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Talking About Family, Culture And His New Movie Coco With Benjamin Bratt

Thank you to Disney and Pixar Studios for hosting me during the #PixarCocoEvent.

I mentioned earlier this week that I thought it was so much fun to do interviews with the talent from a film the morning after a premiere. A perfect example of that was our interview with Benjamin Bratt, who voices Ernesto de la Cruz in Pixar’s Coco. “I’ve been around the block a little bit and that was probably the most spectacular, most heartwarming, most fun premier I’ve ever been to.” How can you not enjoy talking to someone who is so clearly still carrying over their enthusiasm from the night before?

What struck him most when he finally saw the finished film?

There was a lot about it that affected me, but I think I was most struck by the beauty of the artistry. It’s such a beautiful film to look at. And then when you add that technical expertise to the emotional depth of the film and what it delivers at the end, there’s no other word for it. And powerful. It was a really powerful result.

Was there a moment in the film that made him cry?

A moment? There were a handful of moments. One of my favorite scenes in the film…was that scene with Eddie Olmos, who plays Chicharrón, where it really spells out what it is to finally die, the final death. It’s expository, but it also-it just punches you right in the heart because you realize, oh, wait a second, if we don’t stay connected to where we come from, we don’t remember our antepasados, the people who came before us, that’s it, we’re finally moving on to where? Who knows? But it’s probably not a good place because you not supported by people in the land of the living. And then the song that Gael delivers: raw, simple, emotional, truly moving.

©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Did he know the full story behind his character when he signed on to the project?

That’s a great question because it was probably about two thirds through the movie before I remembered what it is my character does in the end. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but we all know what happens and I was kind of, wait a second. Oh, that’s right. That’s what I signed on for. And in a way, I’m struck by the courage of a group of artisans like Pixar to actually explore these darker themes. I was thinking about it last night and started thinking about Disney movies in general, you can go as far back as Snow White, you know. There’s always this dark element, which probably comes from fables that were designed and written to warn children of the dangers that lurk in darker places. So, we’re still working in those themes, but what I’m most excited about with Coco is it’s finally an opportunity on a global scale to illuminate the beauty of the Latino culture.

Way back when I was first given a tour of the Pixar Studios up in Emeryville, Lee and Darla and Adrian led me into this room that, from floor to ceiling, on every wall, was covered in Mexican iconography, Day of the Dead colors and images, and some of the characters that were drawn, illustrated that they were going to portray in the film. And it affected me in a way that actually kind of surprised me because it was in that moment that I recognized these beautiful brown faces-albeit they’re animated figures-they looked like people I know, the people I come from. And it underscored the fact that that portrayal hasn’t been done yet on this kind of scale. And so, in a way, it reintroduces who we are as a people in our uniqueness but also in our sameness to everyone else in the world whether you’re from China or Africa or Europe or anywhere else in the world. That at the end of the day, for all the uniqueness that we have, and there’s a lot that’s vibrant and authentic and beautiful about Latino culture, we all at the end of the day are more alike than we are different. And this need or sense of wanting to belong to something-to recognize where you come from, to stay connected to the people that paved a path for you before you got here.

Did he draw inspiration from any famous novella actors?

A lot of Pedro Infante, Vicenter Fernandez. You know, the truth is, I had never seen a film with Pedro Infante or Jorge Negrete. I was loosely aware of Vicente Fernandez’s music. But after Lee and Adrian shared with me that those are the people in real life that they were drawing on for this character, I went out to YouTube, of course, and studied a lot of it. And what I realized was that there’s real star power. You know, they were like the Mexican versions of Frank Sinatra. Someone who is as adored for his musical ability as he was for his movie star magnetism. And that doesn’t happen to everyone. Not everyone possesses that set of talent or that particular personal chemistry. You have to create it. And so, I just thought okay, I’ll just try to be larger-than-life. And it’s an even more difficult trick to do it just vocally. Thank God they draw the guy. That’s a good-looking skeleton. His hair was perfect.

Does he think this movie will empower parents to approach the subject of death from a different viewpoint with their children?

I hope so and actually think so. I think people give short shrift to the impact and power of film stories. They really can do a lot to teach young people, whether you want them to or not. And in that, this story views death as a kind of celebration, as a continuation really of what we are and who we are. And it’s not something to be feared but something to realize that it’s part of the natural cycle of life and that you can, in fact, stay connected to the people that you love. I think there’s a hopefulness in that and a kind of comfort, too, I would say. And I already know that and I already feel that and I already believe that as do most of my family members. But seeing the film reminded me last night as my mother now enters into a certain set of years in her life, she would hate for me to name it, that as we edged closer to our moment of mortality that there will be a kind of comfort in knowing that we can stay connected through prayer, through memory, through acknowledgment, even through ofrendas. My hope is that children will see it as a reminder of what already exists, which is just the next step in this cycle of life.

