First came the interview with Adam Scott. Then came the one with Nick Offerman. Now in Celebritology, we have the woman of the hour: Amy Poehler, a.k.a. Leslie Knope, the city council candidate who debated Bobby Newport in last night’s episode of “Parks and Recreation” and made us all tear up when she said, “If I seem too passionate, it’s because I care.”
A few weeks ago, while working on this Style piece on “Parks and Rec,” I spent a few minutes talking with Poehler about the show, her character’s politics and how her views and Leslie Knope’s overlap. (“I’m a lot lazier, than she is,” she conceded.)
Here’s a transcript of that phone conversation.
Later today in Celebritology: some behind-the-scenes views from the set of “Parks and Rec.”
Do you have a sense of what Leslie Knope’s political affiliation is?
Poehler: It’s funny, you know, because they write her as a pretty complex person. Because Leslie — you would think that initially Leslie would be kind of East Coast liberal Democrat. But she also lives in Indiana and, you know, hunts and kind of comes from a Midwestern background. She has some kind of conservative tendencies. We laugh because Ron represents genuine libertarianism and sometimes conservative views and Leslie sometimes represents the more, you could say, maybe politically somewhat Democratic.
The show is about the fact that there’s a lot of people who work together who have nothing in common except for the fact that they work together, That really describes, to me, national politics. People who have nothing in common except for the fact that they work together and have to find a way to work together and make change happen. Some people get in the way of change happening. Some people spend their whole careers thinking they can make a difference. Other people want to do as little as possible to get the day done. In that way, I think that small microcosm of the parks department kind of represents the larger entity as a whole.
I’m glad you said that because it plays right into the thesis of the article I’m writing.
Poehler: If I can prove your thesis then my job here is done.
Admittedly it’s a somewhat ridiculous thesis but the idea is that if you could take the ethos of the show and turn it into a political candidate, I believe that candidate would be elected.
Poehler: Oh, cool.
Because it represents multiple viewpoints and the idea that most people dislike the politics of politics. And as you said, the show is apolitical.
Poehler: Yeah, you’re right. Also, I’ve said this before, but most people’s experience with government is on a micro-level. It’s not on a macro-level. The press is so obsessed with our macro-government, with our presidential elections, with our, you know, our personality clashes between senators. But our day-to-day involvement with government is our local city council. What’s going to happen with our schools? Do people think their curbs are too high on their sidewalks? How is the DMV being run?
The day-to-day stuff is your local assemblymen and city council members, city managers. When you get to that level there are a lot of different people working together that have very different views and find a way to do it. So that kind of Midwestern, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work kind of attitude — I certainly think it’s fun to play the comedy of all of that.
I’d like to think our show is at the end of the day, a character comedy about friendships. The politics are just about, what do you want to do in your work? You know, what do you want to say in your work, what’s important to you in your work? All the characters in the show represent different things.
Ron represents the ultimate American pre-man who believes income tax is illegal and that you should be able to buy a gun in an hour. And the character of Tom, Aziz’s stuff, is all about, what’s important is what people see, your image — what you present to the world is the most important thing. Who cares about your ideas? You know. So it’s been fun to kind of play against.
Leslie Knope is the child of ”Yes We Can,” you know. She’s the person who believes that, no matter how much power you have, you can make a difference, you can contribute, you can change things. Her kind of blind spot is how slow and hard it is. How slow change happens.
What you just said about Tom makes me think that he and Jennifer Barclay would get along pretty well. Do they have any interactions as the season goes on?
Poehler: Yeah, they do. It’s funny you say that. The four episodes coming up, when we come back in April — I’m so proud of them. They kind of finish what’s going to happen with this campaign. And you know we have a debate with Bobby Newport and then we kind of see what happens from the fallout of that. Paul Rudd has been so awesome playing this kind of, you know, empty suit, this guy who doesn’t even want the job but his dad wants him to have something to do during the day. But who’s very, very charming and very likable. That’s like the ultimate kind of political enemy for Leslie. It’s the thing that she really doesn’t quite know how to do. She doesn’t know how to just be relaxed and not look like she’s just trying too hard. That’s been so fun to play.
Kathryn Hahn has been playing Jennifer Barkley, who’s the campaign manager who just comes in from Washington. We have a joke where she’s always on the phone with Washington and the rest of us don’t know who she’s talking to. She’s just a seasoned pro. She keeps reminding the character of Ben, Adam Scott, and me — I’m doing what you’re doing. We’re doing the same thing. We both want to win. If you think you’re kind of better than me, you’re not. There’s a lot of, what will Leslie and Ben do? How far will they stoop? How dirty do they want to get?
