“Wait, I know you!” Amy Poehler says, her face alight with recognition when I walk into the sunny Los Angeles studio where she has just finished Style’s photoshoot. “Where have we met?” I interviewed her, briefly, 12 years ago in her Saturday Night Live dressing room when she was a featured player, early in her marriage to the comedian Will Arnett; she was best friends with Tina Fey and her career was on a meteoric rise.
I interviewed her again in 2014 over the phone. She was about to win a Golden Globe for Parks and Recreation, the critically acclaimed TV comedy she helmed and starred in for seven seasons from 2009, playing the indefatigable bureaucrat Leslie Knope. She and Arnett were divorcing by then and they had two young boys (Archie, now 10, and Abel, 8). Poehler talked me off the ledge when I realised I’d forgotten to turn on my tape recorder, and helped me reconstruct our conversation from my notes. “That was the second time that happened to me,” she says. “The first was for High Times [an American magazine that promotes cannabis use]. The reporter was … under the influence.” She starts laughing. “They had a good excuse.”
Sitting on a leather couch in a corner of the cavernous studio, Poehler, 47, gives off an electric “let’s get cracking” energy. She described herself as a “plain girl with lots of personality” in her 2014 best-selling memoir, Yes Please, but in person she is almost exotic-looking, with her angular features, doll-blue eyes and baby- blonde hair. She’s promoting her new Netflix film, Wine Country, which she directed and co-stars in with fellow Saturday Night Live alumnae Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph. The chemistry of the trio was evident at the Oscars in February, where they opened the hostless ceremony to rapturous applause. “There is no host tonight,” Rudolph said. “There won’t be a popular-movie category. And Mexico is not paying for the wall.”
Their film is based on a trip Poehler and her girlfriends took to the California wine country and examines the way even close friendships must grow or perish. Poehler plays the linchpin of the group, a woman who is (lovably) anxious and controlling. “We all play distorted semi-versions of ourselves,” she says. “I definitely would be the one on the trip that would be telling everybody what to do and overplanning it. I mean, I was the one who was, like, ‘We should make this a movie’, and then I made it a movie. So it’s very meta.” She laughs. People keep asking her if it was difficult to direct her friends. “I tell them, ‘No, I love telling my friends where to stand and what to say!’” The three met doing improv comedy and working at SNL in their twenties and thirties, and are just as tight-knit as they appear in the film. “The closest thing to feeling like an athlete for me would be working at SNL,” Poehler says of those days. It was a “very high-pressure environment”.
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Poehler first became enamoured of comedy at Boston College. After graduation, she moved to Chicago to dive into the vibrant improv community there, which is where she and Fey met and first hit it off (the two later hosted the Golden Globes from 2013 to 2015, and co-starred in 2015’s Sisters. Poehler also had a small role in Fey’s iconic Girls). In the 1990s, Poehler joined the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy group, and moved to New York, where they wangled a Comedy Central TV show and opened their own improv theatre. From there, she made the transition into films and, of course, Parks and Recreation, which earned 16 Emmy nominations and Poehler’s Golden Globe for best actress.
Tales about female friendship and women’s interior lives have always interested her more than traditional love stories. Poehler’s company, Paper Kite Productions, is the force behind Comedy Central’s Broad City and the latest Netflix sensation, Russian Doll. She has described Wine Country as “the female Hangover” and tells me, “We have been joking that [it] not only passes the Bechdel test” — meaning two women talk to each other about something other than a man — “but it passes the Jeffdel test: no two straight, white men talk to each other at any point in the movie.”
Poehler is, it seems, single. She split up with Arnett, most famous as Gob in Arrested Development, in 2012 — a sad surprise for fans who saw them as the ultimate funny-power couple. In Yes Please, she wrote that she was “proud of how Will and I have been taking care of our children; I am beyond grateful he is their father; and I don’t think a 10-year marriage constitutes failure. That being said, getting a divorce really sucks.” She was most recently linked to the New York lawyer Benjamin Graf and, before that, the comedian Nick Kroll. When I raise the topic of her divorce and romantic life, however, she politely but firmly shuts me down. I’m met with “I don’t want to talk about that” and “not going there” when I nudge.
We move on to motherhood. Poehler has been thinking a lot about how to help her boys avoid the toxic-masculinity culture that has been bubbling up. “It’s figuring out how to raise compassionate people who are open-minded and connected to the world and take care of each other,” she says. “It’s the same old stuff: empathy, world view, lead by example. But I’m also hoping that our boys will enter this world where gender and gender roles won’t be so defined.”
The #MeToo movement and the political upheaval in the States have forced Poehler into a period of “renegotiation” with herself and friends. Along with actresses such as Michelle Williams and Amy Schumer, Poehler is part of a campaign encouraging the governor of New York to pay the minimum wage to workers who earn tips, arguing that it would make waitresses less vulnerable to sexual harassment. Her favourite book last year, she says, was Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad, about women and anger. “The stuff I had to put up with on sets or in business meetings, most young women do not put up with,” she says. “The sketch women who came before me — Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Gilda Radner — hung in there in a really misogynistic, aggressive, macho environment and they just weathered the storm like a news reporter reporting on a hurricane.” She mimes clinging to the couch as though she’s being blown away. “And then our generation came in and we were better for it. Now we have to do that for the generation behind us.”
When I met Poehler the first time, she was looking to move out of sketch comedy and into a project where she had more creative control. Parks and Rec soon materialised. In 2014, she told me she wanted to move into producing, writing and directing, because that’s where she saw the power in the industry. Again, she made it happen. “I’m a strong manifester,” she agrees. But for the first time in a decade, she has no master plan. “The year turned 2019 and I didn’t write my intentions down. My job for this year is to stay open and to let the world answer that question for me rather than me trying to shape my experience.”
She describes herself as being in the “juicy middle” of life, where work and family are all-consuming, but also better than ever. “When you’re in your twenties and thirties, as a woman, you get so many questions: ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to have kids? Do you wanna be married?’ As you turn into your forties and fifties, people ask you less, because they think, falsely, that you’ve decided exactly what you want in life.”