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One of the sweet surprises in Disney Pixar’s Cars 3 is the strong female characters that help drive the story and give it the emotional gravitas that 2017 demands. While the Cars franchise has always included smart, funny, independent female characters, their roles have often taken a back seat to the male leads. And while Cars 3 is undeniably Lightning McQueen’s movie, he befriends a young trainer named Cruz Ramirez who ends up stealing the show and learning a lot from her new mentor.

“My kids have influenced this movie so much,” explains Director Brian Fee. “I want my daughters to never be afraid to try something because they think they’re not going to be good at it.” One of the things I learned last March while visiting Pixar Animation Studios to take an early look at the film was how much the character of Cruz was influenced by her voice actress, Comedian Cristela Alonzo.

“In eighth grade, my drama teacher forced me to go into theater because he saw something in me and changed my schedule without me knowing and told me that I had something,” the hilarious actress recalls. “I grew up in a boarder town and acting is a million miles away from that. I always thought I was going to end up doing a blue collar job like everybody else in my family and my teachers really taught me that if I wanted to dream, I could go do it, which I think is why I love this movie so much because it has the same theme.”

Prior to talking with Cristela, I had already fallen in love with the character of Cruz Ramirez. When you realize that the comedian is essentially the same person as her character, it requires a tremendous amount of will power not to run up and hug her. “What I like about Cruz is that I think she’s very relatable to both boys and girls in that you might have doubts about things and you don’t know how you’re going to pull something off. And at the end of the day, you realize that the only way to make sure that you do your best is to actually just go for it and trust your instinct. And I think that’s something that we all struggle with at times, the whole idea that you think you can do something and then you have doubts and you realize, forget the doubts, it’s going to happen anyway, lets just try our best and see what happens. I love that about her.”

Kerry Washington from ABC’s Scandal has a role in the film as sports commentator Natalie Certain. “I think it’s fun to see women in this film who are brave and smart and courageous and also teachable. You know, women who balance having extraordinary talent and intellect, but also are humble enough to learn the lessons they have to learn by the end of the film. To learn that you have to step into your greatness or that it’s not as simple as numbers. That heart and passion is the most important thing.”

“I had the treat of watching the film with my mother and my daughter,” Washington continues, “Which was really special to have three generations of women watching this film which is so much about empowerment beyond gender and inclusivity for women. And it was so special because it also really resonated for all three of us. It’s such an honor to be part of something that really embraces everybody’s heart.”

Lightning McQueen’s girlfriend Sally may be absent for most of the film, but she need not worry that her arm candy is working closely with a younger woman. “I think that this movie resets so many relationships on such a strange and unique level,” Alonzo adds. “It’s interesting and refreshing to see a relationship between a boy car and a girl car and they’re not romantic. It’s actually a sincere mentorship because you realize that you can actually help each other and you can have that friendship, you can have that connection.”

While the film has themes of girl power and shattering the glass ceiling, both Cristela and Kerry feel that the story is for everybody, regardless of gender. “We tend to forget that it really is about skill,” Cristela continued. “We don’t really reference that she is a girl, we don’t reference that she is a female driver. We talk about how good she is and we see it in the story. It’s one of those lessons that I think we tend to forget about. It’s not about a boy or a girl doing something, it’s about the best person doing the best that they can. I think it’s such a great way to get a story about female empowerment by reminding everybody that we’re all pretty much alike and we’re all the same and that if you work hard and you have the skill, whoever is the best will win.”

“I think there are a lot of people who feel like an outsider,” adds Kerry. “And I think that because the film is so grounded, no matter what the specifics are about why you feel like an outsider or why you feel like other, or why you feel disenfranchised or unrepresented, no matter what that looks like for you, you can identify with Cruz. So I think it will resonate with all kinds of people.”

Cristela further drives her point home. “We don’t have enough stories about female characters actually in a world with male characters where they get to succeed in a way that isn’t romantic or anything. It’s just being empowered and succeeding. I think it surpasses gender, for me it’s just anybody, any kid that feels disenfranchised, disappointed that they don’t belong, feels like ‘What’s the point?’ This is the story for them. For me, this is a story about hope and we need more stories like that because the kids are the ones that grow up and they’re the ones that take over the country.”

If you see Cars 3 and end up absolutely obsessed with Cruz Ramirez like I am, then I leave you with one more source of inspiration from her voice actress and human counterpart. During the press conference, a particularly chilling moment occurred when a reporter from The Monitor, the newspaper of Cristela’s hometown in McAllen, Texas, asked her what message she has for the kids in her community.

“People don’t know this, but the area that I grew up with is called the Rio Grande Valley. The people when I was there lived well below poverty. I like this movie a lot because I feel it’s a good way to tell kids that they matter. I think that growing up… when you come from a family that doesn’t have a lot, a lot of the time the parents forget to tell the kids that they matter because we’re too busy trying to survive. And I want them to know back home, because my brothers still live there and I visit there often, I want people down there to know that it’s possible to have a dream and actually achieve it. Because every day I wake up so grateful that I have the opportunity that I have and it came from living in an area where everyone is so warm, kind and loving that I want them to know that every day and every opportunity that I do, I carry that area with me because I know it’s such a rarity. And I just love the chance that I get to do that not only for my family, but also everybody there in my hometown.” I’m certain that Cristela makes McAllen proud and I can’t wait to see where she and Cruz Ramirez go next.

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