In general, when we talked about the longer arc of the show, which I keep in mind although I don’t know if the viewer cares about it, but I care about it — which is when Leslie starts to get a little bit of power. When we first saw her, she’s barely kind of making a dent in her department. If Leslie starts to get some attention and power, what does she do with it? Does it corrupt her at all? Is it hard to get things done without becoming cynical or jaded or all that stuff?
But we were laughing because Kathryn’s the one who comes in from Washington and has good suits and misses her delicious restaurants.
I was there when she was improvising that.
Poehler: Oh, right, right. That’s so funny when she’s like, “I miss …” what was she saying?—
Vegan options, I remember her saying that.
Poehler, cracking up: Vegan options, yeah.
Would you say that your own political views sync up with Leslie’s? I’m sure there are ways they do and ways they don’t.
Poehler: Yeah. I think I’m — I think we’re alike in that — wow, that’s an interesting question. Yeah, I think that there’s a lot of crossover. I think I’m a bit more cynical than she is. That character does a lot of things that I would aspire to do, which is not let things get — I’m a lot lazier than she is. [Laughs.] Let’s just put it that way. I’m a lot lazier. There’s certainly some similarities in what we believe.
I asked Adam Scott a similar question when I was on the set and he was hesitant to say what Ben’s political views were. But he said he likes to think he’s a Democrat.
Poehler: I have to say, I think like myself and Leslie, the campaign in 2008 was a defining, defining moment. All of it, frankly. All of the Hillary stuff and her integration into this administration. Obama and Michelle and everyone. All those parts of that initiation affected that fictional character, Leslie Knope, in deep, deep ways. And certainly did for me.
When you say it affected her in deep, deep ways, can you expand on that? In what ways do you think it affected her?
Poehler: Well, you know, I often think about — not to sound too actory — but I often think about what Leslie was thinking when Hillary gave that wonderful speech when she lost the nomination … that concession speech where she talked about the glass ceiling. It was just such an interesting time in American politics and still is. Her work connected to women around the world is so powerful right now it’s like beyond, and she’s just doing such good, hard work and — underlining the word hard. Leslie, like myself, is a woman in her late 30s, early 40s who’s kind of trying to find her way. I’m not being too articulate — I just think sometimes about where Leslie was, if she was working on the election and what she was doing during all of it.
And the other part of it which is kind of interesting is that the show takes place at a time when local government is really getting hit, you know, where there’s no money. I think our season two or season three finale was about the fact that the parks department was going to get wiped out. In many cities and towns, that’s been the case. What’s fun to play is, on the terms of public departments, parks is really low. There’s a joke in our show about how everyone’s so cocky over at sewage because … no one’s ever going to get fired. And sewage has the really hot intern. That interdepartmental squabbling is really fun to play. I love that in our show, everybody hates the library. The library was built by these sharks that are just people that will slit your throat if you’re not looking. When everyone’s running for city councilor, we have a lot of stuff about how everybody wants to get rid of the library.
I’ve gotten so far away from your original question, I don’t even remember what you asked.
Well, let me circle back to it really quick —
Publicist breaks in: “We only have time for one more question.”
Oh, shoot. In that case, let me skip ahead then. I wanted to ask about the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees employees that invited Leslie Knope to speak at their convention recently.
Poehler: Yeah. That’s so cool.
I don’t know if you saw, but they did a video where they were phone banking for Leslie Knope and posted it on YouTube.
Poehler: [Laughs.] That’s so awesome. It was a real honor that people are doing that … to have that character go out into the real world is crazy and so cool.
Were you surprised to know that people who do the work Leslie does connect to her in that way? And also, is there a chance you will speak at their convention?
Poehler: Well, I really can’t speak to that part of it. I can say that it’s been nice to meet people who do work in various forms of local and state government and who see stuff [in the show] that they recognize. Situations and things — we just had Bradley Whitford on the show, we’re all such big “West Wing” fans. “The West Wing” delved into political stuff and we don’t do that on our show. Our show is really a character comedy about people who work in a place. But we do get to show sometimes the smalltime craziness of things and every once in a while we hear from people who say, that was really true. It took me eight years to build a park. Or, I know what it’s like you have your progress report meeting and no one is really listening. All this really systemic stuff.
I think it’s a testament to the writers, frankly. It’s certainly such an honor and very flattering to be mentioned by those people and it’s a testament to the writers that they’ve created characters that seem to exist in the real world. People that you can kind of picture what they’re doing on the weekends.