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How 'Coco' makes new musicians out of actors Gael García Bernal and Benjamin Bratt

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
A moment from Coco. (Image: Disney/Pixar)

Attention, Wikipedia contributors. Please update the respective biographies of actors Gael García Bernal and Benjamin Bratt to include “and musician” among their listed professions.

The two boldest-faced names in the voice cast of Coco, Disney-Pixar’s poignant new love letter to Mexico, Dia de los Muertos, and musica, García Bernal (Y Tu Mamá Tambien, Mozart in the Jungle) and Bratt (Miss Congeniality, Law & Order) count themselves among the least experienced musical performers in the ensemble. That’s even compared to their 13-year-old co-star Anthony Gonzalez, who plays Miguel, the boy who inadvertently crosses over into the Land of the Dead when he strums a few notes off a magical guitar. Gonzalez has been a street performer since age 4.

Gael García Bernal and Benjamin Bratt at the global press conference for Disney-Pixar’s Coco at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. (Photo: Getty Images)

Coco, in fact, marks the first time we’ve heard Bratt, who plays a crucial role as Mexican folk legend Ernesto de la Cruz, sing on screen. “The great irony is I have always wanted to be a singer or talented musician,” Bratt told Yahoo Entertainment. “I could never achieve that dream, though I’ve often said, ‘I’d give my left toe to be a talented balladeer.'”

Bratt got his opportunity when Coco co-directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina recruited him for the role of de la Cruz, introduced in the story not only as Miguel’s idol but the greatest balladeer Mexico has ever known. “When I was first given the chance to take on the role, Lee said, ‘We’d also like you to sing.’ So my initial reaction was one of pure terror. But I’m also up for a challenge. He said, ‘Look, we’re going to provide a huge safety net. We’re going to get you the best training that there is.'”

García Bernal does at least have some limited musical experience: He performed a ranchera-themed cover of Cheap Trick’s ’70s rock hit “I Want You to Want Me,” “Quiero Que Me Quieras,” (complete with a highly entertaining green-screen video) for the soundtrack of his 2008 soccer drama Rudi y Curso.

“I love singing, and I love music, but I am not a musician,” insisted García Bernal, who plays Héctor, the deceased trickster who aids Miguel on his quest through the Land of the Dead and who is eventually revealed to have his own complicated musical history. “I can only sing through a character. … Even in karaoke, I have to be a character. I can’t be myself. I just don’t have a singing voice. … If I was in one of those singing shows where you have to stand up and sing to impress people, I would fail miserably.”

Coco audiences will probably disagree. Bratt and García Bernal own some of the film’s biggest sonic triumphs, beginning with Bratt’s instantly infectious version of the heartbreaking “Remember Me” (which the actor performed live with Gonzalez at D23 in July and which is already an early Oscar favorite for Best Original Song) and continuing with García Bernal’s tender acoustic track “Everyone Knows Juanita,” among other contributions.

Both actors stress they had plenty of assists. Part of the “huge safety net” Bratt mentioned was vocal coach Liz Caplan. “She’s the wizard of all musical voices in New York. She works with all the Broadway stars and other film actors who have to sing on camera,” Bratt said. “And through lots of rehearsal, lots of training, lots of nerves, and lots of tears, we finally arrived at something that was usable. But you know, they’re wizards, so I’m sure there was some aid in there too.”

It also helped that Coco‘s songwriters were Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez, music-and-lyrics maestros who know a thing or two about writing hit songs for animated movies, having penned those ubiquitous numbers from Disney’s 2013 megahit, Frozen. “They were so helpful, they made you feel comfortable,” García Bernal said. “They gave me really interesting tips. They take care of you, and they do it really properly.”

Even if the musical initiations of Bratt and García Bernal don’t connect with moviegoers (fat chance), there’s at least one place Bratt will exercise bragging rights: in his own casa. “What I am quite thrilled about is now my children can no longer say, ‘Dad please don’t sing, you’re not a singer,'” he laughed. “I am now in fact a professional singer, because they paid me to do it.”

Coco is now in theaters. Watch the trailer:

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