Being in the film world, I often get asked about classic films, and 99% of the time, the films and entertainers I consider to be icons, are unheard of by American cinephiles. Names like Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Vincente Fernandez, and others, were household names when I was growing up, and those men ruled our screens. So, when I saw the character of ‘Ernesto De La Cruz’ in Pixar’s “Coco”, I knew who he was, and immediately, I knew, that whoever had to give voice to this character, had big shoes to fill. This character had power…and an ego, and he had to have ‘sazón’, as my mom would say, so, who could be more perfect to play him than Benjamin Bratt.
During a recent press day for “Coco”, I got to sit down with Bratt to discuss his role, sharing our Latino culture, and why “Coco” arrives at the perfect time.
Tell me, when you were pitched this project, what was your first reaction?
I was moved. When they first invited me onboard, they gave me a tour of Pixar Studios up in Emeryville, and among a lot of other things they showed me, they led me into this room about this size, maybe twice this size. On every wall from floor to ceiling were images of Dia de Muertos iconography, vibrant colors, photographs of their trips to Oaxaca, all the research they had done, and then, finally, renderings of the characters that they were going to have on the film. They were brown faces with these beautiful brown eyes and dark hair, and I was moved because I realized, in that moment, that on a global scale, these master storytellers were going to reintroduce Latino culture to the world. We know who we are, and we know what our value is, the beauty of our language and our family traditions and our artistic expression, but perhaps the world doesn’t, or what they do know of us, it’s through someone else’s lens.
They’re going to help share our story with the rest of the world, but also underscore the fact that at the end of the day, we’re all people, we’re all from the same species. We’re all the same. We all have the same wants, needs, desires to have this sense of belonging, even if you have a dream to go out and pursue that dream and in the face of succeeding, still having the opportunity to remain connected to who you are and where you come from, and to have pride in it.
I was excited about that, that they were going to create a piece of entertainment that would entertain the world, and illuminate the beauty of who we are as a culture.
Now, I don’t want to divulge too much about your character, but he is very interesting.
To say the least. That’s funny.
Can you talk about who were your major influences in crafting this character?
Well, I was lucky to be given early renderings of what he looked like. It helps, of course … An actor has to always use the script as a roadmap, but that’s very difficult when you’re not using your face and your body in the performance. It’s just a voice in a vacuum, so you have to pull on these other things. The filmmakers showed me images of old, famous actors who were also singers like Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, guys who were the equivalent of Frank Sinatra in their era. As admired and cherished for their singing voices as they were for their performances on film. I went on YouTube and watched a lot of their clips, but I also had to recognize the most basic element of who this is. He’s a larger than life person with real magnetism that was international in reach, and that someone who really enjoys the adulation. He gets off on the attention. That’s a true star. On some level, a foreign desire to me.
I live a more private life. I conduct myself, hopefully, with a little more humility than he does. It was fun to jump into the skin, if you will, of someone who lives out loud like that. I had a father who’s now deceased who, although was quite a different person than Ernesto, was a larger than life persona. He would walk into a room, big 6’3″ frame, booming voice, and command attention. Sometimes he wouldn’t say the right thing, but he would command attention nonetheless. There was a confidence, an effortless confidence in that presentation that I used to draw on. These are people who are unapologetic for their magnetism, for their light. That was the idea I was working with when I was recording the voice.
Speaking more on your voice, was that you singing?
Wow! Where have you been hiding that singing voice?
It’s funny, because that was, well, as excited as I was to sign on to perform the role, I was also terrified at their request to record these songs, because I’ve always wanted to be a singer, and I’ve always been told, and always believed, that I am not a singer. But, I am one who’s always up for a challenge. They provided me with an amazing vocal coach by the name of Liz Kaplan from New York who taught me how to rethink and reorganize my fear of singing. I recorded every song and through a lot of effort and some of their magic, it’s all there in the film, and it’s something I’m actually really proud of. Now, I can hold over my kids, because they tell me, “Dad, don’t sing.” We’re in the car and I’m singing to a Rihanna song, or whatever on the radio, and they’re like, “Dad, please, don’t sing.”
Everybody has a way of celebrating Dia de Muertos in our different countries, they all make up part of the Latino culture. This is very specific to Mexico. Were there any traditions that you learned about that you think now you’re going to share with your children?
It’s funny, because I think the general population sees Latino culture as monolithic, that we’re all the same, that we all have the same traditions. There’s a lot of connective tissue, of course, that does unite us, that does make us very similar to one another, whether it’s the beauty of the language or religious foundation, or certainly the love and the centrality of and the importance of family, and that’s expressed beautifully in the film. However, I didn’t grow up specifically with that kind of celebration. What’s wonderful, having seen the film now again, for only the second time, is that I’m reminded of what my mom taught me from the earliest age, which is you are where you come from.
That’s really the main theme of the film is that you can go out in the world, and on some level, my life has been a little bit like Miguel. I was raised in a traditional family. I had a dream. I had a desire to become an artist. I went out there with a certain level of uncertainty that I would ever achieve my dream, and yet I always had the comfort of knowing who I am and where I come from. That comes from the teachings that my mother handed down to us, the beauty of our culture, the fact that even if I fail or if I fall, my family’s going to pick me up.
Being reminded of that in watching the film, I feel like, on some level, this performance that I render is a dedication to my mother. I’m lucky to still have her with us, but it’s really a celebration of the teachings that she gave us at our earliest age. I hope that she’s moved by it. I think she will be.
Earlier this year, I actually got a chance to talk to your brother (Peter Bratt) about “Dolores”. I know you were a consulting producer on it. Can you talk about what having a film like “Coco” and “Dolores” come out during this very concerning political climate and how you hope both films influence Latinos, in this country in particular?
Yeah, the timing really is interesting for both these film to be released in the climate that we’re all living in. I think both films, although they’re quite different in terms of what their intentions are, they share a similar DNA, which is they both symbolize a hopefulness and a commonality that really speaks to the fact that we’re all in this together. In as much as a lot of the rhetoric out there is divisive and seeks to build walls, and underscores our differences, and even demonizes us as people, both these films go a long way to wiping away those falsehoods and actually celebrate the beauty of who we are as a culture, but also recognizing that we’re really just like anyone else. The great irony, really, if you really think about it is if you even know a little bit about American history, and in particular California history, or southwestern history, is that Latinos in the presence of Latinos in this geographical region, we’re as American as apple pie, as chips and salsa. This was Mexico, where we’re sitting, long before it was America.
I hope both films express that it’s not only okay, but it’s natural to be as American as you are, and still celebrate your cultural origins. It’s a country built on immigrants. Unless you’re of indigenous blood, we all come from somewhere else, and that’s the beauty and the power, really, in what the American society is. The sooner we can all recognize that and get past the rhetoric, the better off we’re all going to be.
“Coco” opens in theaters on November 22nd.