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Zoe Saldaña says she wants projects like Netflix’s Maya and the Three to be her legacy

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‘I’ve tried to be a part of projects where women were just more complete characters.’

a warrior princess silhouetted by the light of the moon Image: Netflix

The heroes of Netflix’s animated saga Maya and the Three have seen some shit. The epic story, based on Mesoamerican myths and streamlined into a hero’s journey adventure, follows warrior princess Maya (Zoe Saldaña) as she journeys with three legendary warriors to the gates of the Underworld to stop the gods from destroying humanity.

While the series has its share of humor, it handles heavier subject matter, like death and defeat, without flinching or pandering to its young audience. And each of the central characters — Maya and her allies, wizard Rico (Allen Maldonado), archer Chimi (Stephanie Beatriz), and warrior Picchu (Gabriel Iglesias) — have intensely tragic histories. In interviews with Polygon, the voice actors discussed how

[Ed. note: This post contains minor setup spoilers for Maya and the Three.]

chimi crying over a monkey Image: Netflix

“You really get to see who these characters are, and each of them has this incredible backstory. And most of the backstory is based in a lot of loss and shifting dynamics of their families,” says Beatriz. When it came to approaching her character’s emotional moments, she says, “I wanted to be as honest as possible.”

Each character’s past manifests in different ways, and in different acting choices. Chimi, for instance, lost her family when she was young, and as a result, she keeps other people at a distance. She bristles at the idea of teaming up with the heroes. Beatriz says she specifically dropped her voice to a lower register — closer to her character on Brooklyn 99 than her regular voice — in order to portray something “gravelly and grounded and kind of protective,” in a way that might speak to Chimi’s isolation.

Rico, meanwhile, generally is more affable and comedic — close to Maldonado’s actual speaking voice. “It was more a cleaner version of who I am,” he laughs. “I couldn’t curse.” The character is affected by the ways his wild magic shaped his past, but he covers his pain with a lighthearted approach to the world.

rico surrounded by an aura of purple magic Image: Netflix

“I think [the tragedy] gives it the foundation for the funny — that you really understand these characters and understand their hardship in order to find where they find humor,” explains Maldonado. “And so I think if it wasn’t for the dramatic moments, I don’t think the comedic moments would stand out as much.”

Balancing the humor with heavier plot elements proved to be a challenge across the board, but for Iglesias, the difficulty came in the other direction. Known primarily for his more comedic roles, Iglesias portrays a stoic warrior whose generous and moral choices had an unexpectedly tragic impact on his entire family.

“I had to tone [the humor] down completely,” says Iglesias. “I had to go completely in the opposite direction, because this character is just very serious.”

picchu going up against a fearsome warrior Image: Netflix

Creator Jorge R. Gutiérrez says his direction for Iglesias was, “You’re a Mexican Hulk.” Co-creator Sandra Equihua adds, “He’s always known for these goofy characters with very high-pitched voices. Funny, silly. And this gave him the opportunity to scratch that itch for him, that he’s always wanted to portray the strong hero.”

The three legendary warriors set out with Maya, each of them growing from their past tragedies. But Maya, as the central hero, goes on the most dramatic journey — she starts off confident, even a little cocky about her abilities, but when tragedy strikes, she has to reassess herself to defend her kingdom from certain doom. When asked about portraying Maya’s journey and hardships, Saldaña laughs.

“We’re girls, lady!” she says. “This is what we do on a daily basis.”

Maya’s flaws and complexity as a young woman appealed to Saldaña, who saw pieces of herself in the story, as well as aspects of many women she knows.

“She had all these [good] qualities, but also had all these flaws,” she says. “She was filled with self-doubt, but overconfident about who she was and what she wanted to do. And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s me, and that’s her, and that’s my grandma, that’s my neighbor, and that’s my colleague.’ If I dare to allow myself to want to leave a legacy behind with the work that I’ve done in my career, it’s that I’ve tried to be a part of projects where women were just more complete characters.”

Maya and the Three is available on Netflix now.