our time and try to make it as personal as possible so that when you act this kind of thing, you can have some semblance of truth. And for me, it was pretty easy. It was, like, you know, it mirrored the same kind of situations that were happening to Chavez. My brother and my father both got laid off around the same time that I was starting to do this movie "Chavez."
And at the same time, it was when all the bailouts were happening. And so it was very similar to these guys that were big business taking advantage of the little guy. And I just wasn't OK with that. And then I heard about these guys giving themselves huge bonuses when, in actuality, they were not good at their job. Their statistics were down tremendously enough so that they would be bankrupt. And then when they get a bailout, which means that us taxpayers were actually paying for it, they decided to give themselves bonuses. That kind of filled me with resentment towards these people 'cause it affected me directly, which is exactly what, I think, that's how Chavez felt to these people bullying people that didn't have a voice.
MARTIN: What do your dad and brother do? Were they in the same field?
PENA: No, my brother was actually working at a bank. And he was working at a bank for maybe 13 years. I started working at a bank. You know, our parents taught us math at an early age, and we excelled at that. And my father and mother were working in factories.
MARTIN: And they're both laid off at the same time. That must have been really upsetting. Yeah.
PENA: Well, yeah, my mother's not with us anymore.
MARTIN: I'm sorry, yeah.
PENA: But my brother and my father both got laid off at the same time. So you could imagine, I'm having to lend my older brother and father money. These are people that are - have tremendous sense of pride. And here they are, like, you know, indirectly but directly - I know exactly what they meant - having to suck up their pride and say, like, hey, buddy, I'm going to pay you back in two months. Trust me. And you never want to ask your little brother for money. And knowing how hard it was for my brother to do that, it just never sat right with me. And that's the fuel that I used to play Chavez.
MARTIN: The film, you know, describes a lot of the politics of the time and also some of the nuts and bolts of organizing. But it also describes something that I think a lot of people are curious about, which is, what affect a job like that has on a family. One of the moments in the film - I just want to play this clip - is from Cesar Chavez having to negotiate between the movement and his family. And you're devising a strategy to get arrested during the 1960's Grape Boycott in Delano, California. And then the film also depicts the fact that your wife, who is played by America Ferrera, who plays Chavez's wife Helen, is also an activist. And here's also a scene involving Rosario Dawson who plays the activist Dolores Huerta. And here it is. And I hear your laughing, and I know why. Here it is. Here's the clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CESAR CHAVEZ")
AMERICA FERRERA: (as Helen Chavez) I'll get arrested.
PENA: (as Cesar Chavez) Well, you can't get arrested.
FERRERA: (as Helen Chavez) What? Why not?
PENA: (as Cesar Chavez) Well, who's going to take care of the kids?
FERRERA: (as Helen Chavez) The kids are fine. They're big. They take care of themself.
PENA: (as Cesar Chavez) No.
FERRERA: (as Helen Chavez) Cesar, you're the one who says we can't ask our members to do things we're not willing to do ourselves.
PENA: (as Cesar Chavez) I said no.
FERRERA: (as Helen Chavez) Dolores, what do you think?
ROSARIO DAWSON: (as Dolores Huerta) I think it's a good idea.
FERRERA: (as Helen Chavez) I think it's a good idea, too.
MARTIN: Cesar did not think it was a good idea. So...
PENA: I don't know.
>>MARTINl ...How closely do you think that hued to the reality of the situation?
PENA: That's one of the things that, you know, research really comes into play. We went to go visit Helen, and - you know, Caesar's wife - and, you know, a lot of times, regardless of how strong the man appears to be, it's the - you always got to get the yes or the no from the wifey. And that's one of those instances where she actually got away, and she was actually arrested. I couldn't believe that this little, like, cute little woman actually did that, you know.
I was really surprised. She told me like it was - like, you know, almost how Chavez was where, yeah, it's something that I had to do, and that's what I did, you know. And I said, so you got arrested? And she's like, and I was put in jail. And I was like, wow, these are regular people that really went out of their way to do something that they thought was right.
MARTIN: One of the things that I think a lot of people may not remember that the film makes clear is that even if people remember that there was a grape boycott, I don't think many people necessarily remember just how long this went on. And I just want to play a short clip that speaks to that. And here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CESAR CHAVEZ")
PENA: (as Cesar Chavez) Five years we were on strike, but I kept on sacrificing and fighting for a better tomorrow, a better tomorrow that we all dream about as we worked amongst these beautiful vines. And when millions and millions of Americans stop doing one thing, eating grapes, we won the strike. We won. We won.
PENA: (as Cesar Chavez) Si, se puede.
MARTIN: So what do you want people to draw from this film?
PENA: I kind of, I guess, the way that it woke me up in a way, like, you know, I actually - to be honest with you - I wasn't much of a voter. I didn't think my voice was important even though, you know, I'm an actor and some people know me. And, you know, I didn't want to be ridiculed for what I believe in. But then I couldn't believe that those were my thoughts. In actuality, like, I don't know what I'm going to get involved in, to be honest, but we can start by voting and getting into just knowing the very basics of politics and knowing who to follow. And for me, that's a good beginning that I never had. But also to get involved and know that your voice can be strong, and in numbers it's even stronger.
MARTIN: Michael Pena plays the title role in the new film "Cesar Chavez." It opens nationwide on Friday. Michael Pena, thanks so much for joining us, and congratulations.
PENA: Thank you much.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.