Benjamin Bratt on Playing Ernesto De La Cruz in Coco

Benjamin Bratt on Playing Ernesto de la Cruz in Coco

We chat with Benjamin Bratt about his character in Disney•Pixar’s Coco

In Disney•Pixar‘s new film Coco, young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) sets off on a search for his great great uncle Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) in the land of the dead to get his blessing for his love of music. We got a chance to chat with Bratt at the Coco press day in Hollywood. Bratt discussed with us his feelings about the film, getting a chance to sing for the first time, and how that will bug his kids and more. Check out our interview with Benjamin Bratt below. Coco will hit theaters this Thanksgiving. How much did you cry during this movie? This one hit me worse than Up did.

Benjamin Bratt: [laughs] It’s funny because last night was the first time I had seen the film completed. I saw several months ago now, a version that was two-thirds animated. They explained it before I watched it, incomplete animation, substitutions, stick figures, just charcoal drawings. Even with that, it packed an emotional wallop. Seeing the completed version last night with a full house, it was quite an emotional experience. It’s the perfect movie, really if your intent is to watch something that makes you laugh and makes you cry. I know that sounds like a marketing pitch, but this movie is so celebratory of having a dream and setting off to achieve that dream, but also, at the same time, celebrating the uniqueness of Latino culture, in this case, Mexican culture and iconography. And even in this exploration of death, providing a kind of hopefulness for what that might look like. 

CS: For people who haven’t seen the film yet, tell us a little about Ernesto de la Cruz.

Benjamin Bratt: Ernesto de la Cruz is widely known as the most famous singer and musician in all of Mexico. He’s dead now, [laughs] and likely more popular in the land of the dead than he ever was in the land of the living, and he had international stardom before he met an untimely death. He’s someone who is a larger-than-life person. He had natural magnetism and a whole lot of swagger. The filmmakers pointed me in the right direction by suggesting that I watch old film clips of equivalent stars from Mexican cinema like Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante, who make a brief cameo appearance as skeletons in the film. Guys who were as popular and as talented as Frank Sinatra in their day. Gentlemen who were as well known for their beautiful singing ability as they were for their star-making roles in films. So this is a guy who, within the story of the film, who thrives on the adulation and attention that he gets. He’s a true star in that sense. Before we learn more about him and how complex he actually is, it’s fun to kind of watch him run the room, if you will.

CS: Did you base your performance on anyone?

Benjamin Bratt: Other than watching a lot of YouTube video clips on those guys, and what’s provided to us in the page, which is the initial road map any actor uses for coming up with a portrayal, I thought a lot about my own father, who was a completely different person from Ernesto de la Cruz, but someone who shared a similar animal magnetism, if you will, in his own life. My father was 6’3″ with a broad shoulders and a booming voice and although not as sophisticated as those guys, someone who walked into a room and just commanded attention, and just had swagger and confidence. I was exposed to that more once I entered my preteen phase. I moved in with him and I learned a lot from him. So, in a way, it’s kind of a tribute to my memory of him and my time with him. And I think he would have been proud.

CS: Can you talk a bit about the experience of doing voice work for Pixar?

Benjamin Bratt: That’s the big secret about animated movies that most people probably don’t realize; there is zero interaction with other actors. We don’t record our performances together at all. In fact, it’s quite a isolating experience, because it’s typically just you, the actor in a booth with a microphone or two and earphones, and the director who is reading the off-camera lines. Lee is great that way. Lee Unkrich and Adrian [Molina], but Lee loves to read the off-camera lines. He loves to perform with us. [laughs] It’s a lot of fun. It’s actually, I think, a bit more difficult to succeed at creating a believable performance or an entertaining performance because the other two things that we rely on as performers, our body and our facial expressions in creating a character, they’re eliminated. You’re solely relying on this instrument, your voice. So the good news there is that you have the opportunity to do take after take and you’ll do any given line some fifty different ways. From that collection of recordings, the directors will choose the performance they like and cobble the story around that. It’s a pretty fascinating process but a kind of lonely one.

CS: So Gael [Garcia Bernal] told me that he was relieved that you were also nervous to sing for the film. 

Benjamin Bratt: [laughs] Is that right?

CS: Yup! Were you?

Benjamin Bratt: Yeah, completely! First of all, he sounds beautiful in the film! His two songs are really beautifully rendered. Yeah, I was terrified. The truth is, I have zero singing background. I’ve had a long-held desire to be a singer, but never believed that I had the ability to do so. I am also someone who loves a challenge, so this was an opportunity in what was ultimately a very safe environment. They provided me with a vocal coach, one of the best in New York, a woman by the name of Liz Caplan, and she was just so wonderful. I call her kind of a wizard because she has all these subtle tricks to not only give you a sense of confidence, but to put you at ease so you can access parts of your voice, this instrument, to a point where you can play notes you’ve never played before. And that’s really how I sort of approached it and she was really helpful that way. That didn’t make it any less daunting. It was terrifying, but they’re magicians, as we know. They’re master storytellers on every level and so I’m sure they helped me out quite a bit.

CS: It’s strange to think that you’re not a singer. The sound was supported and well-produced…

Benjamin Bratt: [laughs] Talk to my children. If I try to sing in the car, to the radio, without variation, “Dad, please don’t sing. You’re not a singer.” But now I can lord it over them and say, look, I’m actually a professional singer. It’s indisputable. I’m in a movie, singing “Remember Me.” So there!

Are you guys excited for Coco? Let us know in the comments and stay tuned to for more interviews with the cast!


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