Amy Poehler is best known for her eight seasons on Saturday Night Live, or her seven-season stretch as Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation, or as Tina Fey's acerbic co-host at the Golden Globes. One side of the actress's career has been invisible, though: as a voice artist on television and in the movies. Her extensive voice résumé includes the Nickelodeon series The Mighty B!, and roles in such movies as Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil, Horton Hears a Who!, Monsters vs. Aliens and Shrek the Third.
In the new Pixar film Inside Out, Poehler takes a starring role as Joy, the voice of the protagonist Riley's dominant and most irrepressible emotion. The Globe and Mail spoke to Poehler in Cannes, where she had strawberry-blond hair, dressy black shorts, a copper-coloured blouse and large blue eyes, looking a bit like an animated character herself.
What do you think makes a good voice artist?
What I've learned there is that time and patience make things good in animation and Pixar's kind of the gold standard. I think many animated films are made too quickly. But the performance part isn't that different except you have an audience of two or three and you can go a bit wider, to exaggerate, which can be nice. It's very physical. I could never sit down playing Joy. I was moving and jumping and spreading my arms and a lot of what I do ended up in the film.
One thing about voice acting is you can hear inauthenticity. You just can't get away with anything. I listened to other Pixar performances, especially Tom Hanks in Toy Story. Woody and Joy are perhaps family. They're both supposed to be captains and looking on the bright side. Tom did this amazing thing where you just want to follow him.
You come from the Second City writer-performer background. Is that a particular help in this kind of work?
Well, writing is key in more ways than actors, directors and producers realize … If you can write you can create for others and create your own agency.
I first met [Inside Out director] Pete Docter and [producer] Jonas Rivera and and they presented me with the idea for the movie and I was blown away. And then I did work on the script with them and pitched ideas and jokes. Then I began to record, which was a year or two in 20 to 30 three- or four-hour sessions redoing scenes, which they would rewrite and we'd do them again. You were always searching for the best joke.
When you come from that Second City improv background, collaboration and ensemble is really important and that is Pixar. They screen their stuff for each other. They give each other notes. They have a group mind. You can't be precious with your ideas and jokes. If I learned anything from my years at SNL, it was how to live like a vampire and that you can't be precious. It's cut, cut, cut and you keep on going because there will be another one.
Does Joy have your voice?
No. My voice is slower and lower. Some people think I'm Leslie Knope or Joy, that I'm this engine of positivity, but I'm not and I don't pretend to be. Joy is part camp counsellor and has this old-fashioned quality, like one of the girls in the Jets in West Side Story – 'C'mon, guys! There's gonna be a fight!' You can't play her and not smile. She's part Peter Pan and Tinkerbell and Paul Revere all rolled in together.
It must be nice to have a film you can take your kids to.
Yeah. They're boys. They really like Fear and Anger.
This interview has been condensed and edited.