Just in case you haven’t heard, Eddie Murphy stars in the new action-comedy Tower Heist, which opens nationwide today. Directed by the ever-polarizing Brett Ratner, the timely romp is an Ocean’s 11-style flick about a high stakes robbery orchestrated by a ragtag group of blue collar workers (led by Ben Stiller), all of whom have been directly screwed over by Wall Street tycoon Arthur Shaw’s (Alan Alda) failed Ponzi scheme. Their mission: To steal $20 million that’s hidden somewhere inside Shaw’s lavish penthouse apartment in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. Posited as Murphy’s big comeback comedy, Tower Heist finds the once-dominant funnyman playing the low-rent thieves’ criminal consultant, a role that allows Murphy to dip back into his pool of classic foul-mouthed and snappy one-liners.

Though Murphy is good in the film, it’s actually Ratner’s supporting actors who steal the show, namely Michael Peña. The always reliable character actor plays the building’s newly employed and lame-brained elevator operator, but it’s the character’s position as the crew’s dimmest bulb that gives Peña the opportunity to nail a series of perfectly timed jokes.

Tower Heist is the latest comedy on the actor’s resume, the early section of which includes memorable turns in dramas such as Crash, Million Dollar Baby, and Shooter. Once he owned the underrated Seth Rogen dark laugher Observe And Report in 2009, though, audiences and critics alike recognized unsuspected hilarity, which shined just as brightly in this past summer’s 30 Minutes Or Less.

Complex caught up with Peña about jacking the big-deal Tower Heist from A-listers Stiller and Murphy, why Ratner’s directorial skills are undervalued, how he picked up Dave Chappelle’s slack, and how the film fulfills one specific childhood dream.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

The cast in Tower Heist is quite eclectic, and I read in a recent interview that Brett Ratner put a lot of thought into the casting process for this one. Did he reach out to you directly for the role, or did you have to audition the traditional way?
Originally, I think the part was written for Dave Chappelle. I don’t know what happened. This was Eddie Murphy’s idea originally, and they got a script out of it, and then something happened where the original plan didn’t come together. But it’s a blessing for me. Even if that’s not the story, and somebody didn’t drop out or whatever, I’m still really happy.

I read the script and I thought it was awesome, so I went in to audition. At the time, my dad was out of work, and my brother was out of work for a little bit, so, for me, it was totally satisfying. Yeah, I’m living in Hollywood and I’m making movies, but it goes beyond me. If my family is not doing very well, or even OK, you want them to be better. So I read the script at the perfect time. You have this revenge factor that you want fulfilled; even if it’s on screen, you’re just glad that it happened, you know?

Look at Bernie Madoff. You don’t hear about the guy very much anymore; you don’t know what his day-to-day life is like. You don’t know if he’s living nicely. They have white collar prisons, where I don’t know if they’re living really well, but if you go into a bank and steal 10-grand, you get sent to, like, a crap prison, but if you steal 10-million you get sent to a white collar prison, which I never understood.

Which brings to mind inmates resting on couches and love seats inside their cells.
Yeah, exactly. And then they’re at it again when they’re out.

You’ve said in the past that you always try to base the characters you play on real-life people. In Tower Heist, you play a bit of dumbass, but a helpful guy who’s totally likeable. Was that how the character was written in the script, or did you bring your own take to it?
No, he wasn’t written like that at all. Once I got on set, I always try to create whatever the set gives me or the energy gives me. But I did base this character off of someone specifically. When I did this movie World Trade Center, I would go in and get some coffee at the same place, and every morning this one guy was seriously the worst customer service guy of all time.

In a way, my character is also the worst customer service guy, too, but this guy was much worse. He’d be at the register and telling stories to his co-workers while ignoring all of his customers. And he had the worst jokes of all time, like, “And then I sat down and said, 'Yo, your mutha!'" [Laughs.] He’d just keep repeating “Your mutha.” I kept thinking, “Man, I hope I get to play that guy in a movie one day.”

Fortunately, your one-liners in Tower Heist are much funnier than that guy’s jokes. What’s cool about the movie is that every cast members gets his or her fair share of good material. From the trailers, one might get the sense that Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller get all of the funny lines, but you, Matthew Broderick, and Casey Affleck have a ton of your own. Was that something you all paid close attention to, divvying out the best lines?
I gotta be honest with you: I have to give credit for that to Brett [Ratner]. It’s one thing when directors say that they’ll give everyone equal attention and focus, and then inevitably the attention goes to the big stars, which I totally understand. But in this one, I think he really had the overall picture firmed up in his head. There were a couple times when I just wasn’t getting it, right? It was my coverage and Ben was next, but we were at Take 40 and Brett was like, “We’ve gotta get it, Mike. I’m sorry. We’ve gotta get it!” He was really diligent and patient, and sometimes it happens to the best of us, when it just doesn’t come to us that quickly. But we worked and worked and worked until we did, and that’s all Brett.

