For the new Disney/Pixar animated family comedy Inside Out, Amy Poehler gets into her character—literally. She provides the voice (and spunky personality) for Joy, one of the five emotions inside the head of Riley, an 11-year-old girl, guiding her through a particularly turbulent time in her young life.
For Poehler, playing an upbeat character—as opposed to her co-emotions Anger, Fear, Disgust and Sadness—came easy. Her Inside Out costar and good friend Bill Hader (who plays Fear) notes that his former Saturday Night Live castmate always has been a beacon of good vibes and positive attitude.
“The first time I met you was when I auditioned for SNL,” he tells Poehler during a chat with Parade (see our interview here). “I was incredibly nervous. You came back and were super-nice and introduced yourself, and I’ve always appreciated that. You were so welcoming.”
“Amy,” Hader purrs, “how can I be nice like you?”
Poehler laughs. “Bill asks me that question all the time,” she says. “Or he sends me letters in weird, magazine-block type: Why Are You So Nice?”
Then the two of them break into giggles, the kind that make you want to laugh too.
Always the Optimist
Born in Newton, Mass., Poehler, 43, honed her comedy chops with Chicago’s famed Second City and Improv Olympic troupes before landing in New York and joining Saturday Night Live in 2001. In her seven successful years on the show she became known for her skewering of current events at the “Weekend Update” news desk—where she and Tina Fey became the first female co-anchoring team in SNL history—and for her spot-on impersonations of Hillary Clinton, Kelly Ripa, Britney Spears, Nancy Grace and other personalities.
But Poehler’s humor was never mean-spirited, down-and-dirty or hurtful. Her jokes were always fizzy, smart, satirical barbs—delivered with a smile.
“When I got on SNL, I came out of comedy clubs, and I thought the best comedy came from being angry, calling people on B.S. or whatever,” says Hader. “And Amy was the funniest person that wasn’t that way. She was so open.”
On her hit TV series, Parks and Recreation, which aired from 2009 until its finale in February, she played Leslie Knope, the ever-optimistic deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department in the town of Pawnee, Ind. Her TV character found a way to be cheerful even when the odds were stacked against her—a lot like Joy in Inside Out.
Poehler herself is “definitely very much like that,” says singer-songwriter Amy Miles, who says the two became “instant friends for life” after they met working on the 2001 movie comedy Wet Hot American Summer. “She’s nice to everyone, she really is.”
Poehler says one thing that’s helped her to be so open and positive is never losing touch with a sense of fun—the same sense that drives her character in Inside Out. “What I love about Joy,” she says, “is her desire to be silly, to be ridiculous, to have fun, to not be afraid of how she looks. That’s something people lose as they become adults; we get scared and panic and worry about what we’re going to look like and sound like, or if we’re going to fail.”
Supporting the Smarts
In 2007, Poehler and another friend, TV producer Meredith Walker, concerned about the lack of positive messages young girls were getting from the media, decided to do something about it—with a twist to help them hold on to that sense of fun for as long as they could. Bringing aboard Miles as “a third amigo,” they launched an online digital TV series called Smart Girls at the Party, which began as a series of interviews with young girls about their talents, dreams and whatever was going on inside their heads (just like in Inside Out) and in their worlds.
“Amy interviewed, I did the music, Meredith produced,” says Miles. “It was very homemade. The charm of Amy, interviewing these young girls and really listening to them, making them feel really important for 20 or 30 minutes—she’s just got a real gift for making people feel comfortable.”
Smart Girls soon became, an expanded, thriving website with wide-ranging content including interviews with successful women, webcasts, links to other resources, templates for DIY projects and posts from Smart Girls contributors. (Its programming became even more robust after being purchased, last fall, by Hollywood production conglomerate Legendary Entertainment.)
Miles says the site was always envisioned as a silly-serious “guide” for young girls, especially as they navigate through the tricky adolescent years. “Life feels so desperate and scary at that time,” she says. “Smart Girls didn’t make fun of it, but it opened up the dialogue so that girls could talk about, you know, their periods, or how they can be themselves in a culture of total image bombardment about trying to be perfect.”
“I was the daughter of two public school teachers,” Poehler says. “I had great teachers who encouraged me. There’s that wonderful age in young boys and girls, the prepubescent age, where they want to be a scientist and a teacher and a motorcycle rider and police officer—you know, the imagination is running wild. Smart Girls is this idea of creating content that I would like to have seen at that age. It’s an attempt to have an antidote to all the negative stuff on the Internet. It’s an attempt to be a joy-spreader, that’s for sure.”
Poehler says she was drawn to Inside Out, made by Pixar (Cars, Toy Story, Finding Nemo) and distributed by Disney, because it had heart-tugging, cross-generational elements with which both of those companies have always been so strongly identified. As the single mother of two young sons, Abel, 4, and Archie, 6, both with her former husband, actor Will Arnett, she could relate to the character of the little girl, Riley, as well as to her parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan).
“The themes of ‘letting go’ in the movie are so great,” Poehler says. “That really resonates for me, how you’re away for a day and you come back, and it seems like your children have grown five inches. Time is moving so fast.
“The other thing in the movie is, what kind of crazy stuff in your head motivates you to do the things you do?” she adds. “So not only do we dive into Riley’s head, we also go into the adults’ heads and see what’s in there too. It’s a reality that everybody has to be able to deal with the joy, anger and sadness inside them, and sometimes they’re not so easy or simple to understand.”
Miles thinks about what goes on inside Poehler’s head, what it might look like if she could steal a glance. “It would look very complicated!” she says. “I know there’s a lot going on in there. But it really just comes down to simple terms for her: a mom, a friend and a daughter. And joy is the correct emotion for her.”
“Joy” may be the right word, the right emotion and the right character for Poehler. And she may spread sunshine, make people smile and make people laugh. But she doesn’t find what she does easy to describe. “Comedy is not an easy thing to talk about,” she says. But she knows positive vibes can tap into something powerful—powerful enough to turn emotions around, maybe even powerful enough to change other things.
“In Inside Out, you go on this journey where you laugh really hard, and you also feel really big feelings,” she says. “And those two things are really ultimate for me: big feelings, big laughs. Getting to do those things together, that’s an ultimate goal. It certainly changes how you feel every day, if not your week—if not your world.”