When it came to casting the embodiments of a young girl’s emotions, Pixar's "Inside Out" found a genuine dream team.
To bring their animated comedy to life, filmmakers Peter Docter and Jonas Rivera -- the team behind the Oscar-winning “Up” – realized they’d have to enlist the right voices for the emotions driving 11-year-old Riley as she deals with big changes in her life. And they certainly did, with Amy Poehler as Joy, Lewis Black as Anger, Phyllis Smith as Sadness, Bill Hader as Fear and Mindy Kaling as Disgust.
"A lot of the lines on paper, if you read the script, they’re, like, sort of funny," Docter explained to a gathering of journalists. "But when these particular actors bring them to life, it’s somehow so specific and so wonderful, that it’s fantastic. Lewis Black was one that, even as I was pitching the concept, I would say, 'Imagine the fun we’re going to have when it comes to casting: We could get people like Lewis Black as Anger!'"
"We pitched Lewis the movie and wanted him to play Anger," Rivera recalled. "And he immediately says, 'Great – real stretch casting, guys. Brilliant." He mocked us for calling him. Even that was perfect. He has one of the great [serious] lines in the movie, too, where he just says, 'What have we done?' And he says it in a non-Lewis Black way that has a punch. He’s just a great actor."
After the filmmakers met uber-Pixar fan Hader, the actor was even brought into the development process. "Bill came on to write with us, actually because he’s a great writer," Rivera said. "He was so much fun in the story room. We went through the script and he started developing voices. He kind of leaned towards Fear. He was kind of perfect at it. He really brought this sort of Don Knottss sheriff of Mayberry, quick-turn-on-a-dime, that made us laugh. He fit."
"Disgust we struggled with a lot," Doctor recalled, "because we weren’t sure whether she should be disgusting or disgusted. And once we arrived at disgusted, Mindy’s voice came up. She, again, takes lines that are fine writing and makes them amazing to listen to. … We would come with the script and I would say, ‘Do you have any other ideas for this? Go ahead and play around.’ And she would come up with little alternate lines and asides, and added a ton to both the character and the film."
"I saw Phyllis in the movie 'Bad Teacher,'" Rivera remembered. "She was just so funny. Hesitant. Because we had written Sadness more like a crybaby, always crying, which was funny, but in ‘Bad Teacher’ Phyllis was hesitant and couldn’t even order a chicken sandwich. 'I’ll have the chicken sandwich?' Everything had a question mark, and that felt right, and it worked. And that’s how we ended up playing the character and she just nailed it."
"Joy was the last one to be cast, and it was the most difficult of any of the characters to write for, because she had a tendency of being really annoying " Docter added. "If you write someone who is always chipper and upbeat and 'Come on guys, we can do this,’ it just kind of got like, 'Ugh!' You want to sock that person. So Amy was able to put that in some way that made it just entertaining. It was not insufferable. We root for her. … Instead of recording right away, we spent the whole day reading through the script, one sequence at a time. And then Amy would start narrowing in on certain lines – not just for her, but some of the other characters as well. She’s got such a brilliant writing mind as well as being an amazing performer. We took advantage of that."
The star-powered cast assembled to talk about why they were compelled to join the project, why they think they were pitch-perfect for their respective emotions and the animated films from Pixar and Disney that they fell in love with, then and now.
On getting involved with the project and Pixar:
Amy Poehler: [Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera] had done so much work already, and a lot of people had already recorded, so I kind of got this PowerPoint presentation of what the idea was. And I couldn't believe the setting was the mind of an 11 year-old girl. I just loved that that was the setting. I honestly believed that from the minute they told me the idea, I was like, "Oh, this film is going to be the best Pixar movie ever made, and it's going to make the most money. And it's going to win an Oscar." That's what I thought from the minute they told me, I was like, "This is the best movie ever made, and it will be the only good movie I've ever been in. And I can't believe I'm in it! "[laughs] So yeah, I just thought about this day. I actually thought about the day when the film came out because, you know, as you can tell, I'm kind of a pessimist when it comes to these things.
