Though she was the last voice cast, Amy Poehler’s performance as Joy is the first thing you remember about Disney-Pixar’s summer release “Inside Out.” Ebullient, energetic and, well, joyful to an almost annoying degree, Joy is the glowing center of the high-concept movie, which takes place primarily in the mind of an 11-year-old girl going through a stressful time.
“My biggest fear, or I guess the thing I wanted to make sure of, was that Joy was someone you root for,” Poehler says on the phone from Los Angeles. “She comes out guns a-blazin’, or I should say accordion a-blazin’, and she comes hard out of the gate. When she slows down and hits some minor keys, I wanted the audience to be able to feel that.”
This is the 43-year-old Poehler’s first time voicing a Pixar character, and she says getting that call from the Emeryville studio was like “winning the lottery.” After reading the script, in which Joy struggles to keep the other key emotions – Anger (voiced by Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) – from taking control of their human, Poehler says she was immediately intrigued.
“This movie is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” she says. “It’s unlike anything Pixar has ever done. We’ve been working on this for several years, and I’ve basically been paid for being happy. I feel like at the end of the day I’m going to be handed a bill.”
Poehler, whose performing roots were in the improv world long before she got to “Saturday Night Live” or the sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” gets a screen credit for providing additional dialogue.
“From the very beginning, I was collaborating with (director) Pete Docter and (producer) Jonas Rivera, and I pitched jokes and ideas, and they were nice enough to let people know I did that,” she says. “Look, it’s another example of my theory that really talented people are good collaborators and are easy to work with. They’re not fear based, always worrying when the next good idea will come.”
Another of Poehler’s collaborators was Smith, the voice of Sadness, whose round body, glasses and turtleneck sweater make her look like a blueberry crossed with a Beatnik.
Smith, 63, most famous for playing Phyllis on NBC’s “The Office” for eight years, actually had three recording sessions with Poehler. “This was my first time being in a recording studio, and I guess most sessions are isolated,” Smith says on the phone from Los Angeles. “I got to work with Amy, but I didn’t record with anybody else. It was great because, without giving too much away, there’s an important connection between Joy and Sadness.”
Working closely with Docter, Smith crafted a nuanced vocal performance that ultimately makes Sadness more sweet than irritating.
“We decided early on that she was more than just sad,” Smith says. “She needed to have other things going on, so Pete tapped into my insecurity, my lack of confidence, which really worked. One of the things I really like about the movie is that we are all blends of emotions. There are multitudes inside of us.”
Sadness, whose shape is inspired by a globe (“She’s round, like I am in life,” Smith says), contrasts sharply with blue-haired, glowing Joy, whose shape was inspired by a star. Joy’s approach to life is not unlike that of Leslie Knope, the hardworking, goodhearted civil servant Poehler played on “Parks and Rec.” So just why is Poehler so good at playing smart, positive, energetic women?
“I don’t know why,” she says and then laughs heartily. “Let’s just say I’m good at diverting attention.”
As the mother of two sons (with ex-husband Will Arnett), Poehler says there’s something about “Inside Out” and the way it personifies emotions that will have an effect on kids.
“I can’t say how amazing it is to have a film that becomes a tool to talk to your kids,” Poehler says. “You sit them down and ask them how they’re feeling, and you don’t get an answer. With these personified, funny characters, kids are better able to talk through their emotions. This changes things. I don’t say this about many projects and may never say it again, and that’s fine, but to be involved in something that feels like it adds value to the world … that’s something.”
Smith says “Inside Out” is a movie for the ages. “What you get from the movie will change depending on your experience of life,” she says. “I think kids at 4, 11 or 15 will all get something different from it, and then adults will have a totally different experience. It’s really a timeless story.”