Go to any Día de los Muertos celebration, says Coco co-director Adrian Molina, and “you’ll invariably see photos of Frida Kahlo.” The magical-realist painter, who died in 1954 at the age of 47, is even more beloved in Mexico now than she was in her lifetime. It’s not unusual to see her image among the ofrendas, ritual altars dedicated to honoring and remembering the dead. Molina has chosen to honor Kahlo in a different way: by making her a Pixar character.
In Coco, a boy named Miguel takes a journey into the Land of the Dead to find his great-great-grandfather, whom he believes to be a famous singer. An aspiring musician himself, Miguel hopes that by finding his ancestor, he can heal the decades-old rift that caused his family to ban music from their home. Along the way, he has an unexpected encounter with Kahlo, now living as a colorful, skeletal spirit in the Land of the Dead. In a conversation with Yahoo Entertainment, Molina (who co-directed Coco with Lee Unkrich) explained how Kahlo ended up in the film.
“Miguel is on this journey to learn how to use his art to affect the world, so who better for him to encounter than famous Mexican artists and icons and performers?” Molina told Yahoo Entertainment. “And so very high on the list was Frida Kahlo, because she’s this personality and icon unto herself, and she’s very recognizable to international audiences.”
As an artist himself, Molina was excited by the film’s idea that “in the afterlife, we’re free to continue to pursue our art.” With that in mind, the filmmakers asked themselves, “Given all of eternity to create, what would Frida Kahlo be up to now?”
The obvious answer is that she’d be painting. Kahlo’s work during her lifetime consisted mainly of self-portraits, painted in a surrealistic, folkloric style that was all her own. But since the story of Coco revolves around performance, Molina decided to translate the themes and symbols of Kahlo’s art into a stage show, a kind of “living self-portrait.” When Miguel encounters the artist, she’s putting the finishing touches on a performance piece involving a troupe of dancers costumed as Frida, who emerge from a flaming papaya and drink the milky tears of a giant cactus (that is also costumed as Frida). “Is it too obvious?” Kahlo asks Miguel.
It’s a funny scene, but the filmmakers’ respect for Kahlo’s art comes through. “We did a lot of research into Frida’s life and her painting, and what she was trying to express,” said Molina, who homed in on the motifs of fruit, pain, and connection to the Earth. “But also, I loved being able to write it from the angle of a 12-year-old boy, and how much of it is just incomprehensible to him. That lent a little bit of levity to the whole situation.”
When it came time to cast the part, Molina and Unkrich faced a hurdle: No recordings of Kahlo’s voice exist. (Salma Hayek received an Oscar nomination for starring in the 2002 biopic Frida, but because the Coco role wasn’t a lead, Molina said, Pixar didn’t think to approach her.) During auditions for the role of Miguel’s grandmother (played in the film by Renée Victor), the filmmakers discovered Natalia Cordova-Buckley, whose deep, distinctive voice seemed a perfect fit for the iconic artist. “Natalia just had such a soulful quality, this deep well of emotion and being able to channel that intensity,” said Molina, “and at the same time can play the kind of tongue-in-cheek aspect that is appropriate for a Pixar film.”
Little did they know how much the role would mean to Cordova-Buckley. The Mexican-born actress has considered Kahlo a personal hero since she was a young girl, when she was bullied by her classmates for her deep voice (“They said I screamed like Godzilla,” she recalled) and outspoken nature.
“There’s a saying in Spanish — calladita mas bonita — that means ‘You’re prettier when you’re quiet,’ and we’ve all heard it,” Cordova-Buckley told Yahoo Entertainment. “I felt alone a lot of the time, and like being who I was, wasn’t OK. And my father gifted me Frida Kahlo’s diary. I started reading it and realizing that this woman felt exactly like I felt, and her paintings were in museums and her diary was being sold. She just made me realize that being an outcast and a rebel is a good thing and that those are the people who change the world and inspire others, because it takes courage to step out of the norm.”
The actress was well aware that Kahlo’s voice had never been recorded, so for Coco, she put a lot of energy into attempting to channel the voice she heard in her own head when she read Kahlo’s poems and diary entries. “The intensity with which she loved, the intensity with which she felt all her emotions, was beyond what most human beings have,” said Cordova-Buckley. “And so I wanted there to be pride in [the Coco line] ‘And they’re all me,’ sort of saying to the world, ‘I don’t care if you think I’m being egomaniacal — I love myself,’ and you should love yourselves. At the same time, she painted herself to study herself, so there’s humility there.”
Cordova-Buckley also found freedom in the notion that Kahlo could flourish in the Land of the Dead, freed from her troubled body after a lifetime of hardship. “This is Dead Frida. Alive Frida, like all of us, had a lot of doubts and a lot of suffering and a lot of pain,” she said. “And I wanted that to be there, but it’s become wisdom now. After death, she has taken all these experiences and made them into strength and empowerment.”
That said, Cordova-Buckley was never given the full Coco script — only her lines as Kahlo. When she attended the film’s premiere, she was stunned to discover that Miguel’s journey had a deeply personal resonance as well.
“My grandfather was an actor and he got Alzheimer’s when I was really young, so I never really got to tell him that I’m an actress, and that he’s inspired me enormously,” she said. “I’ve always dreamed of that. And then I watched the movie, and that’s what the movie’s about — and I’m voicing the woman who helped me empower my own voice? I mean, I was a ball of tears at that premiere. I couldn’t contain myself. It’s been profoundly significant and special to me to be a part of this film.”
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