“Whether it be in the US or UK, it’s important to have women in positions of power so we can make fun of them,” says Amy Poehler with a mischievous twinkle that makes you long to see what she would do with Theresa May.
Celebrated in America for her hilarious take on Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live (SNL), Poehler, who left the show in 2008, found herself eclipsed by a fellow actress last year.
“You don’t get to take your political impression with you, and Kate McKinnon has done an amazing job as Hillary,” she says. “That job was very hard. I so don’t miss it.”
After SNL, Poehler spent six years starring in her own TV comedy series, Parks and Recreation, nurturing fledgling talents such as Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt and Aziz Ansari.
When the show ended two years ago, she disappeared below the radar, focusing on her Smart Girls website, setting up projects at her production company, Paper Kite, and raising her two sons, Archie, eight, and Abel, six. Her nine-year marriage to their father, the actor Will Arnett, ended in 2012.
The 45-year-old has recently relocated from New York to Los Angeles, where she lives with lawyer Benjamin Graf and spends a lot of time in the kitchen. “I love Italian food; I’ve been making my own gnocchi. Cooking is a new skill for me. Now I’m in Los Angeles, I have a kitchen. There’s nothing like cooking with a good glass of wine.”
Smart Girls, which she set up with her friend Meredith Walker, has been favourably received as a humorous forum for young women, addressing feminism, civil rights and teen angst without a trace of condescension.
“I don’t really engage in social media, so it was my way of doing that without having to; an attempt to be an antidote for all the garbage and a place for young people to go if they want to feel engaged, to try to figure out what they care about or who they are,” says Poehler.
“As I’ve gotten older, producing behind the scenes and developing other people’s stuff feels like a natural progression. I like collaborating with people, figuring out their ideas and supporting them.”
But Poehler was never going to stay behind the scenes for too long. Now she is co-starring with Will Ferrell in The House, a comedy about a suburban couple who start up a casino in their friend’s basement to help pay for their daughter’s college tuition.
In America, where the cost of a four-year degree at a private university is roughly $180,000 (£140,000), student debt is a very real concern. “I took out a lot of student loans and my parents remortgaged twice to send my brother and me to school,” says Poehler.
“They’re both public-school teachers, education is really important to them, but I remember a lot of late-night hushed conversations about how they were going to pay for school, so this story wasn’t entirely outside my realm.”
She majored in media and communications at Boston College, where she was, in her words, a “floater”. “I’ve always had a lot of different groups of friends, especially when I was much younger and trying to figure out what I wanted to do. So I had my improv friends and my gay roommates and my Irish-Catholic friends who I grew up with, and the English majors who I was thinking about joining. I was all over the place, hedging my bets everywhere.”
After college, she moved to Chicago, where she studied improv at the renowned Second City with future best friend and long-time collaborator Tina Fey, before she co-founded the Upright Citizens Brigade improv group and theatre. “I wish I had some great story to tell you about when I wrote my dad a $1m cheque and said, ‘You’re going to see my name in lights!’”
Success didn’t come instantly. “It was slow. I didn’t grow up with any actors or writers around me, so I didn’t imagine it was a job I could do. In some ways that insulated me from this idea of: am I a funny person who is going to use this comedy to do something? Thankfully there was no YouTube where I could have gotten in front of the camera and been like, ‘Hey you guys!’ What a nightmare.”
So what does it take to make it in comedy? “You have to be really OK with not succeeding for a very long time; you have to be OK with rejection. If you’re looking for instant gratification, it is not the job for you. People think: ‘I want to make people laugh,’ but the job of doing that is a slow process.
“If your goal is to be famous, you may be getting ahead of yourself. Find your voice, try a lot of things to figure out what you like, surround yourself with good people, and – most importantly – have a life to talk about.”
Ferrell and Poehler seem a natural pairing, though they have shared the screen only once before, briefly, 10 years ago, in the ice-skating comedy Blades of Glory.
“Will and I have a similar way of working, and it was fun to play these parents who are grounded in reality and then slowly lose their minds,” she says.
he also appreciated Ferrell’s modesty off screen. “Will is not the kind of guy who is constantly looking for attention or validation, like some other people,” she says, with arched brow. “I don’t like most people; it’s a misconception that I do, so it is good for people to know that,” she laughs.
“When you’re playing big comedic characters, people sometimes expect you to be crazy all the time, which would be a form of mental illness.”
On set, Poehler gave Ferrell a series of nicknames, which she lists now: Flap-Jack, The Captain, Scooter, Scooter-Pooter, Put-put, Mr Softie, Tomahawk Jack.
“I like to give people nicknames, but I don’t have one myself,” she admits, though she spontaneously gave her character the nickname “Pee-on-the-lawn-Kate”, surprising the cast when she went off script and pulled down her pants to urinate on the lawn.
“That was all Amy,” says the director of The House, Andrew Jay Cohen. “She goes: ‘Shall I pee on the lawn?’ You’d be an idiot not to listen. You just get out the way and let her go down the rabbit hole.”