‘Ferdinand’ Director on Why John Cena Was Perfect for Title Role

It was a beautiful, warm morning Sunday, a perfect day to stop and smell the flowers at the Zanuck Theater on the 20th Century Fox lot during the premiere of Fox and Blue Sky’s “Ferdinand,” the tale of a pacifist bull who’d rather smell flowers than fight.

The film was a longtime passion project for director Carlos Saldanha, who worked for more than four years on production alone. He says that being faithful to the message of the classic book upon which the movie is based — about having the courage to be true to who you are no matter what — was his biggest responsibility.

“The message is so big,” he said. “Making sure that every character carried that message, that was my goal. That’s how we expanded the story. But, believe me, it was not easy.”

One thing that was easy, however, was casting John Cena in the title role.

“He looks like Ferdinand, he’s so big and he’s so gentle,” said Saldanha. “When he came into record the first pages, it was like magic. He became the character. He is the character. Once that happens, it’s all good.”

“Blue Sky was looking for someone big with a soft side and they came to seek me out and I said, ‘Of course I want to do it,'” said Cena. “I really enjoy a good story when I read it, and I read this and loved it and wanted to be a part of it,” he said.

“Sense8” star Miguel Ángel Silvestre, who voices the master bullfighter El Primero in “Ferdinand,” also praised the writing. “All the characters are written in such a lovable way, even if they are ambitious,” like El Primero, he said.

It was Silvestre’s first time in a voice acting role and he quickly learned the differences between voice acting and being on camera. “My first day I was keeping it quiet and doing small choices, and the director told me, ‘Let’s get a coffee. We have to go high here!’ So you have to go big,” he explained.

“Ferdinand,” which opens Dec. 15, is the third animated film this year for Gabriel Iglesias, who plays hedgehog Cuatro. He’s also in Pixar’s “Coco” and Sony Pictures Animation’s “The Star.” “All three movies that are out right now, I was doing them all simultaneously, which was really, really cool,” he says. “One day, I’d be at one studio, the other day, I’d be at another one. Sometimes I had to make sure I wasn’t repeating or duplicating a voice. One of them I was allowed to be myself, one I had to really tweak, and one sounds nothing like me.”

“Ferdinand” was the one where he got to be himself and was able to ad lib during recording. “The director basically opened it up,” said Iglesias. “He said, ‘Hey, whatever you can bring to the part, please go ahead.'”

Fox Studios topper Stacey Snider was on hand to introduce the film. After the screening, Cena, Saldanha, Iglesias, and Silvestre joined guests and other cast members, including Anthony Anderson, Gina Rodriguez, Bobby Cannavale, Daveed Diggs, Flula Borg, Boris Kodjoe, and Juanes, for some food truck delicacies.

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