Phyllis Smith: I was very excited to get the call, and, ooh, I really don't know the magnitude of it, even now. I was just really happy to go to Emeryville and have Pete and Jonas tell me the story and see the pictures. And immediately, without missing a beat, said, "Yes! Yes, yes, please!" And had a great time.
Lewis Black: Apparently, I was the first one cast, so I was really the tipping point. As soon as the others heard I was going to be in it, they couldn't fucking wait to be with me. But [Pixar] did send me a box – you never see this in the city, or really in this industry, but the humility is really almost psychotic. Because they sent me a box of stuff with a letter in which they said, "You may not know who Pixar is ...,” which meant either that they were crazy, or they thought I was just some sort of a recluse. And so they said that they had this role of Anger. Well, that fit.
Mindy Kaling: It's almost as if Pixar and Pete and Jonas and the experience of working with them is meeting this really well raised guy that, like, doesn't know he looks like Tom Brady. And it's just like, "Well, we did these other movies, and we had these other things ..." And you're like, "I'm in."
Poehler: Totally, and he's like, "And I'm about your pleasure."
Bill Hader: "What can I do for you?"
Kaling: And "I want to be with you." Frequently, wonderful organizations teeming with talent treat you much worse, and you're kind of like, "This is great. How do I take advantage of this?" And a lot of the people here, we have to create our own opportunities or we orchestrate our own projects. And to be part of something where you don't have to. They want you to collaborate. You don't need to because the standards are so high, is such a treat.
On why they were the right fit for their specific roles as emotions:
Kaling: I think that the character, Disgust, has a lot of the qualities of a very impatient, judgmental adolescent girl. And because I seem to be recurring, playing that role in my career ... she kind of says the things that I say on a really bad day. The thing I really want to say, but then don't say. And basically, in my mind, the parenthetical for all her lines is, "I can't. I can't with this," is what she's always thinking.
Black: For me, look, my family argued, all the time. That's what we did. That was the way we expressed love. And so that kind of anger has always been a part of me. And my mother couldn't cook.
Poehler: I think there's some characteristics of Joy – just like, maybe some unrelenting energy and bossiness – that perhaps that Pete and Jonas and Ronnie thought I could pull off, maybe from the other characters that I've played. And I think she just likes kind of living in the moment, and I maybe like to think that I do that too. But I aspire to be more like Joy, and I think that the characters in the film get all of the range of emotions. Everybody feels anger, feels sadness, joy, each in their own journey.
Hader: Yeah, I think I'm a big wimp. I think they saw the medication I'm on and thought I need to play Fear [laughs].
Smith: Likewise, I'm just a mess. I'm a real sad sack. I sit around and mope all day. I think when they saw that effervescent side of me and decided to hone in on it. … No, it's actually my insecurities, those little quirks that I have that Pete was able to glean out of me.
On how the movie demonstrates the value of each of the emotions:
Smith: I attribute that to the genius of Pete Docter and the writers, and they took me on a journey too. I didn't realize that it was going to have that kind of feeling until the end of the movie. And I just love how Joy and Sadness, it shows the importance of your emotions in your life, and it's OK to be sad.
Poehler: Yeah, Pixar doesn't patronize their young audience, and they don't underestimate the intelligence of their audience, every time. So they keep raising the bar, and also, they assume that you and your big brain is going to show up, and your big heart. Like, they assume you're going to take all of those things with you when you go see their movies. And you're so rewarded when you do.
