‘Coco’s’ Cast, Filmmakers Talk Politics, Mexican Culture

Aspiring musician Miguel journeys through the Land of the Dead in search of his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz. Miguel meets the popular performer at Ernesto’s annual Día de Muertos party. Featuring Anthony Gonzalez as the voice of Miguel, and Benjamin Bratt as the voice of Ernesto de la Cruz in COCO. ©Disney/Pixar.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—While Disney/Pixar’s “Coco” is a colorful and musical homage to the Mexican annual tradition of celebrating the Day of the Dead, it also arrives in theaters just as a political storm has engulfed the U.S. regarding immigration from South of the Border. In promoting the animated movie, members of the voice cast have seized the opportunity to express their disdain for President Trump’s campaign disparagement of illegal border crossers and his vow to build a wall at the border of U.S. and Mexico.

During a press conference, Gael Garcia Bernal (“The Motorcycle Diaries”), who voices Hector, a resident of the Land of the Dead who helps a living human boy navigate that world in search of his great-grandfather, said he is hopeful the film inspires and builds self-esteem among Latin American children living in the U.S.

“These kids are being born in a moment of huge complete fear, and they have to fight against the lie, and it’s very complicated to argue against the lie,” the Mexican-born actor says. “This film is going to give kids a way to feel confident of where they come from, of where their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents come from, (and) to know that they come from a very sophisticated culture, and they have the possibility to always have access to that hive, to that colmena (hive) of life.”

Adds Mexican-American actor Edward James Olmos, who has a small but pivotal role as a fading inhabitant of the Land of the Dead, “Six years ago, you didn’t know that we’d be politically in the shape that we’re in. Nobody did. Nobody knew that Mexicans were going to be treated like they’ve been treated over the last year. The last two years have been very difficult for us, and it’s hard not to come about and have an attitude. You try to stay strong, knowing that the pendulum has swung one way and it’s going to swing back.”

After audiences see “Coco,” which is about a boy’s discovery of his ancestors, the awareness of and appreciation for the Mexican culture will be raised, he notes.

“People are going to say ‘thank you’ to the Mexican culture for introducing them to a value that they did not know anything about,” he says.

“Coco” tells the story of a Mexican boy named Miguel (voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) who wants to play guitar and sing music but his family won’t let him because of a musician ancestor that disgraced the family. Undeterred, Miguel sneaks away to a music festival and winds up at a cemetery where he is magically transported to the Land of the Dead. To get back to the living, he needs to find his great-grandfather, whom he believes to be a once-famous Mexican guitarist and singer. During his adventure, he meets some interesting and unusual characters among the dead and discovers some surprises about his family tree.

Produced by Darla K. Anderson (“Toy Story 3”), the animated feature is directed by Pixar veteran filmmaker Lee Unkrich, who won the Oscar for Best Animated feature “Toy Story 3,” and first time co-director Adrian Molina (who also co-wrote the screenplay). Joining them at the press conference are Bernal, Olmos, Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt (who plays the famous dead musician Ernesto de la Cruz) and Alanna Ubach (who plays Mama Imelda). Coco is Miguel’s elderly grandmother who lives with his family.

Q: Lee and Darla, what is the origin of this story?

Unkrich: Darla, Adrian and I worked on “Toy Story 3” together.  When we finished that film, I had a few different ideas. One of them was the idea of telling a story set against Dia de los Muertos.  I had always been interested in the tradition, and I spent time doing some research and trying to understand more than I already knew. The more I dug in, the more I learned about how central family is to this celebration, and that Dia de los Muertos is all about this obligation that we have to remember our loved ones and to pass their stories along.

I just really started to see the potential to tell a unique story that could only be told in animation, that could be visually dazzling, but also had the potential to have a real emotional core to it.  That was really kind of the beginning of this journey. We headed down to Mexico and went on the first of what proved to be many lengthy research trips, to spend time learning about the traditions, learning about the culture and spending a lot of time with many beautiful families.

Q: Adrian, having a Mexican background, how does it feel to be co-writing and co-directing this film?

