Diego Luna On How Day of the Dead Helped Him Cope With the Death of His Mother

With Día de Muertos right around the corner, actor Diego Luna took some time to talk with me about why after all the trick-or-treating is completed on Halloween, families should spend a couple of hours at their local movie theater watching his new animated film The Book of Life, which is inspired by the vibrant Mexican holiday and its traditions. In the film, Luna lends his voice to the character Manolo, a bullfighter and aspiring musician trying to win the heart of his true love Maria while two spirits wager a bet on whether or not he can do it.

During our interview, Luna, who can be seen next year in the new Mel Gibson film Blood Father and who is currently directing his next film Mr. Pig, talked to me about what it’s like to finally be able to share a movie he’s worked on with his kids and why a day like Día de Muertos has always been so important to him. We start off by talking about doing something in a film he never thought he’d do: sing a Radiohead song.

What were your initial thoughts when you found out director Jorge Gutíerrez wanted you to cover Radiohead’s song “Creep” for the film?

[Laughs] I went through many thoughts. First, I thought I was never going to be able to do it. But then there was a part of me that said, “Yeah, you should try it! This is the only chance you’re going to ever get to do it the right way.” I mean, it made complete sense for the film. It was part of what my character needed to say. I was very excited to do it.

Have you ever tried to serenade a girl like that? If so, did it work?

[Laughs] No, I’ve never done that. That’s what is so great about film. You get to do stuff you would never be capable of doing in real life.

Since this is the first animated film of your career, what did your kids think about the movie and hearing your voice coming from this character?

My son is six years old, so he is the right age for The Book of Life. He was really into it. He understands all the themes. It’s great because this is the first time I get to share my work with my kids. Even my four year old [daughter] loved it and watched it from beginning to end. Both of them came with me when I recorded the voice, so they understood the process. This film was perfect to share with them. My daughter now has the doll of Maria and plays with it.

What do you remember about your own Día de Muertos experiences growing up in México? Was that something you grew up celebrating?

Definitely. My mother died when I was two, so Day of the Dead was a good tool to help me handle the absence of my mother. It helped me talk to people about what “dead” is. I think the beautiful thing about [Day of the Dead] is keeping memories. We can keep people around us by not forgetting about them. That idea is useful when you’re trying to explain to a kid what it means to have to say goodbye to someone.

“My mother died when I was two, so Day of the Dead was a good tool to help me handle the absence of my mother.”

Two years old is such a young age to lose your mother. I’m sure you didn’t understand or don’t even remember what was happening during that time. When did you realize your mother was actually gone?

It was throughout my life and realizing that other people had a person like that in their life and I didn’t. It was by talking to those who loved her and by being around them that made it feel like she was still around. In a way, I represented the memory of my mother, too. Those people made it clear to me that she was a great woman. They felt a responsibility for me to experience the presence of her. I was only two years old. I was so little. I don’t remember my mom. It’s only through the memories of others that I get to remember her.

As you got older, was there anything specific you would do for her on Día de Muertos?

We would do an altar and put up flowers and all the stuff she liked. Even today I do it and put up pictures of her. I want my kids to have that experience of having a grandmother from my side [of the family]. I want Day of the Dead to remind them that they come from somewhere.

Although Day of the Dead is a Mexican celebration, do you think Americans understand what makes this holiday so special to Latinos?

Yeah. Death is a very universal subject. We all understand what it means to lose someone and what it means to not have someone around. I love the idea of Day of the Dead and how that idea can be applied anywhere. It’s about celebrating someone.

I think this is one of the only Mexican celebrations that translates over well to the U.S. and keeps the traditions. Cinco de Mayo is usually just a reason for people to party rather than celebrate what the day actually means, no?

Yes, but not just for the states. I think it happens through the whole world. I think people want to be a part of something big like this. It’s a nice way to embrace other cultures and all our differences. It’s a day that even if you don’t celebrate it the same way others do, you can still connect. It’s interesting today how people can connect to other cultures though films. My kids watch Japanese animated films and love them. That’s not something I got the chance to do when I was little.

“Who we are is definitely defined by those people who were here before.”

I know Día de Muertos is a tradition for you and your family, but how much of it do you actually believe in? I mean, it’s a wonderful way to celebrate the memory of someone, but do you also believe that souls of the departed actually come visit their altars on the day and enjoy the gifts left for them?

I do! I mean, it’s a tradition, but none of us really know what is to come [after death]. We can imagine and fantasize about it, but no one knows. But we cannot forget about those who are not here anymore. We cannot forget about where we come from and who we are. Who we are is definitely defined by those people who were here before. It’s a tradition, but it’s also something very powerful that matters to the people who are here now.

What would you hope people left for you on your own altar so you could enjoy in the afterlife?

Pictures of my kids. I’ve never been happier than when I am around my kids, so I would want to see all their pictures.

The Book of Life opened in theaters on October 17, 2014.