Guillermo del Toro’s vibrant animated comedy, “The Book of Life,” is a colorful celebration of life and culture directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez that tells the legend of Manolo (Diego Luna), a conflicted hero and dreamer. Manolo sets off on an epic quest through magical, mythical and wondrous worlds to rescue his one true love, Maria (Zoe Saldana), and defend his village. The fantasy-adventure is filled with originality and brought to life by a talented and eclectic international cast that includes Kate del Castillo, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Ron Perlman and Placido Domingo.
At the film’s recent press day, Castillo, Saldana, Luna, Cube and Perlman talked about how they were drawn to the project by the opportunity to work with del Toro and Gutierrez, the appeal of portraying characters that have a sense of humanity and are not stereotypes, how a film inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead has the potential to turn our relationship with death into something joyous and celebratory that demystifies it, how del Toro supported Gutierrez’s vision, how Saldana has become a strong female role model for a whole new generation of girls, and her upcoming biopic, “Nina,” about legendary jazz and blues singer Nina Simone.
Here’s what they had to say:
QUESTION: Can each of you describe your character?
KATE DEL CASTILLO: La Muerte is this beautiful Catarina that I love and that I didn’t know how to approach to play the first time that they presented it to me because I thought it was going to be a little bit dark. Everything is dark about La Muerte. After listening to Jorge’s (Guiterrez) story, which is amazing and moved me deeply, I understood that it was all about life because La Muerte is pro-life, pro-heart. She’s positive, beautiful, elegant, sexy and funny. I loved La Muerte.
ZOE SALDANA: I play Maria who is this doting daughter that really wants to make her father proud but also wants to find her true voice. She is a very confident and feisty individual who believes in the power of her convictions and also believes in the virtue of her friends. I feel like she just wants to continue to grow and be allowed to be an equal amongst all the men.
DIEGO LUNA: I play Manolo, which is the best character I’ve ever played. I would love to be Manolo, but I am not as romantic. First of all, I don’t play guitar. Now I know I can sing. But Gustavo Santaolalla (the film’s composer) needs to be close. It’s a guy that’s completely in love with Maria from Day One and he’s willing to do everything to make her happy, even if that means letting her go. He will do it. He’s the son of a family of bullfighters, but he doesn’t like bullfighting. He hates the idea of having to kill the bull. He’s fighting to be who he wants to be. It’s through music that he expresses who he is. He has a fantastic friend called Joaquin (Channing Tatum’s character), who’s like a brother to him, but there’s always competition, and they’ll fight for the love of this amazing woman.
ICE CUBE: I play the candle maker. He’s a god. He’s over the Cave of Souls and he’s there making sure that all the souls that are remembered stay lit and keep burning and the flame keeps rolling. He’s so happy to see Manolo because he hasn’t seen anybody for eons. So, he’s impressed and he’s there to help them get through their journey. I’m extremely proud to be a part of this.
RON PERLMAN: I play Xibalba who is a demon. He’s married for a few thousand years now to La Muerte, which is probably his best claim to fame, because she is the best side of him. He presides alternatively over different regions of the netherworld. We find him as this story starts presiding over the Land of the Forgotten. He would much prefer to preside over the Land of the Remembered, but La Muerte has the lock on that. It’s a wager that they make between the two of them that sets the story off, and whoever wins the wager gets to decide where their next reign is going to take place.
Q: Ron, you’ve worked with Guillermo before. How does the dynamic change when it’s voice acting versus the live action you’ve done in the past?
PERLMAN: I don’t have to wear pants. (Laughter) Actually I think I did a couple of movies with Guillermo where I didn’t wear pants before. (Pauses) Oh no, that was different. That was in my early career. You weren’t born yet then.
Q: Ice Cube, are directors always trying to get you to say, “It’s a good day,” and are you okay with that?
CUBE: Always. It’s like every movie I do. I gotta make sure I got all my rap lines ‘cause they want one of them. I’ve said everything in a movie that I’ve said on a record it seems like. It’s something that directors get a kick out of and I have no problem with it. If they want a little Ice Cube flavor, that’s what I’m here for.
Q: It’s so strange you didn’t sing in the film.
CUBE: I was trying to go for that Biz Markie song, but they kicked me off of it. I’m going to sing in Part 2.
Q: You seemed like you had so much fun playing this character. How did you go about finding the voice to play God?
CUBE: He’s not THE God, just a god. I wanted him to be fun, somebody who you wanted to roll with, who you wanted to guide you through the rest of the story. I really wanted him to be an interesting, dynamic, all over the place kind of character. I had a ball doing him. Like I said, I’m available for Part 2. I’m ready!
Q: Zoe, Guillermo said that you went in and just nailed the vocals on the first take. And then, the composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, said that he thinks you should release an album. Is singing something you would like to pursue down the line?