Molina: It has been a pleasure. I started on the film about two years into the production. I had finished the storyboarding on “Monsters University,” and it just one of those ideas that checked off the boxes of so many things that I’ve always wanted to see in a film. It deals so strongly with this idea of family, Miguel and his musical passion and especially the expression of these Mexican traditions. It’s one of those things I felt like I had a lot of experience to bring to it. Just the way we work at Pixar, it’s such a collaborative effort, and to be able to work with all of these actors, all of these musicians, and to really bring to life this culture onscreen was something I was thrilled by.

Q: Miguel, this is your first film. What has been the most memorable experience for you?

Gonzalez: I just really loved the making of it.  I loved being with Lee, Darla and Adrian in the booth, and other people. There was just so much fun, because it was very easy for me because I had the guidance of them. It was like a breeze for me; it was just so much fun doing the voice of Miguel.

Q: While Anthony was recording, at one point he said, “I would like to sing to you.”  If you could please tell that story?

Unkrich:  That was at Anthony’s first audition, when he was 10.  (He’s 13 now.) Thankfully, his voice didn’t start changing until after we finished the movie. At his very first audition, we had him read a bunch of script pages.  And then when we were done, he took out a CD, and he said, “I brought a song I want to sing to you.”  At that point, we didn’t even know if Miguel was going to be singing in the movie, so it wasn’t part of the audition. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a CD player that day, so Anthony, true to his great spirit, said, “I’ll just sing it a cappella,” and he launched into this beautiful 10-minute song.  We were already wowed by his audition, and then that just really sealed the deal.

Q: Miguel meets a very interesting character in the Land of the Dead, Hector, voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal. So, Gael, what was that like for you to be a part of this movie that is so close to Mexican culture?

Bernal: When I got the invitation to meet with Lee, Adrian and Darla and talk about the movie, I remember how already I was so convinced about it, before going into the meeting with them. After the meeting, I was just amazed by the amount of research, the kind of holistic approach that they were trying to do to the Day of the Dead celebration, that they were also putting forth a very personal point of view, which is what makes a movie good. I was willing to jump into that trip and to interpret that point of view. The results have transcended my expectations. I’m really happy for, proud of and lucky to be part of this little fable about a tradition that I hold very dearly. I’m proud as well that Mexico can give this to the world, and everyone in the world can adopt this tradition— this reflection on death, which is a very important thing to do in life.

Q: Benjamin, you voice the character of Ernesto de la Cruz, whom Miguel believes is his great-grandfather. You drew some inspiration from a family member, right?

Bratt: Yeah. The first inspiration you draw from is the image that they create. As actors, we don’t have the benefit of performing with one another.  It’s a very kind of isolating experience to be in a booth, with only three other people in the room, and with Lee (Unkrich) giving you the lines.  Most of what we try to do is create something organic through action and reaction and so with (voiceover), you have to pull from all kinds of other things. I start with the images they created.  And clearly, this guy, even in a skeleton form, he’s got swagger. It’s easy to kind of adopt that idea, principally.  Lee, Adrian and Darla pointed me in the direction of studying some of the movie clips of (Mexican actor/singers) Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. These guys were as beloved and as admired for their singing prowess as they were for their acting chops.  There’s plenty of footage to be found on YouTube, and so I studied that quite a bit.  But beyond that, my own father, who’s now deceased and who I lost touch with many years before he passed on, I lived with him in some very formative years, from 12 to about 17.  Although he was quite a bit different from Ernesto de la Cruz is, he was larger than life—6-foot-three massive frame, broad shoulders and a booming voice, and the kind of person that no matter which room he walked into, he commanded attention, sometimes by saying the wrong things.  But nonetheless, it was the kind of thing that I could draw on because it was familiar to me.  So, in that way, that was kind of like the linchpin for me, with all this other stuff to create someone that not only enjoyed the adulation, but actually used it as his life’s blood.

Q: Edward James Olmos, you have a small but memorable role as the fading dead character, Chicharron. That scene sets up some of the rules of the Land of the Dead. What was that like for you to play that character?

