Edward James Olmos has just one scene in the new Pixar animated film Coco, but it’s a crucial one. The beloved veteran actor — whose resume ranges from Detective Gaff in Blade Runner to William Adama in Battlestar Galactica, just to mention two favorites on this site — plays Chicharron, an elder inhabitant of the Land of the Dead who has been all but forgotten by anyone who ever knew him in the Land of the Living. If a spirit in the Land of the Dead is no longer remembered by anyone alive, a sad fate awaits them — a fate that Chicharron is staring in the face when he is visited by 12-year-old Miguel Riviera (Anthony Gonzalez) and the spirit named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who come to Chicharron in hopes of borrowing his now-disused guitar.
“They came to me and they said, ‘Would you mind coming to Pixar?’” says Olmos when we sit down to chat in Los Angeles recently. “’We want to talk to you about something.’ They explained that they had this movie they were making, Day of the Dead (an early title) and I’d heard a little bit about it, but didn’t know anything about the story. They said, ‘We want you to think about if you can help us by creating this character with us.’ Then they told me about the character.
“Of course, it’s the essence of the movie,” he continues. “It’s what happens to our loved ones that we don’t think about them. They’re gone. If you don’t conjure them up, they’re gone. If you don’t tell them your stories, even more so when you’re gone and they’re gone, they’re really gone because you were the only one that knew and you didn’t pass it on.”
The holiday itself that the film is based around, Dia de los Muertos, is “probably the single most effective way of putting remembrance into story and into mythology and into family’s essence of who they are,” says Olmos. “You got to remember your great-great-grandfather came here and this is what he did and if it wasn’t for this and this and this… And then your grandmother did that. You learn these stories and if you don’t pass them on they’re gone. If you don’t think about them while you’re in our state right now, you lose a tremendous sense of who you are.”
As Olmos suggests, Coco is very much about remembering one’s ancestors and making sure their memories live on — even if those memories are sometimes clouded by time and emotion as they are in the movie (to say anymore would get into spoilers). As a Mexican-American and the son of immigrants, Olmos himself has first-hand experience of learning stories from his great-grandparents, with whom he spent a lot of time as a child.
“(That) really was the key to my life,” he affirms. “Parents, amazing sense of understanding, grandparents, more than parents. But great grandparents, when they take you in and they actually tell their stories and you’re around them all the time as little kids, babies and growing up, it’s a whole different world. You’re getting wisdom that you can’t get any other way and you don’t even know it. You don’t know what you’re missing because you’ve never had it. But, those of us who have had it, that have been told stories by their great-grandparents, it makes an amazing difference. Very, very impactive.”
Olmos says that the voices of his great-grandparents come to him a lot, relating a story about how he was walking with his great-grandfather one time and they came to a stop sign on an otherwise empty city street. His great-grandfather advised him gently to use the time waiting at the stop sign to look around for something from nature — a bird, a flower, anything. “Now, when I come to a stop sign at the age of 70, I immediately remember that,” he says. “My grandfather would not have said that to me. My father would have probably said, ‘(A stop sign) means you can’t move forward unless you come to a complete stop.’ Okay, great. I know what a stop sign is. I was going to learn that anyway. The key to the whole thing was that story, that ability to conjure and knowing at that moment that whenever you see one of those you think about nature….you can’t get that wisdom even in this moment.” Olmos adds, “That’s what this story is. That’s what Coco is.”
When we mention to Olmos that we have heard Coco described as a “love letter to Mexico,” he immediately replies, “I feel that it’s a love letter from Mexico to the world. It’s a tradition that has been around us for decades, centuries. Centuries we’ve been celebrating the Day of the Dead. We didn’t have Halloween. But Day of the Dead was an opportunity to thank those that have gone before us and tell stories about them, have a party and have them with you right there. I have first cousins who cremated their parents and have their remains in the house, on the altar with their photographs. Every day you walk by the ashes of your parents and your grandparents and they’re right there.”
It’s ironic that time is a major subject of our interview and yet we’re almost out of it, so we spend our last moments asking Olmos about his involvement with Shane Black’s upcoming reboot, The Predator. “I don’t know that much except for the stuff I shot,” he offers. “I just know that it’s extremely well written and Shane has done a masterful job of creating, in a very dark universe, a very funny movie. He’s got a dark sense of humor and it really works on this level. He got some really good players too. His casting was really amazing. Very honored that he asked me to come on board. It’s very well done.”
Coco is out in theaters this Wednesday (November 22).