As we’re sure you’re well of at this point, Coco follows the story of Miguel, a boy with the desire to be a musician. Sadly, generations ago, his great-great-grandfather left his great-great-grandmother Mama Imelda in order to pursue his love of music. He never returned. Mama Imelda swore of music and started a business making shoes.
The only problem is that she swore off music for the entire family, banning music in any form. It’s a tradition that has been strictly followed, and Miguel’s Abuelita is all too ready to reenforce the ban at a moment’s notice. In Coco, Miguel visits the Land of the Dead, and while there, he sees his Mama Imelda, and is able to see firsthand why she hates music so much.
LRM had a chance to speak with Coco actress Alanna Ubach, who plays Mama Imelda in the film. In our discussions, we talk about the character of Mama Imelda, the traditions of Latino culture, and the magic of Pixar.
Tell me about your character.
Ubach: Mama Imelda is the matriarch of the family. She has been denying the fact that music is in their blood, and it takes her this entire journey for her to go through for her to finally realize, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I haven’t embraced this,” and it’s finally time to, because my denial has affected generations. It has affected my great-great grandson.
Was that your actual singing voice in the film?
Ubach: Yes. I sang that. That is my voice. Yes, that was my singing voice. Yes.
I was like, “Wow. That’s really good.”
Ubach: It’s a lot of fun.
It was a surprise, definitely, as a viewer, like, “Whoa, she’s singing.”
Ubach: It sure beats singing in the shower.
So how did you come across this role?
Ubach: How did … It was an audition like every other audition I go out on. It was a role that I really didn’t know much about. I put myself on a tape and I sent it in and then they called me back and then I booked the role. I was flown out to Emeryville to record at the Pixar headquarters and I was given this amazing opportunity to work with Lee [Unkrich] and Darla [Anderson], who their passion is quite infectious, and I’m just honored to be a part of something like this.
Great. And how familiar were you to Día de Muertos before the film?
Ubach: I was quite unfamiliar with it. My mother’s from Mexico, my father’s from Puerto Rico, so the two of their cultures were things that I celebrated. We never celebrated Day of the Dead, so it was a big learning experience for me to do this film, because I really was … I am more knowledgeable about that tradition.
Do you, now that you know about it, have you maybe integrated …
Ubach: It’s very important to incorporate it, yes. I do have a 12-week-old son at home. And as he gets older, I will introduce it to him, and I’m really looking forward to that.
That’s great. Because it also adds memories, right? Together?
Ubach: Yes, it does. Memory es muy importante, sí.
In the film there’s a spirit animal, which your character seems to have.
Ubach: Pepita, yes. Pepita’s my favorite character.
Pepita, outside of Pepita, if you had one to choose, outside of Pepita, what spirit animal would that be?
Ubach: What spirit animal would I be? That’s such a great question. What spirit animal would I be if I could choose anything? Oh, maybe a combination of Jude Law and a dragon.
Oh, wow. That’s a hot one.
Ubach: Yeah. That’s a very sexy spirit animal. Wait, it would be a combination of Madonna, Jude Law and a dragon. That’s it, yeah. Maybe a little Ray Ray thrown in.
Yeah, no limits there.
Ubach: Sure. Yeah, Beyonce.
And as for the film, when it came to like voice, how did you prepare for that?
Ubach: I mimicked a lot of family members growing up. I really did, and I’m really good at crank calling people. So I remember my Tía Flora was a very profound character in my life, she was very profound figure. She is my mother’s great aunt, and so I basically based the character on my Tía Flora. [Putting on a voice] “Yes, she sounded like this,” so …
That’s great. Then that came very natural for you.
Ubach: Yes, it did. Yes, it did.
How would you define Pixar magic, after doing this film, a Pixar film?
Ubach: They nailed it as far as the culture is concerned, the specifics of the culture. These are people that were non-Latins. They are not Latin, and it was so important for Pixar to do a movie like this because it just pays an homage to the one thing that all Latins do share and that is the importance of the family and they prioritize family. And it’s something that people worldwide need to be knowledgeable of.
Ubach: Yes, because our heritage, our culture has been quite challenged lately. So it’s very important for people to now be knowledgeable and aware of who we are.
Is there one tradition growing up, because you said you’re half Mexican, half Puerto Rican, a tradition that growing up that was never left out, it was always celebrated?
Ubach: Menudo. Menudo the day after New Years. It was always about menudo, the day after New Year’s. And I never knew exactly what I was eating in that soup, but it was delicious, and I never got sick growing up as soon as the seasons changed. So, in January my mother would always serve me hot menudo when I was a kid. Instead of chicken soup, when I was sick, it would be menudo. And it was delicious, and she’d throw in a ton of garlic in it, and I think it was the garlic that would cure me within minutes after eating that.
Really? For sickness?
Ubach: Yeah, sure. Very funny.
Oh, wow. That is interesting.
Ubach: Yeah. It is. We all have our quirks.
And do you make it today?
Ubach: I only know it from the can. I couldn’t possibly make it from scratch.
So you’re not passing it on to your child? Like, “Okay, you’re sick. Let’s … “
Ubach: I might. I just … I’m not exactly about to expose the fact that they’re cow entrails in the actual soup itself. I’ll just say, “Just eat it. It’s chicken.”
Ubach: It’s good for you.
Once you kind of know, you’re kind of like second guessing it.
Ubach: It’s chock full of protein. It’s very good for you.
That’s true. Anything else growing up that you can relate … Like, for example, from the movie, Miguel, the traditions that you, growing up, besides your menudo, but an actual holiday?
Ubach: An actual holiday?
Yeah, that you actually celebrated and all of your family.
Ubach: Well, Christmas, of course. And I went to parochial schools growing up and Easter was a very big one, church, and then of course Easter egg hunting and such. Tamales are very important. It seemed very food-based, when it comes to the culture that I was raised in.
So that kind of united you?
Ubach: Sure, absolutely.
Do you have any projects you have coming up?
Ubach: Yes, I do.
I know you have the Bravo series …
I’m a fan of.
Ubach: We’re going into the fourth season of Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, and that’s really exciting. It’s coming out in 2018. Stay tuned. And I’m also about to work on a movie called Gloria starring John Turturro and Julianne Moore.
Oh. What can you say about that?
Ubach: It’s a beautiful film about a woman who is, I believe it is based on a foreign film, and it’s about a woman who decides to give herself a second shot at life in her mid-50s. That’s basically all I can say.
Coco is out now!