From Beverly Hills and 'La Bamba,' a leading Latino lady leaps to Pixar
When actress Elizabeth Peña told her 5-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter that she was going to voice a character in the new animated film The Incredibles, they were elated.
"I could have won 18 Oscars and it would have meant absolutely zero to them," she told The Current via phone from her home in Los Angeles, "but when I told them I was going to work for Pixar, the company that did Monster's Inc. and Toy Story, they looked at me and started jumping around and screaming."
Peña, 43, jokes that she feels like she finally "made it" in show business because she pleased her children, but she actually made her mark in 1986 when she played Carmen, a fiery maid who lusts after Nick Nolte's character in Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
The following year, Peña portrayed Rosie Morales, singer Ritchie Valens' stepsister-in-law in the musical biopic La Bamba - a film that she says she watched for the first time only five years ago.
"I never see any movie more than once, and I never see a movie I star in," Peña said. "It's kind of like most people when they hear themselves on a tape recorder. It's like, 'Oh my God! Do I sound like that?' It's the same thing in a visual way. For me, when I watch myself, all I see is a nose and a hand. It makes me nuts."
But Peña didn't find it difficult to watch The Incredibles animated superhero movie more than one time - maybe because she was transformed into a computer-generated cartoon character named Mirage.
"I've seen the movie three times," Peña, whose comic book memories consist of reading The Archies, said. "It's a testament of how enjoyable it is."
Following a call from her agent, Peña walked onto the set with very little information about the voice work she would be doing. She didn't even know who was directing the film but was ecstatic to find out it was Brad Bird, with whom she had worked with in the past.
"I met Brad Bird when I was doing a movie called *batteries not included a million years ago (actually it was 17 years)," Peña said. "I hadn't seen him in about five years. He requested me for the part of Mirage." Mirage, who works for a secret government organization, gives Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), a retired superhero, a chance to "relive the glory days."
"Mirage has got a two-inch waist," Peña laughed. "I was like, 'Ah. I really want to be a cartoon.'"
Working on her own in a closet-sized room, reciting her lines with only a camera and microphone, Peña found her new work "challenging and fun," especially since she had never interacted with the other actors who were also doing voice work for the film, such as Samuel L. Jackson, Holly Hunter, and Jason Lee. "You're reading your lines and have no idea who you are talking to," Peña said. "It was weird but at the same time a great experience."
Peña said that voicing Mirage, a character with long white hair, big green eyes, and a tan complexion, was original for her, not only because she had never worked on an animated film before, but because the character wasn't typecast to be voiced by a Latina actress. Ethnic stereotypes are something that Peña sees as "a curse for Latino actors."
"I believe an actor is an actor," Peña said. "Nobody calls Dustin Hoffman a Jewish actor. I am an actor and am supposed to be able to portray humanity."
She feels roles like Andy Garcia in The Godfather III and more recently Jennifer Lopez in Shall We Dance? are positive evidence that Latino actors are getting more universal film parts. She also feels, however, that at the end of the day the most important thing to the film companies is not who they cast to play the lead, but whether they are breaking the bank.
"No matter what race you are, Hollywood is about making money for the movie studios," Peña said. "For the studios, you could be a Martian with little antennae on top of your head. If they make a movie that brings in income, suddenly you're going to see 18 movies with Martians starring them."
Still, it is the drive for achievement that motivates Peña, a success story herself who just happens to be a Latina: "We've got very successful Latino actors here today. We've become a citizen of the world." •
Dir. and writ. Brad Bird; feat. (voices) Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Lee, Brad Bird, Wallace Shawn, Spencer Fox, Elizabeth Peña, Sarah Vowell (PG)
One of the big X-factors in the explosion of computer-generated animated films has been the use of human protagonists. Animators have been happy to give us flicks starring ants, clown fish, stuffed toys, and fuzzy monsters, because viewers aren't accustomed to seeing those things talk and move. With human beings, though, our BS detectors are a good deal more sensitive; filmmakers worry that audiences will have trouble identifying with human characters who look fake and move unrealistically. Pixar was wise, then, to set their first homo sapiens story in the world of comic books, where stylization is already the rule.
Mr. I and his wife Elastigirl are superheroes living in a post-hero world with kids who are already exhibiting extraordinary abilities of their own. Some years ago, civilians started filing lawsuits when daring rescues were less than perfect; the government outlawed "supers" and forced them to lead square, anonymous lives.
As perceptive moviegoers will guess, the Parr clan gets a reason to don the Spandex once more: There's, you know, an evil genius bent on world destruction. Actually, although bad guy Syndrome sports an awesome Bond-villain style island headquarters and a hairdo that could only mean trouble, he's a wannabe hero at heart. Meanwhile, writer/director Brad Bird is reveling in the upside-down super-world he has created. He eases into the story gradually, getting good laughs from the setup - but the movie doesn't hit its stride until the arrival of a character Bird himself plays: Edna Mode, pint-sized Tailor to the Heroes.
After E. Mode's appearance, the action and comedy both kick into gear, and The Incredibles becomes the Pixar equivalent of the Spy Kids movies: family bonding and empowerment through super-cool adventure. The story feels slightly less fresh than some of the studio's previous work, but it has all the wit and charm that make Pixar the most reliable name in quality family fare. It's just the thing for a country that would dearly love to have old-fashioned, uncomplicated, and pure-hearted heroes to root for again. •
By John DeFore