Did he see any of his own Peruvian culture reflected in the film?

I think the general population makes the mistake of seeing Latino culture as monolithic, and we’re not. That said, there is connective tissue there that really makes us understand one another, whether Mexicano, or Peruano or Colombiano, and part of that is the language of course. Part of that is the religion. Very much a part of that is the history of colonization that took place where you mix the indigenous blood with Spanish blood creating a Mestizos race. But a lot of it is easier to identify and relate to. And that’s this notion of family and the importance of staying connected and family first and the little dichos (sayings) that are shared in the kitchen and the importance of food. How there’s a celebration of food for everything, really. The presence and the threat of the chancleta. Any Latino who grew up with an Abuela, who has a mother of a certain age, you know what the chancleta means. So, these are the things that are, for any audience member, easy to identify with but probably hold a special significance and a bit of a wink for Latinos in particular.

One of his character’s famous phrases is “Seize your moment.” What does that mean to him?

“Seize your moment” I interpret as a call to action. I’m a little more pensive before I make a decision and I think I’ve gotten more cautious as I’ve gotten older. But what I can relate to is, and it’s always held particular importance for me, but it is the most important thing in my life right now, and that’s my family. My immediate family, my relationship with my wife and my two children. My daughter Sophia and my son Matteo. They take precedence over all else, even at work, and that’s how I self-identify. If someone says what are you, I don’t even start with man. I say I’m a husband, I’m a father first. And with that kind of clarity, you can really take on any challenge that’s presented to you. But as far as seize your moment goes, if you ask me to jump off a 50-foot cliff I might have done that when I was 25. But now I’ll take a pause and… Do I do this with my shoes on? My shoes off? Do I wear a life jacket? You want to do it with me? We’ll hold hands or should I go solo? For someone like Miguel, it’s the perfect motivator because he’s young and has all this potential, and he has a dream that is burning inside him.

©2017 Disney•Pixar

What was it like to sing in the film?

So, here’s the deal. You know, I acknowledge that I’m a fairly decent actor but I’ve always wanted to be a singer. I just admire singers so much and musicians in general because with singing, your voice is your instrument. And it translates across all language, all cultures because a beautiful voice is a beautiful voice. I don’t possess one when it comes to singing. And I’ve always said I’d give my left big toe to be able to be a balladeer like Marc Anthony. He’s just a phenomenal, powerful singer, and a friend, but someone whose talent I admire immensely. So, when I was offered the role, I thought it was a bit ironic that I was meant to play the most famous singer and musician in Mexican history. I had a little chuckle for myself. And then, of course, I became immediately terrified because Lee and Darla and Adrian wanted me to attempt it. And (under) what better circumstances could I do that? They provided me with Liz Kaplan, who’s the instructor-mentor to the stars in New York. I had several sessions with her. And they just gave me the opportunity to fail. And the first few sessions, I’ll tell you, they were horrible. They were really horrible. But they gave me a shot. I was happy to do it and that it’s in the movie. I recorded every song that it’s in the movie. I’m really proud of it. I chose to seize the moment.

His character sings the song “Remember Me”. How would he like to be remembered?

If I am to be remembered at all I would hope it would be for my kindness or my generosity, for the love that lives in my heart for people that I hold near and dear. And as someone who tried to live his life with integrity. Nothing too deep. Oh, and he’s pretty fun, too. He was a fun guy.

What message would he like to pass on to his children?

To have compassion, to be empathetic, to recognize that wherever you come from, whatever your gender is, whatever your sexual orientation, whatever your religion is, lead with kindness, lead with empathy and lead with love.

Amazing right? Follow along with all of my #PixarCocoEvent coverage for more exclusive interviews and behind the scenes information!

Despite his family’s baffling generations-old ban on music, Miguel (voice of newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt). Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead following a mysterious chain of events. Along the way, he meets charming trickster Hector (voice of Gael García Bernal), and together, they set off on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history. Directed by Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”), co-directed by Adrian Molina (story artist “Monsters University”) and produced by Darla K. Anderson (“Toy Story 3”), Disney•Pixar’s “Coco” opens in U.S. theaters on Nov. 22, 2017.

As The Bunny Hops®