acid logicpresents...

An Interview with Elizabeth Pena


Rikki Rockett, Poison Drummer

By Seana Sperling
October 16, 2001

It's inspiring to talk with someone that truly loves what they do and Elizabeth Pena absolutely radiates joy when she talks about her work. Pena started her film career in 1979 with "El Super," right after graduating from the High School of the Performing Arts in Manhattan. Since then she has appeared in approximately 40 films including, "Lone Star," and "Jacob's Ladder." I spoke to Pena while she was in Seattle promoting her new movie, "Tortilla Soup," (a remake of Ang Lee's, "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman.")

Seana: In your new film you play the part of Leticia Naranjo, an introverted, born-again Christian. This is quite a departure from your other roles.

Elizabeth: It was a challenge. I've never played anyone who was, "tucked in." That's the best word. She keeps tucking herself in. So it was exhausting trying to sedate my own energy more than anything. It was very scary while shooting it because I kept thinking, "Am I going over the top?"

When I was going over the script I thought, I'm not too old to play Carmen, which is the normal role I'd be cast in. When I was offered Leticia, I thought, I can't do that. Then I figured, if I failed, I'd tried something that I hadn't tried before and if one movie was going to destroy my career than I didn't have much of a career to start with. I just went for it. God willing I wasn't over the top and didn't embarrass myself.

Seana: I've watched, "Lone Star," three or four times. Did you enjoy working with John Sayles?

Elizabeth: He is like Director/God. He is a treat. He writes, produces, directs and is an actor, so the communication was very clean and very minimal. It's the first and only movie I've done, that the movie I went to see, is the actual movie we shot. He's very economical in his shooting. He didn't shoot 18 set-ups per scene, he shot only what he was going to cut and use. He was also a wonderful communicator in terms of acting. He knows how to give you one word or one physical thing that's going to alter everything.

My agent called me and said, "John Sayles would like you to be in a movie of his," and I said, "OK." Then my agent said, don't you want to read the script? I said, I don't care if he wants me to walk through the film and exit. I just want to be in his presence. Fortunately it was an amazing script.

He immediately faxed me the biography of the character which he asked that I read and destroy, and not tell anyone else because each character had their own secret. The information that I had was different from what Chris Cooper had. When Chris and I landed in Eagle Pass, he's the one that picked us up, no PA, no driver. He drove us around going, "That's your mother's restaurant. That's the high school you guys went to. This is where you guys used to cut school together."

He could pull a performance out of a dog. I'm serious. He was just amazing. The world could fall apart and he remained on neutral. I believe the director is the one that sets the mood and if you have this hysterical director it's a domino effect. I would work for him forever, for nothing. Don't tell my agent that.

Seana: In an interview you gave several years ago to the Toronto Sun, you stated that, "The year of the Latin actor happens every 10 years and it's usually a false alarm." The population of Latinos is very high in Hollywood, yet there aren't that many films featuring Latino leads. Do you feel that the majority of Hollywood roles are written with Ryders, Paltrows or Kidmans in mind?

Elizabeth: It's a clique and I think a clique exists in every business. There's a circle of people that are guaranteed to open a movie and we all know their names and whether they're right or wrong for the role.

Every time I work with a European director, I find they hire the person that captures the spirit of the role. Americans tend to hire the best face. The person that looks more like the role, whether they can perform the role or not is a bonus. That makes it very difficult when you're part of an ethnic group or female or over 20. It's a lot of work The work is getting the work. I love acting. When I'm acting I feel like I'm on vacation. I'm just having a wonderful time. The nightmare is just getting the work to happen.

Seana: Is Hollywood becoming more diverse?

Elizabeth: I think so.

Seana: I've seen, "Jacob's Ladder," about seven times. Part of what makes the film great is your interaction with Tim Robbins.

Elizabeth: I worked very hard to get, "Jacob's Ladder." At first they wanted Julia Roberts, Andie McDowell or Michelle Pheifer. At some point they wanted Susan Sarandon and Madonna wanted the part. They auditioned all of them. I begged to be auditioned. I begged and begged and when I auditioned, the chemistry was right and Adrian (Adrian Lyne) and I were just taken with each other. I auditioned for six months, twice a week. The reason I kept going back was because Adrian was literally fighting for me to get the role.

When I got it, I was nervous because I felt I wasn't allowed to fail. I felt that they were waiting for one little failure and that would prove them right and I'd be,"out of there." It was a lot of pressure, but I loved working with Tim and I loved working with Adrian.

Seana: There's some mystery surrounding your origin. I found a few of your bios on the net and one said you were born in Cuba, another New Jersey and another said New York.

Elizabeth: (Laughter.) I was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey. When I was nine-months-old we went to Cuba and came back when I was nine-years-old. I grew up in Manhattan, Upper Westside 90th street between Broadway and Amsterdam.

Seana: Are you home-based in LA now?

Elizabeth: Only when I'm working. When I'm not working, my family and I have a house in the San Juan Islands. We've been here since '94.

Seana: Have you had any unusual experiences since you've been in Seattle?

Elizabeth: I went to see Dale Chihuly yesterday. I got to meet him and be in his loft. He is a trip and his wife is delightful. It was wonderful to watch the process of what he makes. It was very exciting and I loved meeting him.

Don't forget to check out these recent Acid Logic Interviews that delve deep into the inner psyches of American celebrities and expose them as the senstive artists they truly are:

Honey Lauren
Mojo Nixon
Curtis Armstrong (Revenge of the Nerds)
Rikki Rockett of Poison
Gerald V. Casale of Devo
Teller, stage magician from "Penn and Teller"



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