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Michael Peña And Jesse Williams Discuss Secret Headquarters And Working With Young Actors - Exclusive Interview

There's nothing quite like taking on a bunch of 12-year-olds as a villain in a new superhero film — which is precisely what Michael Peña (playing Argon) and Jesse Williams (playing Irons) do at the beginning of the Paramount+ film "Secret Headquarters." Sometimes, kids make even better scene partners than adults, which was certainly the case for these actors. There's nothing like a little middle-school-aged competitive rivalry to spark some energy in a scene.

Before joining "Secret Headquarters," Peña enjoyed roles in films such as "American Hustle," "Crash," "Moonfall," "A Wrinkle in Time," and "Ant-Man." He also appeared in the series "Felicity" early in his career. Meanwhile, Williams had roles in films such as "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" and "The Cabin in the Woods." The actor also played Jackson Avery in "Grey's Anatomy" for a whopping 274 episodes. He even appeared in the Demi Lovato music video "Tell Me You Love Me" and the short "Jay-Z: Legacy."

During an exclusive interview with Looper, Michael Peña and Jesse Williams discussed working with Owen Wilson on "Secret Headquarters," how the film's young cast inspired their competitive edge, and where they hope their characters will go if a sequel happens.

This interview contains spoilers for the ending of "Secret Headquarters."

Working with Owen Wilson

You both have a significant amount of screen time with Owen Wilson. What was it like working with him, and what have been some of your favorite moments with him throughout, both on and off the screen?

Michael Peña: The first time, he made such a big entrance. People ask me, "What is Owen Wilson like?" I'm like, "Exactly the way you think he's like." He comes in, he's got such a distinct voice, and you catch yourself watching him, and you're like, "Wow, that's Owen Wilson doing his thing, dude, and he's really good. Wow, this is amazing." I'm a huge fan [of] "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," and those kinds of movies. Going to Topgolf with Owen Wilson, you're like, "What? This is insane. This is awesome."

Jesse Williams: He's a great guy, a really great guy off set, and being able to be on set with him and watch him do his thing, like Michael said, it was one of the "aha" moments: "Oh, wow. We're really doing this — in a cool environment." I wouldn't expect my first time working with Michael Peña or Owen Wilson would be in this style of movie, with this great group of kids where it's such a combo of genres. It all was a pretty, pretty brilliant assembly.

Michael, what was it like going from a superhero sidekick in "Ant-Man" to a full-fledged villain in "Secret Headquarters"? And what are some of the highlights from those gigs?

Peña: It's interesting because it's definitely different. You're still trying to entertain people, but entertain them in a different way. The way he talks to the kids is like if they're annoying you, and they're like, "Stop it, stop it" — that vibe, which is a playful kind of anger. I thought of Martin Shkreli. That's what I thought of. Not necessarily his mannerisms, but the way he comes off. He has a huge button on this self-importance and this complex that you could see. It's clear as day, and justifications come left and right. That's the way that I thought this guy would be.

Kids make the best scene partners

"Secret Headquarters" almost feels like a mashup of "Home Alone," "Spy Kids," and "X-Men." Both of you have a heavy number of scenes with the movie's core group of kids. What was your experience like having so many intense scenes with young actors, and did any of your former projects or other movies in general help inform that direction?

Williams: It was awesome working with them and juggling having to be intense and intimidating to them and making it a safe space. We have to do it in real life, and you're being physical sometimes, and also leaving room for the comic relief, leaving room for the audience, the kids watching the movie, to see themselves in that position and see a way out and think about what they would do. And they put us in a lot of precarious positions. We're chasing them, but they end up turning the tide on us a few times. You [Peña] said your first scene with them was them having you tied up, right?

Peña: Yeah. That was pretty good. And they were really good at being mean to me.

Did they inspire a different direction at any point than you anticipated?

Peña: After that, I was like, "It's on right now. It's on like Donkey Kong, if you want to do it," because the first day, the kid was like, Keith was like, and I was supposed to hold my breath. That's when I was like, "Dude, this is too long, way too long, buddy." And that's [what] set the tone for the remainder of the shoot.

What's in the future for these Secret Headquarters staples?

The following question contains significant spoilers for the ending of "Secret Headquarters."

Where do you hope your characters will go if a sequel happens?

Williams: I want the suit. I want to wear that suit. That scene with these guys fighting at the end was so good. I think Captain Irons wants to get out there and have some action. He misses being active. He was on the shelf for a while.

Peña: Same thing. I'm like, "You want to get out of that?" He's in some other realm in prison, you know what I mean? Hopefully, he finds a way to get out.

To see what happens to Michael Peña's and Jesse Williams' characters at the end of the movie, fans can tune in to "Secret Headquarters," which is now exclusively streaming on Paramount+.

This interview has been edited for clarity.