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Voicing 'Inside Out' stirred emotions for Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith

Kenneth Turan
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Film Critic
Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith went through range of emotions voicing Joy and Sadness for 'Inside Out'

Joy and Sadness often can be found sharing moments together, even an entire lifetime, but if you want them to share a hotel room for an afternoon, it takes Pixar and the Cannes Film Festival to make that happen.

Amy Poehler, who plays Joy, and Phyllis Smith, who embodies Sadness, managed only three recording sessions together during the production of "Inside Out," Pixar's new animated film in which they live inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl along with Fear, Anger and Disgust.

So it was in one of those south of France luxury suites, where the view of white boats dotted on blue water is everything you might imagine it would be, that Poehler (a mainstay of "Parks and Recreation" and, before that, "Saturday Night Live") and Smith (a longtime cast member of "The Office") got better acquainted. They traded stories about how the process of recording voices for the film (known as "Vice Versa" in France) is not as straightforward and communal as the audience might think.

"People live in different cities, have different schedules," Poehler says, "so recording stuff together was a luxury for everyone."

Poehler also says that she was the last of the emotions to be hired, and that former "Saturday Night Live" castmate Bill Hader, already working as Fear, helped her to get the job.

"He told me, 'The guys from Pixar might call you,' and I said, 'Done.'"

As for Smith, she was lying on her couch in St. Louis when she got a call asking her to fly to Pixar's Emeryville headquarters in Northern California. Producer Jonas Rivera, she said, "told me later that he was watching 'Bad Teacher' late one night, and after the scene where I have lunch with Cameron Diaz, he called Pete Docter and said, 'I think I found Sadness.'"

Poehler and Smith had their shares of concerns about playing a core emotion.

"I thought, 'Are they calling the right person? Is this for real?'" says Smith, sounding, yes, sad. "I'm generally pretty happy about life. I worried I wouldn't be sad enough. I thought, 'Really? I don't know.'"

Poehler, as pro-active in life as Joy is in the film, swung into action.

"I began thinking and listening to a lot of Pixar, like Larry the Cable Guy as Mater in 'Cars.' You can see it 100 times and the performance holds up," she says.

"When I was rewatching 'Toy Story' with my sons, ages 6 and 4, I paid attention to Tom Hanks as Woody. Woody and Joy live in the same world. They both talk a lot and you can't get sick of them. In my mind Joy is a person from the '50s, someone who's on a constant USO mission rallying the troops. This character has to drive the energy."

Though the idea of playing an emotion rather than a person almost defies imagination, both performers came to understand that with these roles, "you can't fake it," Poehler says. "Audiences can hear that. They really sniff it out."

Adds Smith: "I just wanted Sadness to be true, to come from a real place. I tried to work from the inside out, going from my gut all the time. I didn't over-analyze it. I just did it."

Making things harder for the actors was the fact that the "Inside Out" script changed so many times during production, at times they had to pretend they understood which version they were recording. "When I saw the final film I went, 'Aha, now I understand,'" Smith says. "I wish I knew before what I found out then."

Still, though the process of creating the script was certainly elongated ("As someone who's used to TV, I couldn't believe the pace," Poehler says), both actors were impressed at the way they were consulted.

"One draft I read got very action oriented. I felt they'd lost some of the heart," Poehler remembers. "The next draft they slightly tweaked some of the relationships and it got warmer. They did go through so many drafts."

Helping them through it all was Docter, the director and co-writer best known for Pixar's "Up," whom Smith says "gives the kindest, gentlest directions."

Adds Poehler, "I would like to see Pete Docter direct live action. He did what you want every director to do: He knows what he wants, and he's good at giving suggestions and making you feel like they were your idea."

What impressed Smith and Poehler most of all, however, was the strength of the Pixar creative team.

"They are really good with story, story is king over there," is how Poehler puts it. "The whole thing was close to a cultish religious experience. 'Use me, master,' that's how I felt."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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