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Gael García Bernal promises his Coco skeleton has a big heart

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Disney/Pixar

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You know the bare necessities…but do you know the bare-bones necessities? Those liberties of the afterlife will be delivered to you with winning optimism this November in Coco by way of Pixar’s next breakout character, Hector, voiced by the celebrated Mexican actor Gael García Bernal.

Coco is a voiceover debut and something of a musical debut, too, for García Bernal, who plays the skeletal Hector, a fast friend and traveling companion of 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez). When the boy is accidentally transported on Día de los Muertos to the Land of the Dead, Hector becomes Miguel’s de facto guide through the delightful and dazzling world of the afterlife.

Marking his first major vocal acting (and, more or less, singing) role, García Bernal was clinched for the cast after impressing the filmmakers with his comedy work on Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle. The actor, meanwhile, was impressed himself by both the film’s story and, specifically, its broad-minded approach to the thousands of iterations of the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos. “Dealing with a tradition that is very generous and very open, you can have many points of view and many takes on that tradition, and I was really curious what type of approach they were going to have, but the one they’re going for is fantastic,” says García Bernal. “The filmmakers have done a really great job in doing a big investigation and an amalgam of different traditions that go on in different parts of Mexico, but also explaining that it’s not about establishing one single way of celebrating the Day of the Dead. There are many ways, and Coco, the way they approach it, is a really beautiful one.”

When audiences first meet Hector, he’s as dearly departed as the others who co-habitate with him in the Land of the Dead, but over the course of the film, this rousing trickster reveals a heart…even if there’s not exactly a heartbeat. “He’s almost like Baloo in The Jungle Book — he’s a confident and fun guy to be with, but at the same time, he’s having a very deep existential problem,” says the actor.

In describing Hector’s narrative arc, García Bernal blends the line between the character’s and his own experiences:

“He’s living an interesting dichotomy in the Land of the Dead. We’re at a turning point where most men want to be close to their kids, and this is something that three generations ago wasn’t incorporated in society. The man was at work, then would enjoy the kids, but it wasn’t like they had that emotional, physical, and practical need to be close to the kids. But now we do experience that — me, as a son, and as a father, I can tell you, you want to be close to your kids. And this is something that the character is going through. Little by little you start to understand the battle he’s been fighting. Finding points of encounter between something you enjoy doing or something that you love, like music, and the time that the family requires. It’s almost like a crisis point. It’s something we’re all finding ways how to make that better. That’s Hector’s spiritual beginning, or his departure point when this film starts.”

Indeed, one word that will accompany much of the conversations surrounding Coco this November is ‘family’ — and the film stands to be among Pixar’s most emotional and resonant because of the way director Lee Unkrich and his team have rooted their adventure in familiar, familial themes. “What’s so fantastic about this movie is that it really taps into interesting critical points of our understanding of our existence as a collective, and one of them is the family aspect,” García Bernal beams. “In general, the family conversation has become incredibly fluid. It can turn into different shapes and forms, and we’re trying to talk about and establish new ways of how a family can be. At the same time, there is something really, really deep inside of this question that family is the foundation of our society. In a sense, we’re questioning the family as a concept and as an end, and that’s something that is really interesting and pushes the audience’s appreciation about these issues.” And maybe tissues, too.

Coco lands in theaters Nov. 22.