Lewis Black Talks Inside Out, Embodying Anger, and More!

Perpetually angry comedian Lewis Black gets typecast in Pixar’s new gem.

Inside Out is the story of an 11-year-old girl named Riley and how she deals with the great changes brought into her life by her family’s move to a new city and a new lifestyle that she doesn’t quite accept at first. Guiding her through these experiences are the five major emotions that play a role in her life, led by Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler). The others are Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader) and Anger, voiced by comedian Lewis Black.

To have Lewis Black play a character called Anger is a no-brainer in a movie all about the human brain. Black is known for his wrath as he delivers his act onstage, railing against politics, culture and whatever else sets him off, but behind the fury is a sharp social critic, a fierce champion for justice and in many ways a humanist (he’s also an author and playwright). The character of Anger in Inside Out only wants what’s fair for Riley, a view that Black echoes in his other work.

Den Of Geek had a chance to speak with Black during the recent Inside Out press day in Los Angeles, where we spoke about playing Anger, the secret to good blood pressure and whether Black is a softie at heart.

Den Of Geek: I saw you at the press conference earlier. Little bit of a dead room there.

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Lewis Black: It wasn’t bad. All things considered, not bad. I didn’t care…everybody up there makes me laugh so hard I could have been in the room with just them. They’re terrific.

So somebody asks you to play the part of Anger in a movie. Is your first thought, “Well, that sounds about right”?

My first thought is “Perfect. This is absolutely spot on.” And I would have been upset if they’d picked anybody else.

How did director Pete Docter sell you the premise of the movie? Bill Hader said that Pete showed him a picture of his daughter at a young age and then again at 11 when she’s a little more sullen and she wasn’t this happy go lucky little kid. How did he pitch it to you?

They didn’t really have it pitch it to me because I just went, “Yes.” Then they started talking about it. I was doing a show and then I visited them. They just showed me preliminary stuff. Even in the initial box of stuff they gave me, it was about an 11 ½ year old girl who moves from Minneapolis to San Francisco and her world is upset. We deal with her outside world and her inside world and the emotions that are in here, and the emotions play a major role. And I went, “Fine.” I thought, “Wow. This is not easy.”

Does playing the emotion of anger as a character make you think about it a little more in terms of your own motivation and what makes you angry and what sets you off?

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No. You know what? To be honest, it doesn’t really because I’ve lived with it for so long and performed it, and it’s been a part of my comedy for 25 years and it was a part of my life…it’s been a real part of my life, along with separating, just in psychological terms, my mother’s anger from my own anger. So I’ve always had a sense of it.

So no self-analysis or anything like that going on.

Bill Hader needs self-analysis. I don’t. [laughs] No, I didn’t. But I found the other emotions fascinating.

Pete Docter described anger as being all about fairness. Anger wants things to be fair for Riley. Does that emotion come for you from the same place? Is it all about fairness and justice?

Yeah. I think a lot of it does. When he did say that for the first time, I went, “Ah. That’s it.” That’s really…a lot of my anger comes from the fact of people being stupid and, by being stupid, hurting other people. So I’ve always responded when I’ve seen stuff that I don’t think is right with anger.

A lot of this movie is about accepting sadness as a healthy emotion, but I think you could also make a movie where you could talk about anger being a healthy emotion as well.

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For sure. I think it’s an important one. I think a lot of people sit on it. I don’t, and I think it’s why my blood pressure is so good.

Did you get to see the character beforehand? And seeing the character, did that help you get a little bit more in terms of how you were going to play him?

In part, yes. And, in part it made me really comfortable because it was like me all squished up. I could see myself in it.

When you get angry, do you actually visualize flames coming off the top of your head?

No. [laughs] But I do see myself getting taller and taller. But if they can get the flames to work on my head, I’d start using them next week.

Both Bill Hader and Amy Poehler touched on the fact that Pete Docter is very collaborative. He let them come in and go through the scripts and improvise material a little bit. Did you have that same kind of experience or did you go with what was written?

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I went a lot with what was written because it was all based on me. My character kind of had its place. I was not as integral to plotting, in a sense. I think they knew that I would be the one who would take over, that I would be the one who’d say, “Let’s get out of here.” So I think that a lot of it was already solid for me. But they would say, “What would you say here?” So there was stuff like that. And I’m a writer, so there were a couple of times where I’d say, “Why don’t we try this?” But most of the time I don’t screw around with other people’s writing.

You obviously have a history as a playwright as well. Does being a playwright give you sort of an insight when you read a script? I’m sure you see a lot of different scripts from time to time, do you think you look at them with a different eye than just an actor might look at it?

Absolutely, because that’s the way I learned how to act, through playwriting. I can pretty much know in the first 10 pages if I’m looking at a good script or not because of that, because I’ve read way, way, way too many scripts, and outside of that, a lot of theatre script. And you go, “Wow. This is not going to turn around on Page 30.”

You are on record as an unabashed fan of Pixar. You love all the movies. First of all, is that the soft hidden part of Lewis Black that we don’t see? And the second part of that question is what do you think make them touch such a chord with people, from kids to an older guy like yourself?

I think it is part of the soft part of me. One of the things that I’ve heard. I don’t really know how I do it, but as angry as I get on stage, apparently I present a certain amount of vulnerability, even with my anger. So Pixar certainly hits that spot. I think that what Pixar has is that they know their audience. They have a sense of who they are talking to and why they are talking to them, and they have a real sense of story that’s huge. By telling a story and knowing that you are telling the story for both the adult and the child, they trust themselves to be able to do it. I think they have an equal hand in both worlds. It’s just astonishing.

What’s coming up in Lewis Black’s world once the movie is out? Are you going on tour again?

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I do four shows in Portland, in Hyannis, and in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. And then in September I go back on the road again. And I have a web series that I’ve produced and I helped write and am appearing in, about mentors. It’s a whole variety of bad mentors.

Inside Out is out in theaters now.