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Actors rise to the new challenges that came with ‘Coco’

Miguel (voice of newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like the celebrated Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt) in the Disney Pixar film, "Coco."
Miguel (voice of newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like the celebrated Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt) in the Disney Pixar film, "Coco."

LOS ANGELES – Benjamin Bratt and Gael Garcia Bernal provide the voices for two male adult characters in “Coco” who prove to be the most instrumental in the efforts by a young boy to find his way back to the land of the living. In keeping with the main theme of the new Pixar film, both actors “seized the moment” to do something very different.

In “Coco,” Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) takes the guitar of famed musician/actor Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt) from his place of rest on the Day of the Dead and is immediately transported into the afterlife. Miguel needs de la Cruz to help return home. Helping in contacting de la Cruz comes from the good-hearted Hector (Bernal).

The challenge Bratt had to face was the role required him to sing. The San Francisco native has been acting in TV and films for almost a quarter of a century, including numerous jobs as a voice actor. No job required him to belt out a tune until de la Cruz came along.

“Having to sing was one of the great joys and the great terrors of taking on this role,” Bratt says. “The truth is I have long held the desire to be a singer. On the current series I am doing for Fox called ‘Star,’ nearly everyone in the main cast – except for me – can not only sing but they can belt. They have real pipes.

“When I was presented with the opportunity to sing in ‘Coco,’ I told them I would give it a try. I am up for nothing if not a challenge.”

Bratt praises the team behind “Coco” for being so gracious and patient with him as he faced the music. Much of his assistance came from Liz Caplan, who coaches both Broadway and film actors to help them find their singing voices.

It wasn’t just enough Bratt would be able to be able to provide the singing voice of the character but also needed to be able to get across – using only his voice — that de la Cruz had the kind of charm that would make him a singer so beloved that the admiration for him continues generations after his death. Part of finding that tone came from his father.

“He was blessed with a natural magnetism, the kind of physical presence that when he would walk into a room he would immediately attract attention,” Bratt says. “I had that DNA in me to call upon.”

A big part of the character came from a suggestion by “Coco” directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. They had Bratt look at the lives and careers of Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, who in their day were the equivalent of Frank Sinatra. What Bratt observed as he watched footage of the Mexican superstars was how suave, debonair and talented they were.

The last bit of the puzzle in playing de la Cruz sprung from another television role by Bratt. His recurring character of Javier Delgado on “Modern Family” is a little bit of a con man and borrowing a portion of that became the final piece to playing de la Cruz.

All that was left was to get across all of those qualities – while also doing the singing – with only his voice.

“I think the well-guarded secret about animated performances is that they happen in a vacuum and they are quite difficult to render because you are never on a soundstage with other performers. It’s just you and the director,” Bratt says. “This is a very meticulous process where you can do the same line 40 or 50 ways.

“It’s exacting work especially because you don’t have the use of your face or your body. You are trying to pull a full-blooded performance out of the air.”

At least Bratt had worked on the animated projects “Despicable Me 2” and “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” before “Coco.” For Bernal, “Coco” has been his introduction into this unique way of acting. His credits are of the live-action variety including the feature film “The Motorcycle Diaries” and the TV series “Mozart in the Jungle.”

He knew doing the voice work would be a challenge, but Bernal sees every acting job as testing his abilities. Once he walked into the recording studio, Bernal found the process to be exciting and a way to satisfying his curiosity about the animation process.

“There is a way of rigor, a specific way to work, with animation,” Bernal says. “Each film has its own particular necessities. Each character has its own particular necessities. When I was invited to do it, they were very good in incorporating me into the way they do things and how they wanted to do this.

“It was all a thorough process. It wasn’t a scary process. I was just excited.”

Just like Bratt, Bernal’s role as Hector required him to show off his singing abilities. And, just like Bratt, Bernal has never had any formal musical training. The Guadalajara native started acting when he was 11 on the TV series “Teresa” and has been working steadily since then.

Instead of worrying about the musical aspects, Bernal focused on the work he would have to do bringing the complicated character to life. Hector starts out looking like a small time hustler but as the film goes on, there is a very sensitive side revealed. And, all of this is mixed with a comical element.

“It’s a privilege to play a complex character like this,” Bernal says. “I liked everything that goes on with the character and everything that is not being said. That’s just like music. Sometimes the silences between notes are something that is part of the music.

“It is a very full character. It has transcended all my expectations. It’s impressive.”

And in the process of making the film, both Bratt and Bernal got to face and conquer new challenges.

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