Edward James Olmos is a legend in Hollywood, with over 110 credits to his name. Most people know him as Commander Adama in the beloved Battlestar Galactica reboot, but his work stretches back almost 50 years. After starting out in television in the 1970s, he achieved great success in genre films such as Blade Runner and Wolfen. His addition to the cast of Miami Vice gave that show the engine it needed to become more than just a flash in the pan, and he parlayed in into a wide variety of acclaimed performances. He earned an Oscar nomination for his role as a dedicated teacher in Stand and Deliver, and returned to his role as Gaff in this year’s Blade Runner 2049. A proud and outspoken member of the Latino community, he returns to his cultural roots with a small but vital role in Pixar’s Coco, opening later this week. He talked about the project during the recent press day for the film.
Question: You have a brief role, but a significant one, because it sort of sets up some of the rules of the Land of the Dead. What was that like for you to play that character?
Edward James Olmos: They invited me to come up to Pixar to inform me about this project, and ask me my opinion about it. They were so incredibly respectful of the material that it immediately transcended into understanding on my part. And when they asked me to play the role, I was privileged. That character is what the story is all about. What the Day of the Dead is all about. If you don’t remember your loved ones, they’re gone. If you don’t tell the stories of that loved one, they cease to exist. And it was that simple.
So when they asked me to do it, I said, “Of course. It’d be my honor.” I didn’t read the script. They didn’t hand me the script. They told me the story, but they never gave me any of the information that the story really projected, other than the fact that this young boy wanted to be a singer, and his family wasn’t supporting him, and he ends up inside of this world. But that was it.
Q: So how was it looking at the completed film at last? These movies take a long time to put together.
EJO: I did my voice work at least two years ago. I didn’t see the film itself until just a few days ago. I saw it, actually, because I had to do press, and how can I do press if I don’t know what I’m talking about? So they had a screening over at Disney. There were maybe two Latinos in the entire room. They were all sitting there, and they’re kind of jaded people, you know, you could tell by body language that they were kind of tired. And then the movie started. An amazing feeling came across immediately. The quality was superb: the feeling, the music, the sound… everything. Then my part came along, and he became, within a matter of a minute-and-a-half to two minutes, someone that I could identify with. Suddenly, he’s a relative, a friend, a person that matters in your life. And then – boom – he’s gone, and the loss hits you like a ton of bricks.
By the time it got to the end, I was in heaving sobs. Harsh, heaving sobs. I am Mexican, full-blooded on everybody’s side; not only am I a person who has been inside of this industry for over 50 years; not only have I really tried to understand myself inside of this art form, but this really became something really profound. And I looked around and the other people were all crying. Everybody was just trying to hold onto it, and wiping their faces, and holding on.
Q: The film really connects to the Day of the Dead in that way?
EJO: I think so. I hope so. My hope is that people who have never thought about their ancestry and their past are going to be moved by the movie. Especially if you haven’t thought about your parents, or you haven’t thought about your loved ones, and you haven’t really gotten into your own family. Most of us don’t even know who they are, because the stories weren’t passed on. That’s why I’m so grateful for this film. We celebrate Halloween and the Day of the Dead kind of gets wrapped up into that. We dress up and we go out, and people think it’s the same. This movie shows what the Day of the Dead really represents for many of us: a time to celebrate in the memory of the people who came before us, and pass the stories on, and celebrate life at its fullest. Doing that one scene, as Chicharron… it’s one of my proudest moments in the art form.