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Immersed in Movies: Phyllis Smith Talks the Joy of Playing Sadness in Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’

Immersed in Movies: Phyllis Smith Talks the Joy of Playing Sadness in Pixar's 'Inside Out'

Animation is smartly turning to TV stars and character actors for voice work, and Pete Docters’ instincts were spot-on in casting the dead-pan Phyllis Smith (The Office, Bad Teacher) for Inside Out. She plays Sadness, who turns out to be crucial and steals the movie from Amy Poehler’s protagonist, Joy. Not bad for Smith’s first foray in animation. Let’s hope it leads to more voice work.

Bill Desowitz: When Pete had the great revelation that Sadness should be Joy’s antagonist rather than Fear and changed course, how much voice work had you done?
Phyllis Smith: I don’t think I’d done any of it. I really didn’t know that part of the story until after the movie was completed.I had no clue that there was a Joy/Fear backstory and actually heard about it at a lunch that Pete had had at his house. He was talking to someone about it and I overheard that conversation and after that I read about it in an article somewhere. So I’m glad that it was Joy and Sadness.
BD: It’s the difference between a child’s perspective and an adult’s perspective.
PS: And it’s a beautiful moment the revelation that Joy has on her face when Sadness is talking to Bing Bong [Riley’s imaginary friend] and the light bulb’s starting to come on for her. Pete and I actually talked about it early on. Sadness was going to have an important part but we didn’t want her to just be an annoyance. We wanted her to have more colors than that.
BD: It’s the hardest role because she’s more subtle than the other emotions. What was it like playing Sadness?
PS: I tried to make her likable because you could get enough of her right away. But she’s really well-rounded. When Joy gives her all the manuals, she reads them, she knows what’s going on, she helps them get through Abstract Thought. So I really enjoyed getting the script because Sadness was smart.
BD: But she has this instinct to tamper with Riley’s memories and doesn’t understand why. So she has a character arc as well.
PS: She’s not sure the why of it — she just knows it’s the right thing to do.

BD: And it’s interesting that early on Sadness admits she doesn’t know her purpose.
PS: Only that she’s here, and that’s the surprise at the end: Sadness brings everyone together.
BD: What do you think about that? It’s a very powerful message for families that it’s OK to be sad — it’s important for emotional stability.
PS: I think it’s wonderful that there’s something positive out there, that there’s a vehicle where families can actually sit down and talk about getting through harder times. In today’s world, everyone’s so clued into their iPhones and communication is going by the wayside as far as one on one is concerned. It’s very seldom that I walk into a room and parents make their children say hello and have a social grace with one another. And when it does happen when I’m at a family gathering, I have one set of cousins that will barely give you the time of day because they’re buried in their phones yet there’s one set of parents that always say, “Say hello to aunt Glinda, say hello to Phyllis.” And it makes a difference. And I think this film will have that same kind of usage to talk about problems and emotions and such. And for me trying to find Sadness was what I do with my gut or my instinct. I didn’t think I was going to be low or this level of Sadness. It wasn’t an analytical thing. I wanted to make her true.
BD: At first, I wondered if she was being mischievous in trying to wrestle control from Joy.
PS: No, I don’t think Sadness has that kind of deviousness. It’s about Riley’s well-being and even though she doesn’t know why, she wants her to be safe and happy. You think about it and it’s an incredible thing. I read somewhere that it should be shown in every psych class across the United States.
BD: Did you and Amy perform much together?
PS: Three times. One of the scenes was where she leaves me. Another was a lot of the right/left stuff: “Go to the right…no, to the left.” A lot of the ventures off when we’re lost. Every time we got a script it was different. As an actor, I didn’t know what had stayed in and what was cut. So for me it was a revelation to see the entire film.

BD: Was there some improvisation?
PS: Some but not much. They let Amy and I riff a couple of times. It’s probably on the DVD. 
BD: What are your favorite moments?
PS: I love when Sadness consoles Bing Bong. I think it’s a very sweet moment. I feel so sad when Joy’s world starts to crumble and she realizes that everything’s changing in Riley’s life.
BD: It’s nice that the changes are incremental.
PS: But Joy realizes it before Sadness does and I didn’t realize it until I saw the whole film.
BD: What was it like working with Pete?
PS: I was extremely nervous because I had never done this before and I just wanted to do it right, my fear/joy. I was very happy to do something but fearful that I wasn’t going to do it correctly or up to the expectations that they wanted. And I think that insecure part of me came through in Sadness’ levels. And Pete could see that and was able to draw that out of me. He knows what he wants, but he’s very articulate in giving you an image (say, the other side of the Train of Thought), and he is very good at helping you calibrate the intensity. It was a love fest.

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