Getting to voice Joy in the new Pixar animated film Inside Out was a joy for Amy Poehler.
“I love the setting of this movie, the mind of an 11-year-old girl. That feels like something fresh for me and the movie audience,” says the actress, who hasn’t slowed down since her comedy series Parks And Recreation ended its seven-year run in the spring.
Inside Out mostly takes place inside the mind of Riley, a young hockey-loving girl whose family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Though she tries to be optimistic at first, Riley becomes more melancholy as the distance from her old home and the happy memories of childhood become real.
As she sinks lower, it’s then up to her personified emotions – Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear and Disgust – to figure out how to pull Riley through her difficulties without permanent damage.
As a child, Joy had been the leader of Riley’s mind, but with the move and the approach of adolescence, Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) suddenly begins to exert influence.
So the real action of Inside Out takes place in Riley’s mind as Joy and Sadness careen through a subconscious landscape of receding memories, collapsing emotional touchstones and nearly forgotten dreams.
“I love the age Riley is,” says Poehler, who has two young sons with her former husband, Will Arnett. “At that moment you are all possibilities and open-faced.”
While attending Boston College, she discovered improv, and it changed her life. “The feeling you can improvise is like a superpower. It’s a nice feeling,” she says, adding, “There is a certain amount of collaboration necessary for improvising because it just can’t be every man for himself.”
After graduating, she headed to Chicago where she studied at Second City, where she met Tina Fey. Then, in 1996, she joined the Upright Citizens Brigade improv and sketch comedy troupe before moving to Saturday Night Live from 2001 to 2008 where she worked with Fey as well as Bill Hader, who voices Fear in Inside Out.
In developing Inside Out, the filmmakers consulted author and UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, whose study focuses on integrating emotions. For a while there was a debate on just how many emotions to have, before settling on five. Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) are the other two.
While Hader and Poehler have an easy comic rapport, which they demonstrated at a press conference, the two never got to work together on the film. Poehler did do three scenes with Smith, but the rest of the time, like the others, she worked in a studio with Docter.
The director says Poehler was the last one to be cast and it was because Joy was the most difficult of any of the characters to write for: “She had a tendency of being really annoying – always chipper and upbeat that you want the sock her.”
Poehler says she worried that Joy would get annoying, but Docter says Amy “somehow made it entertaining. She was not insufferable. We root for her.”
Though Parks And Recreation is gone, the comic actress is still heavily involved in television, producing three shows – comedies, of course. Welcome To Sweden returned for a second season last month. (The show was cancelled recently due to poor ratings.)
Difficult People debuts on Hulu this month. It stars Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner as best friends on the fringes of the entertainment industry trying to find love and happiness. Poehler is also working on the third year of the acclaimed Broad City for Comedy Central.
Then there is Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp, an eight-episode sequel to the 2001 cult hit that Poehler, Bradley Cooper and Paul Rudd were in. It was released two weeks ago, and all three are reprising their roles.
Poehler says she’s been lucky to be able to create “my own stuff and be cast in things like this”, referring to Inside Out, but notes it’s “hard to be part of this profession, waiting for people to discover what you can do well”.
Which is why she keeps pushing. “The journey continues, but it’s a really interesting time for women in television.”
For the holidays, though, she and Fey will be seen in the feature film Sisters, about two estranged siblings who throw a last party at the house they grew up in that their parents are selling.
“We told them that the only way we would do it is if we went up against Star Wars,” she cracks.
The actress says what she appreciates about Inside Out is that it’s “a film that says it’s OK not to be happy all the time. I know it’s a simple statement, but is not often heard, especially in animated films.”
Poehler says doing improv remains a big part of her process, and that seems in keeping with another aspect of Inside Out.
“There’s a synergistic thing where no feeling is final,” Poehler says. “Change is inevitable, which is something I try to practise. Some days I’m better at it than others, but it is this fluidity that I try to inject into my life and career.”