Olmos: When Lee and Darla invited me to come to Pixar, they said they wanted to inform me about (the film), and ask me my opinion about it. They were so incredibly respectful of the material that they were working with that, immediately, it transcended into understanding on my part. When they asked me to play the role, I felt privileged.  It became a real honor because that character is what the story is: if you don’t remember your loved ones, they’re gone.  If you don’t tell the stories of that loved one, they cease to exist. It was that simple.

They didn’t hand me the script. They told me the story, but they never gave me any of the information that the story really projected, other than the fact that this young boy wanted to be a singer, and his family wasn’t supporting him, and he ends up inside of this world (of the dead).  I watched the film at Disney (Studios) the other day. An amazing feeling came across immediately—the quality was superb, the feeling, the music, the sound, everything. The performances were extraordinary. And then my part came in, and I said, “Oh, my God.” I felt emotional for this guy. Chicharron became, within a matter of a minute or two, someone that I could identify with, and then he was gone. I was like Miguel thinking, “Where’d he go?” And the answer that Hector gives was right on.  He said, “Well, nobody’s thinking about him anymore, and so he’s disappeared now; he’s gone.” Then the story started to evolve. By the end, I was in heaving sobs—harsh, heaving sobs. This really became something really profound.

I told Lee and Darla the other day at the premiere, “You have no idea what you’ve done.  You won’t know for 15 or 20 years.”  It’s going to take that long for it to resonate throughout the planet, and really take hold of what art does to people in their subconscious mind. (Audiences) are going to be really moved, especially if you haven’t thought about your parents, your loved ones, in a while. You haven’t been even to maybe the cemetery, where they’re buried now for 20 years, or however long they’ve been away from you. When’s the last time you visited your great-great-grandmother’s burial site? Most of us don’t even know who they are, because the stories weren’t passed on. So, (audiences are) going to walk out after the movie, and they’re going to feel an emptiness, and they’re going to try to fill that emptiness with the knowledge of what they just got. They’re going to investigate and move forward.  That’s why I’m so grateful.

Q: What else do you think audiences will take away from this film?

Olmos: This thing placed us in a very strong position for the future.  People are going to say thank you to the Mexican culture for introducing them to a value that they did not know anything about—the Day of the Dead. The Day of the Dead really represents for many of us a time to celebrate in the memory of and pass the stories on, and celebrate life to its fullest.  So, I am, as Chicharron doing that one scene, (and) it’s one of my proudest moments in the art form.

Q: Lee, you said you weren’t certain that Anthony was going to be singing. When did that factor come into it?

Unkrich: From the very beginning, this was an evolving story. We went down a lot of different paths.  We always knew that Miguel was going to be a musician, that he’d be playing the guitar, but we didn’t know that he was going to be singing, necessarily.  So, at the time that we auditioned Anthony, we weren’t sure of that.  But once we knew he could sing, we tried to take full advantage of his talents.

Q: Anthony, were you thinking about some of your own family members when you sang your songs?

Gonzalez: When I knew that I was going to sing that day in the booth, I would get so excited, because I love to sing, especially these wonderful songs that Adrian Molina, Germaine Franco and other people made. They’re just, they’re just incredible messages.  They send incredible messages, and they’re just incredible lyrics that I love to sing, like “Proud Corazon.” I just love the rhythm, the melody and the lyrics. “Remember Me” is very sentimental. My grandfather passed away when I was six years old, and he was very special to me because he would always support me in my music career. So, every time I would come to sing the songs, it would remind me of him, and it would make me feel like he was there and he was present with me.

Q: For the Latino youth community, what message would you like to take away from the film?

Ubach: It was very important for Pixar to make a movie like this, because they painted such an exquisite portrait of the afterlife. So, when my son is old enough to understand this movie, he can walk away saying, “Mama, I am not afraid of death. I’m not afraid of the afterlife.”  What a beautiful world this would be if the afterlife was like this.  Could you imagine? They really did pay such a respect to the one quality that Latin American families have—the importance of familia. That is something that no president or border or politics can ever break.

Bernal: This film is for the kids, the Latino kids growing in the United States, because in the official narrative, it’s been said that their parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents are rapists, murderers (and) drug traffickers. (After seeing this film), they can come up with new answers to what’s needed in life that we, as humanity, need right now.  This film opens up that discussion, and it is a beautiful reflection on death and the celebration life.