On the film’s concept of "core memories" at key ages that greatly influence who you are and become:
Kaling: I first would like to say that the idea of core memory, that's something that Pete and Jonas and Ronnie in this movie is making something that people say and talk about, because before they named it, I didn't know it. But there are such things as core memory, and that's what's so enjoyable about the movie as you're watching, you're like, thank you, for putting a name on that. And for me, my core memory was that my mother, who is my absolute best friend, when she was an Ob-Gyn, when I was very, very little, I had this thing with my brother where I was very competitive about spending time with her alone, like one on one was so important to me. And no one be around except the two of us. And she came back from work, and she was in her scrubs. And she'd spent the night in the hospital, and she brought home Dunkin' Donuts. She had a jelly doughnut, which I had never seen as a kid. And I sat in her lap in the kitchen, and we shared a jelly doughnut. So it's like, everything I ever wanted in the world was just undivided attention from my mother and to be eating this delicious sweet, filled with another sweet.
Poehler: I really like young women. And I love that age Riley is, that moment before you've been thrown into the snake pit, where you're just, like, all possibility and really open-faced and just really ready for everything. And boys are the same way, too. It's just that great time. I feel like as an adult, you're just trying to always get back to it, this magic hour. And I think we both have a lot of love for that age, and it's really nice at that age, where if anything we do resonates with people that age, it's really nice.
On the Disney and Pixar films that they have deep emotional connections to:
Hader: "Up," the other movie that Pete and Jonas did. I thought, "Up" was just unreal. I thought that was really great. When I was a child – do you remember that Ichabod Crane Disney one? I dressed up like Ichabod Crane for Halloween, like, four years in a row because I was obsessed with that. That was great. That was just a couple years ago ...
Smith: I'm just an "Up" person, as well as, I date myself, but also "Cinderella" of older Disney ones.
Poehler: I think it was like "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella," "Snow White," all those. I loved Cruella de Vil. She's a funny character, a meaty character part for a woman, Cruella de Vil. May we all get to our Cruella de Vil stage. And now that I have kids, watching Pixar movies with them, they love them all. I love "WALL E." I just love the first 35 minutes of no talking – again, the audacity to make a movie like that! I like the big risk, big reward philosophy of Pixar. Like this film is really like high concept, and every film right now is going external. Everything's about made-up stakes, and like the world is ending and superheroes, and you have to get the diamond from the computer chip …
Hader: [Serious] "You've got to get the diamond from the computer chip. You might die!"
Black: "You've got to get the diamond from that computer-chip place or the world's going to turn into an ice ball. Christopher Nolan. Ice-ball diamond, computer-chip store."
Poehler: So all those movies, which I know a lot about, obviously. But no, it's so badass that Pixar went in. Pixar's like, oh, you want to see some dangerous stuff? Why don't you go inside someone's mind? You want to see a terrain that you live in every day but know nothing about how it looks? We'll tell you. Like Mindy said, this is what this is called now.
Hader: That's what Pete's so good at too is like he's a real artist. It's not a pandering kind of thing. "Up," it's like an old man ties balloons to his house, and it's, like, one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. And it's just an expression of him. He saw his daughter going through this thing, and it's like, what's going on with that? And it just came out of him in this way. And that's what's so great about Pixar is that they trust their vision.
Kaling: "Up" really made me feel, as a writer, that you can do anything. And as you get older, that it's harder to find movies that do that. You see it, and you go, "That was great," and "I could see you how you could do that." And to not see the process, those are the things that really stay with you. … When I saw "Up," I thought, that was a dream come true. And Disney, when I was younger, since I bear no passing resemblance to any princesses, it's hard to really attach to them. But I really liked "Robin Hood" as portrayed by a fox. And I thought he was very dashing. And while not human, I had a crush on him. Is that all right to say?
Poehler: That's all right to say. Hold on. I just checked. Yep, fine. Not weird.
Black: I was never a child. My mother carried me until I was 27. No, "Up" had a big effect. "Up" just irritated me because I was old enough at that point to go, "Yeah, you know what I want to do for the next couple hours is confront death. That's kind of a fun thing for me to think about." Someone who's spent his whole life avoiding thinking about it, and it was literally like, "Oh, boy. Fuck. I'm going to die." And the big one for me was, from the Disney ones, "Fantasia," because that was the one that made me go, Huh – I can't wait to do whatever it is they're doing."
Pixar’s “Up” opens today nationwide.