Starring in a movie like “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is an adventure Michael Peña couldn’t have imagined possible when he broke into Hollywood more than two decades ago.
Peña remembers the challenges faced by non-Caucasian actors to land prominent roles when he first started out, which is why he’s thrilled to be part of a new, live-action film about Dora the Explorer that features a predominantly Latinx cast.
“There was a thing called ‘the breakdowns,’ which basically gives you a synopsis and a brief description of the characters, and it tells you who they’re looking for,” Peña, who is of Mexican descent, recalled. “The first 10 roles would be ‘Caucasian only’ in bold letters.
“I was like, ‘Man, this is going to be a rough road.’ So the fact that there’s a movie like this now, I didn’t think that it was going to happen in my lifetime,” Peña, 43, said. “I’m just really proud to be part of a movie like this.”
Peña, who plays Dora’s father, Cole, is part of a cast that includes Isabela Moner as the title character, Eva Longoria as her mother and Eugenio Derbez as Alejandro, who joins Dora on her quest to find her missing parents.
Moner’s mother is from Peru. The actress remembers relating to Nickelodeon’s “Dora the Explorer” cartoons growing up because the lead character was multicultural and bilingual like her. She said she’s thrilled to bring a new version of the iconic character to the big screen.
“I feel like people should come support it and be a part of it because you never know when there’s going to be another cast like this, or at least a Latina female lead,” Moner, 18, said.
“Like, that never happens. So I think it’s wonderful, and I think that the movie does a great job of capturing it, too. It doesn’t feel forced. The Spanish parts feel really natural. ... There were no stereotypes. For me, it was just a really fun experience to be able to work with this many Latino actors that I admire.”
Dora is 16 in the movie — about a decade older than she is in the cartoon. The new film centers on Dora moving from her lifelong home in the jungle to a city in Southern California as her explorer parents search for a legendary, gold-filled city in Peru called Parapata.
Dora struggles to adjust to the wild world of high school after moving in with her cousin, Diego, and his family.
“Everyone else has grown up and changed and gone their own ways,” Moner said. “Specifically Diego, he’s already assimilated to society and become one of them and (is) just trying to fit in and be cool, whereas Dora is literally the same. I mean, she is the exact same. That’s where the funny part comes in. I think the challenge for me was bringing that to life.”
Moner aimed to humanize Dora without losing qualities of the upbeat cartoon character that audiences have enjoyed since 2000.
“I took all the pros of her, which is the positivity, charisma and the never-ending love for adventure and other people,” Moner explained.
“In order to bring her to the real world and still make her seem like the animated version of herself, I thought I could give her exaggerated movements and exaggerated facial expressions, like, pull a Jim Carrey or a Will Ferrell with it.”
Dora is pushed back into action after her parents go missing during their exploration for Parapata. Much of the film is set in the jungle and was shot in Australia.
“There wasn’t that much CGI,” Peña said. “Especially in my parts. ... When we were in the jungle, we were in the jungle. Australia has some really beautiful jungles in places, and we actually went exploring.”
Moner believes there’s a lot audiences can take from the older version of her character, too.
“They can learn from her unshakable spirit and her willingness to be herself in every single situation, no matter how difficult it gets,” Moner said.