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Michael Pena took chances making cop movie with Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal Michael Pen'End Watch'

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena in "End of Watch"

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Updated: October 18, 2012 6:05AM

Michael Pena wasn’t worried. Orange County firefighters assured him that this would be a controlled burn.

The Chicago native recalls, “I didn’t want to use my stunt double. Neither did Jake Gyllenhaal.”

That’s why the two of them, during a scene for the gritty cop drama “End of Watch,” raced into a burning building to save children trapped on the second floor during a raging inferno.

“It was sort of hot when I raced into the building. Then the smoke came down over us while we were crawling,” Pena recalls. “It was the perfect layer of smoke. A second later, the entire room we were in burst into flames.”

He had a physical reaction. “In two seconds, my entire body was drenched in sweat,” he says, adding, “I’m not a Method actor, but the reaction of abject fear on my face is real.”

Reality is key in “End of Watch,” opening Friday.

Pena, 36, plays Mike Zavala, one of two LAPD officers who confiscate money and firearms from a notorious cartel during a routine traffic stop. Result: A mob hit is placed on them.

“We shot in the real neighborhoods, where there were very few incidents,” says director David Ayer, who joined Pena during a recent Chicago visit. “Some guy did come to our set wanting to fight our security. But mostly, I found if you treat people with respect then they respect you.”

The sort of respect Pena found with Gyllenhaal, the Oscar nominee from “Brokeback Mountain” and “Source Code.”

“Unfortunately, we didn’t have anything in common at first,” Pena says. “But we did a lot of training together for this film and became great friends. We really had each other’s back. I can call him about anything. He’s a good guy and a complicated dude.”

Ayer adds, “Once the relationship between the two of them clicked, they wouldn’t shut up, which informed any of the scenes.”

Pena and Gyllenhaal also participated in five months of work with real LAPD officers. “It was like a job,” Pena recalls. “We’d wake up early, do some sparring and then go on the ride-alongs. We’d finish the day with weapons training.”

The ride-alongs weren’t for the faint of heart. “We wore bulletproof vests, but you could still get shot in the head, face or arms,” he says. “The interesting thing is Jake only got recognized once, and that was at a restaurant.

“We saw a lot of insane stuff. One night, we raced into a house party with blasting music. Anything could have happened. All you could hear was the toilet flushing again and again like someone was trying to get rid of something.”

“This gave me even bigger respect for cops. You burst into a house or pull over a car. It could be a gang situation. It’s like unwrapping a little surprise each time you get out of that police car.”

Pena grew up in Chicago. “I grew up across from Douglas Park,” he says. “When I was 11 years old, I moved near Marquette Park. My best friend’s mom told me I had to act. She pushed me to go to an open casting call. I said, ‘No way.’ She made me promise to go.

“When I got there, a casting agent asked me, ‘Do you act?’ I said, ‘You tell me.’ ”

He got his first professional break going to an open casting call for “To Sir with Love II,” a 1996 TV movie made in Chicago. “I was a featured extra and thought, ‘OK, I made it,” he recalls, laughing. “I went right to L.A. and said, ‘I was in a movie.’ Those casting agents were like, ‘Yeah, right. You’re not a star.’ ”

It wasn’t an easy time. “I was homeless for a little bit and then lived in a van,” he says. “I finally ended up on some friends’ floors. It was super tough, but I told my parents, ‘I don’t want you to pay for anything. I want to ride this out.’ ”

Pena kept the faith and started getting bigger roles. He has starred in movies including “Battle Los Angeles,” “Tower Heist,” “30 Minutes or Less” and “The Lincoln Lawyer,”

“Mike’s a worker,” Ayer says. “He’s been out there a lot, but I think with ‘End of Watch,’ people will sit up and notice. It’s an unbelievable performance.”

His next role will be as Cesar Chavez in “Chavez,” directed by Diego Luna. The film also stars Rosario Dawson and America Ferrera. He has a role in 2013’s “Gangster Squad” opposite Ryan Gosling.

Before he went back to Hollywood, Pena had to make one stop with his “End of Watch” director.

“I just took David for a Maxwell Street Polish,” he reports. “I had one myself. It was like eating candy.”

Big Picture News Inc.

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