Edward James Olmos on Coco and the connected universe of Battlestar Galactica and Blade Runner

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Nov 21, 2017

2017 has been quite the year for Edward James Olmos. On the small screen, he appeared on Narcos and celebrated the 13th anniversary of the re-imagined SYFY Battlestar Galactica at festivals and conventions. And on the big screen, he reprised the enigmatic role of Gaff in Blade Runner 2049, and this week is a featured voice in Pixar's Coco.

On a recent phone call, he spoke with SYFY WIRE about the importance of appreciating legacy — a main theme in Coco — and the connectivity that runs through some of his favorite projects, including an unexpected tie between Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica.

What was the hook for you in signing onto Coco?

Edward James Olmos: It was the story. They invited me to Pixar and we went there. My part is almost like a cameo, but at the same time, it's one that ends up becoming crucial to understanding the film because it's what makes everybody realize, "Holy crap, I haven't thought about my parents enough, my grandparents or my great-grandparents" and you remember. Then all of sudden you realize, "Wow, this is what happens. They disappear. They're just gone. Their memory is gone, nobody remembers them, nobody talks about them and they're gone. That's it." The only thing that you could ever wish for is that your children and your children's children will continue to talk about you and they'll keep you alive in their minds and hearts. It's very simple.

The film really explains the cultural resonance of The Day of the Dead in a clear way.

Yes. A lot of different cultures have their own ways of celebrating their descendants, their ancestry, their way of living their lives and where they come from. Most people don't know about [the day. They've heard about Day of the Dead but it's almost like Halloween. It's really another kind of a celebration of this life we lead.

How did they pitch the Chicharrón character to you?

They took me on a journey to see Pixar and they showed me the studios and then they told me what they needed me to help them do. I, of course, said, "It would be my pleasure and my honor." This was about a year and a half ago and it took them six years to make the movie, so it was years ago that I did the voice.

When doing voice characters, some studios record the actor solo, and some assemble the cast. What was the dynamic for you?

Totally, totally by myself and the director.

Did they show you images of Chicharrón to get visual context for your vocal approach?

No, I think it's mainly the context of the character, what he represented. He is living with the things that he most needed and cared about. He was actually covered with them, and stood there and he laid there and passed within them, because no one else was thinking about him anymore, and that was it. It was his final moments and he knew it. So, it's really an immensely emotional moment.

While it's a small role did you get a sense of the impact the moment would have in the whole film?

When I went there I never read the entire script. So when I saw the movie I was just [seeing] it as everybody else was [seeing] it. We didn't know the entire story, or the way it was going to be done, which I was so grateful for, because when I sat there I openly wept and went into heaving sobs at the end of the movie.

Coco is also an important film because the platform of a Pixar film means broader representation as many generations of moviegoers will get new insight into Mexican culture, or just see their own culture up on the screen. What does that mean to you as an artist and Latino?

I was asked a question like that last night [at the premiere] and I answered it really quickly and I didn't even have to think about it. I just said, "You know, I just hope that Trump and his family get to see it together." It would be incredible. I'd love to be there when they do. Because they're going to gain something from it and they're going to have to realize that that gain came from the values of the Mexican people and Mexican culture.

The funny part is probably they will never see the movie. They will never be empowered by the thoughts of what comes from seeing pieces of work that actually make you think and make you a better person, you know? When you see Silkwood or when you see, you know, any one of these incredible films that make you stop and think and go, "Oh, my goodness, I'm happy to be alive and I'm happy to experience this." It's like a great book or any piece of creativity that you watch and it inspires you. And this is a very inspirational piece, so if you don't get to see it, well okay, that's fine. Don't watch it. [Laughs] You are what you think, you are what you eat, you are what you do. So, there you go.

It's been a great year for you in terms of your output but also reflecting on the impact of the work you've done in some lasting pieces of storytelling. Have you been able to stop and take it all in?

Yes. I'm very grateful. I live a very privileged life. I've been doing this a long time now and it went by real fast. I'm seventy, but I feel very strong and I feel like I'll be around for at least another twenty. Hopefully, I can make it even longer. But I got to tell you, looking at what has happened throughout my years of being in this industry, it's amazing that I've been able to understand it this way. You know, Battlestar was tremendous. It's the best usage of television I've ever been a part of in my life. I was in The West Wing, I did Miami Vice, NYPD Blue, everything, everything. I've done an awful lot of work in the industry and I've done a lot of incredibly wonderful pieces of storytelling, but nothing like Battlestar.

And then, of course, in Blade Runner became iconic. To this day,  it's still quite an experience. I think that that franchise has just become monumental. They didn't know when they made Blade Runner what it would turn into. And now that they've made the second portion of the continuation of the story, it's amazing what will happen. And it all connects, by the way. I mean, if you ever watch Battlestar Galactica and Blade Runner, when you finish the last moments of Battlestar Galactica you can put in Blade Runner. You go from 2008, which is the ending scene of Battlestar and then Blade Runner starts in 2019.

Wow. Did that come from an actual discussion with the filmmakers, or did you connect the dots?

No, it came by way of understanding the story. Either the creators of Blade Runner 2049 either saw the television series, or they should have because that's exactly what goes on. It's a creation of life through love amongst even the machines. The Cylons in our world were looking for that child and Blade Runner was the same. You realize that that one child was the culmination of two machines. You know because Deckard is a machine and so is Rachel. Because of their love for each other, they created this child that's human. And, course they protect her and put her into this room. They give her everything that she could ever want, but at the same time, she's in that room and sadness of it. It's incredible.

Gaff is only in a small scene in 2049. Do you feel they did him right with the tone of his appearance?

They really caught it. And they understood what they needed of it and it was perfect. You know, they used it exactly how it should have been used. It was very well done. When I leave the little origami piece of the sheep, which goes back to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and there's a little sheep looking at [Joe]. I'm asking him the question as I know that he's a replica, but he doesn't. He thinks he's human now. He thinks he's actually the son of Deckard.

Bringing it back to Coco, Disney and Pixar love to mine their stories for alternate narratives. Any chance we see Chicharrón's backstory in some iteration?

I don't think so. To be honest. I really don't. And, you know, I just think that I'm very fortunate that they asked me to be a part of it.

Coco opens in theaters on November 22. 2017.