“Seize your moment” is a mantra expressed with varying degrees of fervor, sincerity and menace throughout Lee Unkrich’s animated smash hit, “Coco,” and it is a statement that applies to its 13-year-old star, Anthony Gonzalez. His vocal performance of Miguel, the young boy whose dreams of being a musician are repeatedly discouraged by his own family, quickly emerges as the heart of the movie. Not only is Gonzalez a superb and soulful actor, he is also an extraordinary singer, moving audiences to tears with his rendition of the Oscar-nominated tune, “Remember Me.” When Miguel accidentally winds up in the Land of the Dead, he embarks on a search to find his great-great-grandfather, the revered singer-songwriter Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). With his red hoodie and Halloween-style makeup, which he applies to blend in with his deceased relatives, Miguel bears a striking resemblance to Elliott from “E.T.”, a film that—like “Coco”—is all about phoning home.
Having already risen to become the highest-grossing film in the history of Mexico’s box office, “Coco” is a lock to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and its victory will be well-deserved. Along with other massive successes such as “Moana” and “Black Panther,” this picture affirms Disney’s commitment for inclusion, while celebrating Mexican culture in a way that is accessible and engaging for audiences of all ages and backgrounds. There is no question Gonzalez has seized his moment, and he has inspired countless people in the process.
To celebrate “Coco”’s Blu-ray release slated for tomorrow, Gonzalez spoke with RogerEbert.com about his personal singing idols, his method for getting into a scene and why the Day of the Dead holiday has a special meaning for him.
You have a number of impressive credits on your resume in addition to “Coco,” including some great work for Univision.
That’s actually where I learned about acting! My sister auditioned for this show on Univision, where you read books in Spanish every Thursday morning so you can inspire other kids to learn the language. Then my other sister started doing that along with my older brother, and then I started doing it too. We were all on that show reading books in Spanish and one day, a director came and saw us. She told my parents that she thought we’d be great actors, so she gave my mom an agent’s name and phone number and information. We went to him and he was our agent for a long time. That is when I was introduced to acting and I realized it was my passion.
Audiences have been wowed by the fact that you not only performed the speaking voice of Miguel, but also sang all of his songs.
Singing and acting are two things that I’ve been doing since I was four years old. I really love both things and am going to continue doing them for the rest of my life. I’ve never been in a movie or anything film-related where I’ve gotten to sing, so getting the opportunity to sing and act in “Coco” was incredible. I got the chance to do the two things that I love at the same time. The songs in the film are amazing, and performing them was an honor. It was so much fun.
When you act or sing, do you let the emotion guide your performance?
Yes, I really identify with Miguel a lot, so I put myself in his shoes and just think to myself, “What would I do in this situation?” I also remember my family, since there are similarities between Miguel’s family and my own. That really brought the emotion to me.
I heard your mom being interviewed on the radio and she sounds so supportive of you.
She is. As far as similarities between Miguel’s family and own—we both have a passion for music and we both really know the importance of family, the importance of following your dreams and the importance of doing what you love. I loved playing the role of Miguel because he, in the movie, is very resilient and he perseveres. He could’ve just shined shoes for the rest of his life, but he decided to follow his heart and his passion. Because of him doing that, he has served as a leader to many other kids who have a dream. Thankfully, my family has supported me in what I love to do and has always been there for me. I didn’t have the problem that Miguel has.
Did you have an Ernesto de la Cruz in your life that you’ve idolized?
Well, there has been no one like him that turned out to be like Ernesto was at the end. [laughs] But there are many singing idols that I have. People like Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Antonio Aguilar, Pedro Fernández, Vicente Fernández—these are probably all names that many people don’t know, but they are very popular in the music industry. They were people that I grew up listening to and aspiring to be like one day. There are actually some parts in “Coco” where Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete show up, which was so cool.
Did you grow up watching Pixar movies as well?