SALDANA: I mean I keep saying that I wouldn’t mind to go platinum in Japan. I really mean it. I sang when I shot “Nina” and I worked vigorously with an amazing voice coach. So, by the time I started doing the sessions for “Guardians” and we got to sing, it had just been a year, so I still remembered all those things. It’s amazing what you discover that you’re able to do once you really put your body and your soul into a skill and you try nothing but to master it. You discover a lot about yourself, that you can actually do something if you put your mind to it. So I realize that I’m not as bad and I’m not as tone deaf as I thought I was and some people would appreciate my shower singing. (Laughs) It was fun.
Q: Diego, were you nervous to sing in the film?
LUNA: I felt very anxious for two months. You always go as an actor, and we all tend to do this, “Yeah, of course I can do it! With a little bit of training I’ll get there.” But then Gustavo showed me the actual songs and they sounded very difficult. But not just that, the other guy that was singing was in front of me saying, “Can you do this?” And the guy has been doing it for years. He’s the producer of albums that I love. So it was very scary. I thought about having to tell my kids that that voice wasn’t my voice and that kept me going. It was like the day my 6 year old would go, “Please sing, sing” at the party. “Please sing something from ‘The Book of Life.’ Dad, come to the school and sing for me.” I’d be like, “No. It’s not me. It’s another guy.” I’d have to hide a guy behind a table. I was going to get caught so…
SALDANA: You might as well just do it, right?
LUNA: Yeah. And also, these songs I love. But the ones he wrote, those are difficult. The Toro one, I still have nightmares. Then we would record and he would keep all of my takes, and ask me to leave the room. And that was like a wait for five hours. They were like, “Oh please, please, please!” And then he would come out like when they choose the Pope, you know. The smoke would come and “Okay, we have a song. You can go!” I would go home and say, “Yeah, five! Okay! One more to go!” That was the process. It was painful, but I loved it.
Q: What was it like working with Guillermo and Jorge? Were both those gentlemen a draw for each of you in wanting to do this film?
SALDANA: You know I have to say, Guillermo was an amazing Godfather for this project and he believed and he fought for Jorge to have his vision. This is a story that basically grew from Jorge and his wife, and Guillermo just needed to support this artist. Every frame of this movie that I see, I see Jorge and I see his big heart and I see the pride that he has in his culture, in his upbringing, how beautiful he saw his life growing up, and how colorful it was. I feel like Guillermo was able to sympathize with that, identify with it greatly, therefore felt a need to fight for Jorge to get his vision to come to life.
LUNA: When we met the first time with Jorge, first Guillermo called me and said, “You have to come to this meeting and you can’t say no.” So I came to the meeting. I believe that’s what a producer is. He represents the audience somehow. He’s the first audience that a director has. It’s the first time someone gets to expose his point of view, and that reaction in fact makes a film be what it is. If you’re thinking of an audience, then you get that kind of producer. Guillermo is like a kid, so I believe every kid on this planet is going to respond to this if Guillermo is so obsessed with it.
Q: The theme of the film is about remembering the dead but living your own life. That’s not something we talk a lot about and often we try to avoid. Was that important to all of you in the film?
CUBE: I thought it was important to get this message across to people who don’t celebrate The Day of The Dead. I thought it was a very comprehensive, educational, and inspirational way to deal with this subject, to be able to talk about this subject with your kids, and it’s just a cool way for us to think about the people that we love that passed before us or even our ancestors that we never met. We can still think about them through stories of others. For me, this is the reason you do movies, to be able to entertain and inspire and teach. So it was to me nothing but an all-around win.
PERLMAN: I come from a culture that doesn’t have anything close to The Day of the Dead, where our relationship with death is more negative, something to be shunned, sometimes to be feared. The first time that I go to Mexico, that’s one of the things that I’m turned onto is this amazing ritual, this pagan ritual that’s probably come down from generations to generations for thousands of year. It turns this relationship with death into something joyous and something celebratory that demystifies it and lends an enthusiasm to it. So it puts this thing that we’re all subject to ultimately into a place that gives it a completely different perspective. The notion of being part of something that turns a completely new culture onto that in the United States and kids that don’t know anything about The Day of the Dead, that’s kind of trippy and beautiful. You feel kind of privileged to be in a position to do that. I was completely blown away and enchanted by the charm of it when I first heard about it. The notion of doing it in a Jorge Gutierrez/Guillermo del Toro movie that is so vibrant and joyous and filled with colors and filled with originality, that’s just mind-blowing and the reason why you aspire to do this job. It’s to be involved in something that has the potential to put life and death into a completely different context.
