Q&A: Zoe Saldaña, Diego Luna talk 'The Book of Life,' Day of the Dead

The Mexican holiday that honors the dead is the backdrop for the new animated film "The Book of Life."

Stars Zoe Saldaña and Diego Luna say Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, with its grand celebrations and colorful altars, is perfect fodder for a PG-rated film aimed at families. Saldaña knows the tradition from her Dominican roots, and Luna has celebrated the holiday since he was a child in his native Mexico.

In the film, which opens Friday, Luna gives voice to Manolo, a boy who loves to play the guitar but is destined to become a bullfighter like his father and grandfather. Saldaña voices Maria, an independent girl loved by both Manolo and his best friend, the warrior Joaquin (Channing Tatum). On the Day of the Dead, Manolo must travel from his small Mexican village into fantastical worlds — the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten — to discover his true destiny.

Alternately chatting in Spanish and English, Saldaña and Luna sat down recently to talk about Day of the Dead, cultural traditions and finding the courage to sing on camera.


AP: What are your personal experiences with Dia de los Muertos?

Saldaña: I wish Dominicans were more festive in remembering their dead. Every anniversary, you light candles all over the house and they have to be white candles. You get flowers, you go to the cemetery, but nobody really laughs. Everybody's crying, and it's a drama all the time. Your grandma is fainting and you have to grab her... every year.

Luna: It was a tool for my father to talk about this issue, you know? And the film will become a tool for parents to start discussing an issue like this: what absence means and what happens. And also, because it's how to connect — by remembering someone, you make sure they don't completely disappear, their energy stays around. But also, we are going to be here for such a short time ... The idea of we're all going (to die), so why be afraid? It's the only thing we know is going to happen. We can be afraid of what we don't know is going to happen. But if it's going to happen, let's accept it and embrace the idea and celebrate around that idea.

AP: Are the holiday's customs as they appear in the film?

Luna: You do an altar, and on the altar you put what those people liked. I did have to deal with death since I was very young, so I remember my father saying let's put on the altar what your mother liked. It was tequila. She smoked, so there was always a package of cigarettes, and the kind of food she liked. And you put that there, so at night she comes and experiences what she liked from the world you're still living in.

AP: Is there any concern this film might exploit these traditions?

Saldaña: I'm excited that we're going to be able to share an aspect of our culture, as Latinos, that we are excited about, that we really hold dear to us, that we admire within each other. Now that the world will be able to see that, it will give them another layer of knowledge of what the Latino culture encompasses when it comes to their heritage.

Luna: I think that when you're a kid, it's the right moment to talk about diversity, the right moment to know there's something else other than what you know... If there's something that makes you different, that makes you richer, too, and finding out that is important when you're a kid. I think this film celebrates the intelligence of young audiences, and it's exciting.

AP: Diego, you sing throughout the film. How did you find the courage?

Luna: It was painful at the beginning. It's been 34 years of telling myself I wasn't capable of doing it... (Oscar-winning composer) Gustavo (Santaolalla) said let's try, and he said there's tricks, we could get another singer with a very similar voice to yours. But then I thought of the day my kid would say, "Can you sing this dad?" And I'd have to tell him, "No, we were lying, Son. It's not my voice. I'm not capable of doing that." But Gustavo made it fantastic work ... so the moment he said, "You are capable, you can do it!" I said, "perfect." If Gustavo says that, I don't care about anyone else.

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