Pixar’s newest venture, Lightyear, takes us on a journey through the origin story of the beloved Buzz Lightyear toy we met in 1995’s Toy Story. This is the movie that made Andy want his Buzz Lightyear action figure for his birthday and why lie, it made us want to go out and buy one, too. It had sci-fi action, phenomenal animation, and the lessons we all need to hear at any age that we expect from a Pixar film.
We had a chance to sit down with Efren Ramirez, who voices the Science Engineer Diaz helping Buzz try and perfect a new fuel crystal and complete Buzz’s mission of getting everyone back home to Earth after being marooned on T’Kani Prime.
Ramirez is probably best known for his role as Pedro in the cult classic film from 2004’s Napolean Dynamite, but his career has spanned much further than that one film. He spent some time DJing with his brothers in the late 90s early 2000s which took him around the world, and he’s acted in numerous films and TV series since. “To work as an actor, I represent the character who I’m going to play and you’re like the character’s lawyer. You have to open your open yourself up with such a curious eye,” he said of the process of acting, “One of the most important things is to be humble about it because the minute you make it about yourself that’s where you’ve failed. Acting is not about ego it’s about the curiosity of the character’s purpose and dream of life, and once you start doing that, you live in that world. So some characters are easier to play than others.”
Read on for more about his career, joining the Pixar family, and his time with NASA at the Jet Propulsion Lab and flying in an F-16. Plus, we got a little. nerdy about Star Wars, because why not?
Nerds and Beyond: With Napolean Dynamite you became such a big part of my generation’s childhood/teenage-hood and now you’re a part of my child’s childhood with Lightyear, what’s it mean to you as a performer to span these generations with your work?
Efren Ramirez: Well, I hope I do the best that I can as an artist to interpret these scripts in a way where it feels the vision of what the director and creators of projects envisioned. You don’t want to mess it up, right? That’s the beginning, that’s just creatively. The other part is you never know what the results are going to be for films, so when something like Napoleon Dynamite hits it’s like, really?
It’s cool to know the fact that they’re going to make action figures of you and for generations people are going to know that film, or to be part of a franchise where it becomes the origin of Buzz Lightyear and you’re like, “Dude, I’m hanging out with this guy [showing a Buzz action figure].”
So, I hope it continues on with my lifetime in my career to play all these characters that are part of something that really solidifies something to people’s lives, or where it makes them go, “That was cool.”
Nerds and Beyond: Well, you have it in my house because I still quote Napoleon Dynamite and my daughter quotes Lightyear. But Pixar is a big deal! What did you feel when got the call to become part of the Pixar family?
Efren Ramirez: At some point when I do have children I’ll be able to say, “Yeah, your dad’s in that too.” Pixar has really great films and the stories are very endearing and I know that they wanted to do something that was extremely different. I think this was their very first sort of sci-fi genre to begin with, and I think it’s a great opportunity for all of us.
First of all, they had Chris Evans as Buzz Lightyear. People were kind of debating like, “Wait a minute, what, what’s the idea here? I thought it was Tim Allen,” but again, it’s based on the actual space cadet, not the toy. So, that was their twist with what they wanted us to do. And so once Angus [MacLane], the director, was telling me about who the cast members were I thought, “Wow, that’s cool, I’m a part of it.”
But everybody knows, even as Lightyear is out in theaters, that we all adore Sox. Sox is like the main stock.
Nerds and Beyond: Yeah, I’m not gonna lie. I have one. I have a Sox upstairs and it’s mine. It’s not my kid’s, it’s mine [laughs]. So, what did Diaz get up to in those decades that Buzz was off testing his fuel?
Efren Ramirez: It’s funny because somebody had asked me that, too, about this character. Entertainment Tonight. Diaz led, no matter what, with hope. He had hope, quite like Pedro [from Napolean Dynamite] funny enough. You gotta have hope. Diaz, especially being on a new planet, he’s gonna make something of himself.
It’s funny because Lightyear goes through such a time warp, right? You could see Diaz age throughout the timeline, and I said this, because the way he is a little chunky, he probably is a great cook. I thought, maybe he’s a great cook, got married, had a little Diaz that we never see, maybe two or three, but he’s also an expert on Science Engineering. So he knows the importance of the mission. He knows the importance of the crystals, so just like Buzz Lightyear [he’s] trying to figure out a way on how to merge the crystals together and get the right supplements.
In the end, Sox is the one who solves it because he’s a robot and Sox is pretty dang smart. Throughout the years, whoever continues on the research hopefully prolongs it and understands how things get solved. That’s what helps the story move along.
Nerds and Beyond: Okay, but did he come up with the meat sandwich?
Efren Ramirez: I’m not allowed to say [laughs].
Nerds and Beyond: I know you went to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) to prep for the role, what did you get to learn? And did you get to do any cool experiences?
Efren Ramirez: I thought within a year and a half frame of time, “I don’t really know about science engineering. So let me learn it.” So, I got connected with people over at NASA, over at JPL. Not only that, I also got the experience of spending time with some captains and generals in the Air Force. And I’m telling you that I flew in an F-16! I spent time over at Shaw Air Force Base and I spent time with the pilots and I flew in an F-16.
I spent time with the generals and we talked about flying and we went about seven or eight Gs. I nearly threw up several times [laughs]. Yeah, this is what it is like flying. But also from that, too, I remember having to spend time in JPL. We were talking about the Rovers and about all the things they wanted to do on Mars, and the technology. Being specific, one of the most important things was having to be able to work together. I thought you want to learn about the science and the work and how the little mistakes are what cause big problems, but I had realized as well how everybody works together. Just like when I was in the F-16 fighter, there’s so many people involved but everybody had a specific job to do and everybody helped each other and that was very symbolic, especially when it came to Lightyear.
We all want to find something better for ourselves and better for the other person. And that’s what that film is about and that’s what I discovered and that’s what I want to hold dear to my heart. That’s one of the most important things about life, you get it or you or you miss it.
Nerds and Beyond Nerdy Rapid-fire
What color is your lightsaber? Oh, blue! I just think about Obi-Wan Kenobi. He’s pretty sweet, pretty awesome.
Team Iron Man or Team Cap? Ah, come on, that’s a good one. That’s easy. Team Cap.
Millennium Falcon or USS Enterprise? Come on! I was literally in the Millennium Falcon when I went to Disneyland. I was interviewed in Disneyland and I spent time with Chewbacca, gave him a big hug. He was mad at me because I was hanging out with Kylo Ren. Kylo was like “The force is strong with you.” Millennium Falcon! Han is the coolest space pirate. Look at my Instagram! You’re going to see me dressed up as a space pirate.
The Lord of the Rings Middle-earth or Harry Potter‘s Hogwarts? Middle-earth is kind of cool. I think I’d be the only Latin guy inside Middle-earth like, “Hey, where are my Latinos?” But even Hogwarts … Screw that, let me go Hogwarts and school the Ravenclaws and school the Slytherins and all those guys [laughs].
Okay, one more and I already know your answer. Who shot first? Han or Greedo?
Han. Dude, he knew he knew that this mofo was not having it. Han was like, “This guy’s gonna shoot me.” Then when he was threatening him like that, like what? If I was in Han’s place I’d shoot first, too!
Lightyear is currently playing in theaters! Check out our review of the film!