Zoe Saldana could get used to this singing thing. She’s been belting out tunes in films so often recently the the “Book of Life” star could even see herself launching another career. “I keep saying that I wouldn’t mind going Platinum in Japan,” she says with a laugh. Hey, you never know.
In “Book of Life,” Saldana gives voice to Maria, the feisty girl at the center of a folklore love triangle between her two childhood pals, bull-fighter and guitar enthusiast Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) and barrel-chested military hero Joaquin (voice by Channing Tatum). Which suitor she chooses will determine the management structure of the underworld as squabbling gods La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) vie for control of the Land of the Remembered. Got all that? Oh, and the narrative is punctuated with mariachi-tinged versions of songs by Radiohead, Mumford and Sons and Biz Markie. Hence the singing.
For Saldana, coming off her long-anticipated Nina Simon biopic and this summer’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” breaking into song didn’t feel so strange. “I sang when I shot ‘Nina’ and I worked vigorously with an amazing voice coach,” she says. “So by the time I started doing the sessions for ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and we got to sing, it had been about a year so I just sort of remembered all those things.”
What she mostly remembered was telling herself it was OK to add another skill to her resume, despite whatever reservations she might have had initially. “It’s amazing what you discover you’re able to do once you really put your body and soul into a skill and you try nothing but to master it,” she says. “You discover a lot about yourself, that you can actually do something if you put your mind to it. I realized that I’m not as bad or as tone deaf as I thought I was and some people would appreciate my shower singing. It was fun.”
The film is also a massive celebration of Mexican culture, envisioned by director Jorge Gutierrez and shepherded by producer Guillermo del Toro. “I have to say that Guillermo was an amazing godfather for this project. He believed and he fought for Jorge to have his vision,” Saldana says. “You are dealing with the beauty of a culture that, even though we’ve been neighbors since the beginning of time — since the beginning of America — there is so little that we know. The Mexican culture is so beautiful.”
As for what is ostensibly a kids’ film focused on coping with death and the idea of the afterlife? Saldana doesn’t think it’s such a crazy idea. “It’s an educational tool. It will give parents the ability to have that tough conversation with their kids,” she insists. “Even though they understand more than we want them to, we don’t accept that and it’s difficult for us to communicate with them, but they’re ready to listen. So by bringing this animated film about death, that brings so much peace and purity and color — it’s kind of detached because it’s about another culture but you can identify with them through the loss that you probably share or you will at some point, unfortunately — you get to choose a way to cope with it in a way that doesn’t have to be heavy or burdened by it.