DEL CASTILLO: It’s a Mexican tradition maybe, but it’s also a universal theme about how we will all get there one day. It’s a way of keeping your family together and not mourning, because it’s a very selfish thing just because we miss them and we want them to stay here. You celebrate by bringing them their favorite food, their favorite drink, their favorite music. In Mexico, we are very much like that. We celebrate out of tragedy. We mock ourselves. I believe that’s a nice part of it.
Q: You have very strong female characters and male characters that have a soft side and aren’t super machista. Was part of the attraction the opportunity to play characters that were different than what you usually see in animated films?
LUNA: It’s not just that, but also the chance to portray characters that are human first, and then are not these stereotypes we are always represented with. I am Mexican. It is a very important film for all of us. You could tell today on the red carpet. There were more people on the red carpet than behind the bars. It’s because we are so happy and it’s a big community wanting this film out that everyone was there to support. We want our stories on the screen. We want to be represented in film. Coming from Mexico, this is the only chance I have to be part of an animated film. The budget of this film is the budget of every movie I’ve done before put together and probably a few more. So it’s an amazing thing to have the chance to do a film that’s going to get everywhere. Obviously, without Guillermo, probably this would have never been done. Guillermo, for those who know him, is very stubborn. It’s difficult to make him change his mind. I’m glad he was so passionate about doing a film about The Day of the Dead and about the celebration of life and our culture. I’m so glad you are here and we’ll see you in a year or two for the second part. Help us tell everyone that this film is cool. It’s going to become an interesting tool for parents also to talk to their kids about the issues that sometimes are difficult.
SALDANA: You deal with friendship. You deal with people trying to find their place and trying to find their own voice, without losing the respect of their peers. You’re dealing with the beauty of a culture that even though we’ve been neighboring since the beginning of time, since the beginning of America – neighboring with but we’ve also been living with – there’s so little things that we know. The Mexican culture is so beautiful. There are 250 different indigenous dialects in Mexico. The fact that they celebrate their family should be nothing but an inspiration for all of us as a universal culture to bring levity to life and immortalize our loved ones. What if eternity is that, if it’s just keeping a memory alive of a loved one? It’s also an educational tool because it’s going to give parents the ability to be able to have that tough conversation with their kids and their younger ones – that even though they understand more than we would want them to, we don’t accept that. It’s difficult for us to communicate with them. But they’re ready. They’re ready to listen. So, by bringing this animated film about death that brings so much peace and purity and color, and it’s kind of detached because it’s almost like about another culture, however, you can identify with them through the loss that you probably share or that you will at some point unfortunately. You get to sort of choose a way to cope with it in a way that doesn’t have to be heavy or burdened by it. Everything about this movie is positive and so enlightening for me.
Q: Zoe, with this character and other characters you’ve played lately, you’ve become a role model to little girls everywhere. A whole generation is going to see one of your characters as somebody to emulate. What does that mean to you?
SALDANA: It means everything. I can only hope to be a part of a world where a woman is equal to a man and has the permission and the right to dream anything that she would want to be, and there is nothing inhibiting her from doing it. I don’t see myself as playing it purposely. I’m playing strong female characters, but I’m playing real women. A woman possesses so many virtues besides just beauty and weakness and vulnerability and sexiness or whatever. Women are everywhere around you – your neighbors, your parents, your friends, your wives, your daughters – and we’re strong. We’re feisty. We’re intimidating. We are challenging. So if I can have a choice in terms of the material that I want to leave behind for girls to pick up, I want to be a mirror to them. This is who you are. Nobody needs to give you the permission. Nobody needs to give you the acceptance. If this is what you see in the mirror, then this is what you should always fight to see and support. And whoever doesn’t do that in your art, you need to use your voice and say, “Actually, that is not an accurate depiction of who I am.” I want to live in a world and in my career as an artist where I won’t be told, “You purposely play strong roles.” No, I’m purposely playing women, because that’s who I am. I don’t know anyone else to be.
Q: Zoe, you’re career has been on fire the last few years. You’re in so many amazing movies. Do you plan on slowing down anytime soon?
SALDANA: Well I might need to slow down to breastfeed. (Laughs) But other than that, the sky is the limit. As long as I wake up every morning with the passion to be an artist, I’m going to continue knocking on doors, beating down barriers, and playing as many roles as I possibly can.
Q: Can you say anything about the Nina Simone role?
SALDANA: We’re working on it and hopefully by Cannes of next year we’ll be walking down that red carpet with “Nina.”
Q: Is it special for you to be able to share this film with your kids one day?
SALDANA: I’ll be cool for them! Do you understand? You’re cool to your kids until they are like 6 or 7. I have an 11-year-old niece and no matter what I do – I can be painted green or whatever – and she still rolls her eyes like, “You don’t know anything about Dr. Who. Go away!” (Laughs)
Q: Having three franchises, does it ever get schizophrenic between them all?
SALDANA: It does at night. (Laughs)