Given that Pixar’s Coco takes place on Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), it should come as no surprise that at least some of the movie has to do with the whole concept of life and death. What does it mean for a person to die? Is it when our bodies give out, or is it when the world forgets about us completely?
The film tackles that very question, and a lot of the stakes are set up through Hector’s friend, the short, squat, and grumpy little character name Chicarron, played by the legendary Edward James Olmos.
LRM had a chance to sit down with the actor and discuss with him his part in the film, as well as his own experiences with the Day of the Dead.
Tell us a bit about your character, Chicharron.
Olmos: Oh. I’m very grateful that they gave me the opportunity to play him. To me, the story is about Chicharron. It’s what happens to Chicharron is what the whole story’s about. It’s about not forgetting. If you forget someone, they go away and no one will ever know about them, that they ever lived or, you gotta keep them in your memory, you gotta keep them alive. And how you keep them alive is by just remembering them. And so the Day of the Dead becomes the Mexican way of remembering those that have gone before us … Of our loved ones. Friends, relatives, whoever. And so, you bring them up and you spend time with them in thought, and you tell stories about them, and you eat their foods, and you take them their food and take menudo for my dad. And you just spend time there, sitting around the grave site. And you build the little … alters is what most people build but some of us don’t go that drastic and we just bring candles and flowers and pictures.
We get a little lazy sometimes [Laughs].
Olmos: Well, yeah. Lazy is a good word. That’s a good way of putting it.
Take it your father loved posole then?
Olmos: He loved it. Loved menudo.
Oh I’m sorry, menudo.
Olmos: And posole. Yeah he used to make it, he was a great chef.
So how did you come across the Chicharron role?
Olmos: They called me up and asked me if I’d come down and visit Pixar, the studio. And I said “I’d love to” and they said, “We’d like to talk to you about something.” And I kind of knew because the word was out that they were making the movie Day of the Dead. So I kind of said “well they probably want me to get involved in it in someway,” and they did. Then they told me a little bit about the character and I said it would be my honor, I just didn’t know where it was going, you know, just kind of trust and have faith and I’m very grateful. They did a good job.
In the movie, I know they had like a spirit animal. So what would be your spirit animal?
Olmos: I’m a Pisces so I’d probably be a fish [Laughs].
Olmos: I love dogs. I have a dog. He’s 11 so I have to get ready.
Oh no, don’t talk about that.
Olmos: I know it’s really hard.
Olmos: Yeah. No I’m getting close. I don’t know how big your dog is but if he’s a big dog, then he’s really close. Bigger dogs don’t live as long as small ones do.
Olmos: Do you have a small one?
It’s a corgi.
Olmos: Corgi, that’s good.
Yeah. So she’s kind of medium.
Olmos: Yeah then they’re good. I love those dogs. Sweet.
So tell me about the whole tradition of Día de los Muertos. You mentioned you did for your father something like that. Anyone else that you put in your little alter?
Olmos: Oh yeah, grandparents. But I have them with me all the time. Grandparents, great-grandparents, and my dad.
Are you going to follow that, teach that tradition around the family?
Olmos: To the family, yeah. Basically it’s by spoken stories. I don’t save the storytelling for just the Day of the Dead. That’s just like a given understanding but on that day you personify by constantly telling stories to the kids. That’s the only way to do it. Whenever we’re around grandchildren, “oh your grandpa, when I learned this from your great-grandpa, for you it’s your great-great-grandpa,” and they said this to me, and they showed me this, this is who this is, and you start telling your story.
Can you share a little story about your dad with us?
Olmos: Oh god. Yeah! (Chuckling) It’s amazing. He was always worried about me and so on his death bed the very final thing that he said to me was … he was there and the last thing he turned to me whispering very lightly, it was very difficult to hear and I was close to him and he says, “Son” and I said, “yes dad” and he goes, “get a job.” I said, “don’t worry dad” and I’m crying and I said, “don’t worry dad I will”. ‘Cause he was always worried about me that I never had a job [Laughs].
You have a fascinating job.
Olmos: Never had a 9 to 5 job. And I started off as a young kid being in rock and roll and music and then into theater and then into acting and then into producing and writing and making films. For him that was like I was in a very difficult place. And so that was the final thing that he told me. I said, “I will dad, I will get a job. I promise you.” So I have a job, I mean I have my non-profits that I do and I do, 95% of my work is done with the organizations that I created.
Do you want to tell us a little something about your non-profits?
Olmos: We have the Youth Cinema Project which is part of the Latino Film Institute which is the mother ship of the Latino Public Broadcasting, we’ve done it for 20 years now, creating stories and documentaries for public broadcasting. We’ve had some great ones, and if you’ve never seen that channel you should go online and put in “Latino Public Broadcasting” and you’d be very happy you did. And then there’s the Latino Book and Family Festival which has been going on for about 18, 19 years. Over a million people have attended our festivals, book festivals which we hold them all over the country. Then we have the Latino Literacy Now Project which is a project that gives out awards to authors, Latino authors from all over the world.
We give out over 250 awards per year. To scholars and authors to write books in different genres. Those are the four main ones, Youth Cinema Project, Latino Film Institute, Book and Family Festival and the Latino Literacy Now Program and Latino International Film Festival.
Great. Well you’re really involved. How would you define Pixar magic?
Olmos: Extraordinary. I would define it as being probably one of the strongest animation companies that have ever existed. They’re superb in the way that they construct their pieces. Very unique. Their artistry is very advanced. And they’ve set the standard now for animation. And other companies make animated films and they’re brilliant. Last night they showed one before made by Disney animators and then they showed the Pixar movie, this one Coco, and you saw the distinct difference and like anything else they have their own thumbprint and its unique and one of a kind. Pixar movies are really like Up, and Finding Nemo and Toy Story and Cars, they all have a value that is really wonderful for the whole family not just for children. That’s what’s great. I really appreciate that Disney became partners with Pixar. That’s a very smart thing that they did. Whoever decided to do that, I think was probably [CEO Bob] Iger, deserves a “thank you,” a big one.