I watched “Toy Story” a lot. I have the Woody toy, where you pull the string and he says something, and I have a Buzz Lightyear blanket that has my name on it next to a picture of Buzz. “The Incredibles” was amazing, and I can’t wait for “Incredibles 2.” I love all three “Cars” movies, and I honestly love almost all of the Pixar movies. They make you laugh, they make you emotional and they bring back memories.
And on “Coco,” you got to be directed by Lee Unkrich, who won the Oscar for “Toy Story 3.”
I got to work with the people who made the films I love. It was such an honor to work with them—not just Lee, but producer Darla Anderson and co-director Adrian Molina. All three of those people are such an inspiration to me. They are so nice and caring, and were very helpful to me.
How do you go about visualizing a scene in the recording studio?
I would have a script there and then Lee would tell me what’s happening in the scene and how Miguel’s feeling. I would just pretend that it was me and put myself in his shoes. Even though I couldn’t see the cast or perform with them, I had the directors by my side, which was cool. I had to visualize each scene in my mind.
I noticed in the behind the scenes footage that you used your hands a lot when you delivered the dialogue.
Yes! Because even though the film is animated, I find it very helpful to use my facial expressions and my arms. I wasn’t experienced with animating voices before making this film. I was used to doing onscreen acting, but I found that by moving my arms and making facial expressions, I could feel the scene more. I had no idea until afterward that the animators were using a lot of my expressions and body movements and putting them in the movie.
Did you find yourself getting caught up in the emotions of a particular scene?
Oh yeah, singing “Remember Me” was very emotional for me. It reminded me so much of my loved ones and my ancestors.
What importance has the Day of the Dead holiday had for you and your family?
I started celebrating the Day of the Dead when I was six. My grandfather had just passed away and he was very supportive of me. He was always there for me and he told me jokes. He believed that I was going to go far in life. I started celebrating the Day of the Dead so I could be with him again and connect with him again and remember him. It was amazing to be a part of a movie that shows this wonderful celebration to many other people that now know about it and want to start celebrating it. It was amazing to be part of a movie that celebrates Mexican culture and traditions.
As a little kid, I was actually introduced to Mexican culture through a Disney movie, 1944’s “The Three Caballeros.”
I haven’t seen that! There just aren’t a lot of movies that show this wonderful culture. The fact that Disney/Pixar made a movie about it is incredible. There are many other movies about Christmas or Thanksgiving, but there’s not a lot of movies about the universal celebration of the Day of the Dead. It’s been so great to see the love that audiences have had for this movie and its message. I saw a picture of a guy sitting in a theater that had just shown “Coco.” He had a box of kleenex next to him and he was wiping his tears away. [laughs]
The film moves at such a breakneck pace. Were you ever instructed to say your lines at a certain speed?
It would actually be like a conversation. I would be talking with the director and he would be doing the voices of the other characters. He would tell me, “Oh, try it like this,” and he would tell me to say the lines in different ways—slower or faster. He made it very easy for me.
My favorite line in the movie is after a huge event occurs in mere seconds, and a guy wanders into the scene and asks, “What did I miss?”
You know who did the voice of the guy who said, “What did I miss?” That’s actually the director, Lee Unkrich! I didn’t know about that as well, but maybe the fourth or fifth time I saw it, he told me that was his voice, and I was like, “Wow, that’s so funny!”
Have you tried the “Coco” VR game that puts you inside the Land of the Dead?
I have tried it, and it’s just incredible. I wish I could get my hands on one, I want it so much! [laughs] The internet is getting so big and people are inventing so many amazing things and new experiences. I never thought “Coco” would have a VR game, and it was very cool to experience. I remember throwing a paper airplane even though there wasn’t actually anything in my hand. It allows you to be in an entirely different world.
I tried to throw something in the game, and I ended up hurling the controller across the room.
[laughs] That made my day.
What advice would you have for kids your age to get over jitters?
Everyone will clearly be a bit nervous and scared before going onstage. But what I do is just remember that this is my passion. Once I get on the stage and see everyone smiling and looking at me, the joy that it brings to me makes me forget all about my nerves. Before I go out there, I take a deep breath, relax and just know that I’m doing this because I love to do it.