‘Inside Out’ Star Phyllis Smith’s Journey From G-Stringed Dancer to ‘The Office’ and Pixar
Amy Poehler might dominate the ads for Pixar’s brilliant new film. But the real star of the movie is ‘Office’ alum Phyllis Smith, who plays, of all things, Sadness.
Phyllis Smith is a spectacular sad person. Not that you’d know it by how blissfully happy the Office veteran is right now. In fact, “blessed” is a word that’s thrown around with particular glee and abandon.
If you’ve seen any of the many, many advertisements for Pixar’s latest masterpiece Inside Out—guys, this movie is so good—then you’ve already been charmed by Amy Poehler’s frantically upbeat character Joy. Watch the film, however, and you’ll realize that as wonderful, warm, and effervescent Poehler’s Joy is, Inside Out really belongs to the stirring, revelatory voice performance of Smith as, of all things, the animated manifestation of Sadness.
Yes, this is a summer movie made for kids that will turn emotional psychology into blockbuster dollars and a character named Sadness into the breakout star of the season. Bless you, Pixar.
The film is a heady one (heh), but pulled off ingeniously with the studio’s trademark accessibility and make-grown-men-weep appeal to the human heart. It takes place, literally, inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley, as her five basic emotions—Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear—work together to get her through the trauma of moving to a new town and school.
When Joy and Sadness get separated from the group and must make their way back, Joy is surprised to learn that Sadness isn’t just an unpleasant emotional liability, but a necessary and at times life-saving attribute to be embraced. Through Pixar’s typical animated whimsy, grand cinematic ambition, and boundless sense of wonder, Inside Out teaches a remarkably sophisticated yet effortlessly digestible lesson: Your emotions are valid. Being sad is OK.
You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. And you’ll wonder who the equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious actress is giving voice to Sadness, whose heavy sighs and defeatist monotone give life to film’s most endearing killjoy, and the greatest animated blue hero since Ellen DeGeneres took Finding Nemo’s Dory swimming, swimming, swimming.
“I don’t have a voiceover agent,” Smith tells me, when I ask how she became part of a star-studded voice cast that includes not just Poehler, but also Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, and Diane Lane. “I was lying on my couch in St. Louis and my phone rang. I don’t really even know how the casting director got my number!”
She was told that Pete Docter, the mastermind behind Up, would like her to voice a role in his new Pixar movie. “I was thinking, ‘Uh…OK! Sure!’” she laughs.
Over the past decade, the 63-year-old actress has made a bit of a career playing scene-stealing sadsacks. There was her eight years portraying Phyllis Lapin-Vance on The Office, the dowdy sales representative with the cheap perfume and wily streak—a proclivity for gossip and mischievous one-liners, made all the more delightful through the rare, pointed modulations in Smith’s otherwise despondent, deadpan delivery.
But it’s actually a supporting role in the raunchy Cameron Diaz comedy Bad Teacher that put Smith on Pixar’s radar. Producer Jonas Rivera happened to be watching the film one day and was particularly taken by Smith’s performance in a scene where her character—again a more somber, skittish soul with depressive energy—takes Diaz to lunch, and Smith holds her comedic own against the megawatt movie star.
After watching the scene, Rivera called up Docter and said, “I think we found our Sadness,” Smith remembers. “So I’m glad he watched Bad Teacher that day.”
But for someone as obviously warm and basking in a bit of career-bliss joie de vivre as Smith, what must it be like to be told that someone hears your voice and thinks, “Ah, yes. This person sounds like Sadness?”
“It’s a good thing in my case to be sad,” Smith giggles. “Plus, in my head it doesn’t sound any different than anyone else’s voice.”
And don’t worry about the actress plunging into deep despair or becoming woefully lost exploring the darkest recesses of her human experience in order to pull off her Inside Out role. “I didn’t go into dark, deep corners of my mind and remember when my cat died or anything,” she jokes. “I really just tried to find the truth and the realness in whatever the line was supposed to be.”
That explains why her performance as Sadness is such a marvel. The temptation for many performers might be to lean in to the caricature of a character whose entire personality and even name is encompassed by a single emotion, as if it’s the second coming of Eeyore. Smith’s remarkable feat is tapping into the full range of human emotion, even while playing a character that is a single one.
“I have always been more of a joyous person than a sad person,” she says. “But I was fortunate to have a mom and dad where my mom could look at my face and know what was going on and was able to get me to talk and draw it out. As a result, I didn’t have to hide an emotion. I didn’t have to worry about her telling me, ‘That’s silly.’”
Entertainingly imparted through the cinematic tomfoolery of a handful of whiz-bang, wisecracking cartoon characters, that’s what sticks with you as you dry your eyes from Inside Out. So many people either deflect sadness, or perhaps, on other hand, give into it too much. But it’s not something that you’re supposed to draw a circle around and make immobile. You must deal with it. There is value in knowing what’s going on inside you.
“What a great thing that is to have, huh?” Smith says. “To have a vehicle like this.”
She recounts a story she was told about a teacher who had already purchased all the Inside Out action figures, to have them on hand in case a young student needed to express something and could use them to help articulate how they were feeling. “I never even gave something like that a thought,” she says. “To think that a movie could have an impact on a little life like that.”
Suffice it to say that Smith is juggling a full spectrum of emotion of her own these days—though joy is certainly the prevailing one. A former Hollywood casting director and a dancer before that, Smith hadn’t even appeared on screen until The Office premiered in 2005. Last month, she walked the red carpet at Cannes, where, seated between Kaling and Poehler, she held back tears as the film she’s the lead in received a 10-minute standing ovation.
Paris Hilton and Eva Longoria were at the premiere, too. “But I didn’t see them,” she says. “I was more concerned with trying not fall up the stairs and making sure that my arms didn’t show.” She laughs. “That my shawl didn’t fall down where my arms were rippling in the wind. I had my own little insecurities going on. I didn’t have time to look for Paris Hilton!”
The almost unbelievable route she took to get there isn’t lost on Smith, either. She was a St. Louis Cardinals cheerleader in the 1970s, before becoming a burlesque dancer. After injuries sidelined her dancing career, she began working in casting.
As has become a famous story, Smith was reading with the auditioning actors while casting the American version of The Office. The producers liked her line readings during those casting sessions so much that they created a role for her in the show.
“I think Office fans are very surprised to know that I used to wear a G-string and feathers,” she laughs, marveling at how people tend to only think of you in the state you are at the present moment. “In my eye I was never thin enough, but when I look back at the pictures, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah. I rocked that.’”
After a few hilarious anecdotes about what it was like to stand nose-to-nose with Cameron Diaz for 12 hours on a film set while she pretends to teach you how to roll a joint (“we started talking on subjects you would not want to print in the paper”) and the surreal experience of sitting in on Amy Poehler’s masterful voiceover sessions, Smith starts to get spiritual about the whole journey.
“I feel very fortunate that my path has been, that God has given me this opportunity,” she says. “And I know I’m not supposed to talk about God and stuff, but my spiritual life is very strong and I really feel that a big part of whatever success I’m having is due to that as well.”
And now that she’s spending her days on a mammoth press tour, going on and on about the virtues of Sadness and playing the part of an amateur psychologist, she has but one regret. “I wish I had paid more attention in my psych class in college,” she laughs. “I would’ve had a broader vocabulary to draw from.”