Was that what impressed you most about Brett Ratner from working on this film? He tends to catch a bad rep amongst the film blogging and talking head community, but it seems like you’re now a big fan.
Absolutely. I don’t know if you’ve ever met the guy, but his energy is literally.... I don’t know when that guy ever gets tired. I remember we did press in Miami, and he said to me, “Yo, I’m so tired right now,” and I’m like, “So why are you smiling, bro?” [Laughs.] He’s got so much energy, and I think it translates in his movies. There’s a certain kind of energy you need to make his kinds of movies, and he really puts into the performances. Even if it’s calm, there’s still that energy behind it, and that all has to do with Brett himself.

He’s talked about how, once he had Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller signed onto the project, he wanted to cast the best dramatic actors for all of the other supporting roles.
Yeah, I could probably have lost out to some comedian or whatever, but he wanted there to be humor that’s grounded. He didn’t want it to be a battle of wits or a battle of one-liners; he really wanted it to be grounded. So that almost took priority over even some of the humor. There are outtakes of us really cracking each other up, but for him, he’d say, “Don’t get me wrong, it’s really, really, funny, but I don’t buy it.” And he kept saying that. He had the whole movie in his head, and you just had to trust him after a while.

What was really cool, too, was how everyone in the cast was so generous with the comedy, even though some of the actors don’t necessarily come from a comedy background. It was a great collaborative effort. There’s a scene at the end of the movie where I get to deliver the final “Screw you” to Alan Alda, where I say, “I’m sorry, Mr. Shaw, but we don’t accept tips at The Tower,” and that makes more sense once you’ve seen the movie. But it’s a great moment, and Casey [Affleck] actually gave me that line. In the script, that line was written for him. He turned to me while we were filming and said, “You know, I think you should say it.” I was like, “That’s a great line, are you sure you want to give it up?” But in his mind, it made more sense for my character to say it. That was a really cool thing for him to do.

Earlier into your career, you did some really strong dramatic work, but in recent years you’ve been killing it in comedies, particularly in Observe & Report, 30 Minutes Or Less, and now Tower Heist. Did comedy come easily to you in the beginning?
No, actually. I’ve tested for I-don’t-know-how-many pilots and I didn’t get any of them. I would always try to go off the top and make it as spontaneous as possible, but acting in sitcoms is such a skill set, and I didn’t have it. I wish I did back when I was younger. But I love comedy. Some of my favorite actors are Gene Wilder and Eddie Murphy back in the day—that’s mainly what me and my brothers watched when we were kids.

Was there a specific moment when you really started feeling comfortable with comedy, as far as acting?
I think for me it’s just a thing where film acting lends itself better to what I do. The kind of things that people appreciate are just easier for me for some reason. For instance, my buddy Danny Masterson can kill it with his timing in a sitcom, where I’m like, “I don’t know how you do that.” It’s a whole different thing.

When I’m working with guys like Eddie Murphy or Will Ferrell [in Everything Must Go], they inspire me, but, for the most part, I want to find my own little gist and find my own way of doing things. So I try not to emulate what they do in any way, if that makes sense. I want to find my own rhythm and style. That’s probably the harder way to approach it, but I think it will pay off in the long run.

You said that Eddie Murphy was one of your favorites as a kid. Was the experience of working with him everything you’d hoped it’d be?
It was weird at first. [Laughs.] I remember sneaking the VHS tape of Raw into my house and hiding it from my parents. My brother would always take my copy of Raw and his own copy of Delirious and constantly tell me, “Don’t tell mom! Don’t tell mom!” And I’m like, “Dude, I’m not gonna tell mom.” We’re watching those VHS tapes and we’re totally cracking up. I literally must have watched Raw and Delirious at least, no lie, 100 times each. I actually have them in my iPad right now—those are both automatic downloads.

Working with him was even better than I ever could have expected. Not only is he a great comedian, but he’s also a bonafide good actor. It was amazing how the film was his idea from the beginning; for someone to see into the future that much, there’s a reason why he’s considered to be such a comedic genius.

I think good comedy is a way to feed off of the future. They say things that you wish you would have said, or you wish you would say at some point. Like, “Oh, that’s how I’d like to do it.” They’re always a step ahead. He was for sure ahead of the curve with Tower Heist, as far as the whole “working class people sticking it to the rich people” angle. That’s amazing to me.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)