CHiPs back in movie remake with Michael Peña in the saddle as Frank Poncherello - The Irish News
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CHiPs back in movie remake with Michael Peña in the saddle as Frank Poncherello

Seventies buddy cop drama CHiPS has had a 21st century, big-screen facelift. Star Michael Pena tells Jeananne Craig why the pressure was on to nail his role

Dax Shepard and Michael Peña as California Highway Patrol officers Baker and Poncherello (7-Mary-3 and 4, for those old enough to remember the original)

MICHAEL Peña might have been too young to appreciate the 1970s cop show CHiPs, but his mother was a big fan.

"I remember my mom being so excited for CHiPs to come on; she would cook with a little hop in her step," recalls the actor, who was born in Chicago to Mexican parents.

"Now, I realise she was in love with Erik Estrada. I look at the series now and he's this really handsome Latin guy with this perfect smile..."

Four decades since the show first aired, Peña is taking on Estrada's role as Frank 'Ponch' Poncherello in a big-screen remake. It's been written and directed by actor and comedian Dax Shepard, who co-stars as Ponch's partner Jon Baker, played by Larry Wilcox in the original series.

Peña (41), seen last year in The Guard and Calvary director John Michael McDonagh's War On Everyone, confesses it was a little intimidating to play a role which afforded his predecessor such heart-throb status.

"In Hollywood standards, I'm like a solid six out of 10, if you think about me and somebody like Brad Pitt, who's a 10, or Ryan Gosling or whoever. Maybe I'm a seven, I don't know," he jokes.

"I tried to get in as good a shape as possible. But Dax was like, 'Dude, if you just add a little bit of humour, your stock will go up. It's all about stock; if you're a solid seven, we might be able to get you to a 7.5."

In the new film, we see chalk-and-cheese pair Ponch and Baker having just joined the highway patrol in Los Angeles, for very different reasons.

Washed up former pro-motorbiker Baker is trying to rebuild his life and broken marriage (to Karen, played by Shepard's real-life wife Kristen Bell), while seasoned pro Ponch is an undercover federal agent – and "a little bit of a sex addict", according to Peña – who is trying to get to the bottom of a multi-million-dollar heist.

There are plenty of high-octane chases and explosions to keep adrenalin junkies happy.

As Shepard notes, "I don't think we went more than three days on this movie without blowing something up".

But these aren't your average action heroes, and the emphasis is as much on the dynamic between the pair, as the stunts they're involved in.

"Ponch is very logical and focused on the present, and Jon is more in tune with his feelings and about fixing his marriage, like he's always 'three beers too deep' with the intimacy," says Peña.

We may have had remakes of everything from Ghostbusters (released last year with an all-female cast) to Baywatch (in cinemas this June), but CHiPs stands out from other reprisals, the star insists.

"I think the way Dax approached it is that this one is a character-driven comedy, as opposed to just a bunch of one-liners or a bunch of gimmicks," he explains. "The conversations we have in this movie are way different to the ones anyone else would have."

Not everyone is excited about CHiPs' return, or the direction it seems to take, however.

After a recent trailer release, Wilcox, who played the original Baker, claimed the remake has "ruined the brand" and called it "Dumb And Dumber in CHiPS uniforms".

Peña doesn't seem too concerned, though.

"He hasn't even seen the movie, so I don't know, maybe he's just bitter that he wasn't in it," says the actor. "The thing is, every time I said, 'Man, I'm doing CHiPs', 100 per cent of the time people would ask, 'Is Erik Estrada going to be in it?!' Not a lot of people ask for Larry."

Peña, who has a son with his wife, the actress and writer Brie Shaffer, has a diverse back-catalogue of work, ranging from gritty social realism to larger scale comedies and action films.

His big break came in 2004 when he starred in two Oscar-winning movies, the Clint Eastwood-directed sports drama Million Dollar Baby and the ensemble drama Crash, about racial and social tensions in Los Angeles.

That year also saw him tackle the titular role in the Cesar Chavez biopic, about the US labour and civil rights activist who founded United Farm Workers – a role close to Peña's heart, as the son of Mexican farmers who emigrated to the US in the hope of a better life.

Discussing President Donald Trump's hardline approach to Mexican immigrants, Peña notes that "in the US, there's so much more land to be taken advantage of".

He continues: "Once people come in, they're like, 'That's it.' It's almost like a party that's full. There could be programmes. In Canada it seems like a very peaceful thing and I think they're doing really well with it. But then I don't really understand the financial difficulties. I'm not too well versed on it... It's a really interesting time."

Peña – who previously played cops in the aforementioned War on Everything opposite Alexander Skarsgård and n 2012's gritty End Of Watch alongside Jake Gyllenhaal – also has a police officer brother, but he didn't call him for any advice before starring in sun-soaked, LA-based CHiPs.

"Not at all man, he works in a jail," he says with a laugh. "I was like, 'How's that gonna help me with bikini clad women on the beach?'"

Next up for the actor, there's a voice role in My Little Pony: The Movie – a million miles away from the Ant-Man sequel he's also rumoured to be involved in.

The actor stole the show as Luis, the best pal of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) in the first instalment of the Marvel superhero film in 2015, but is tight-lipped about his involvement in the follow-up.

"The only thing I can tell you is that they're starting in July. I don't know if I'm in it; hopefully I'm in it, but you never know."

The coy star adds: "They have that time allotted, so if they need me that'll be cool, and if they don't then, you know..."

:: CHiPs is in cinemas on Friday March 24.

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