Phyllis Smith interview: Inside Out, Sadness, The Office

The voice of Sadness, Phyllis Smith, chats about Inside Out, Bad Teacher, and her memories of starring in The Office...

Some spoilers lie ahead for Inside Out

It’s a curious feeling to have Alcatraz Island pointed out to you by the voice of Sadness in Inside Out, but there’s something comforting about it, too. We’ve just sat down with actress Phyllis Smith in a San Francisco hotel, and she’s pointing out the landmarks looming out of the fog outside the window. “That’s Alcatraz over there,” she says, pointing at an ominous looking building on a rock. “And the Golden Gate Bridge is this way…”

In person, Smith’s gently self-deprecating about the importance of her part in Inside Out, but she’s arguably one of the key reasons why Pixar’s animated comedy-fantasy-drama was such a success. Aside from the expected excellence of the film’s animation, the voice cast really shone, with Smith’s compassionate, affecting turn as Sadness a true stand-out even among the likes of Amy Poehler as Joy, Bill Hader as Fear and Richard Kind as Bing Bong. In a family film of unusual depth and subtlety, Smith brought pathos to Sadness – one of several emotions rattling around in the head of the lonely 11-year-old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). Along with Poehler’s Joy, Smith is one of the film’s lynchpins – one half of a very funny and well-written double act.

As Inside Out makes its debut on DVD and Blu-ray, here’s what Ms Smith had to say about the making of the film, being selected for the voice of Sadness following her standout performance in Bad Teacher, and her memories of starring in The Office.

Ad – content continues below

Well, congratulations again on a wonderful film. I wonder how you found the reaction to it, and whether you could have predicted how warm it would be.

I had no idea it was going to be like this. I know that Pixar has a pretty good track record, so you know you’re in good hands when you’re working with them, but I had no idea. When we went to the Cannes film festival, and it was very quiet. And I’d seen it in a Pixar room where everybody’s laughing and crying. Then we showed it at Cannes and it’s just, like, silence. I was thinking, “That must hate it! What’s going on here?” And then, it was quite the opposite.

After the fact, I found that in France, if they like something, they’re quiet. If they don’t, they boo and hiss – they let you know. They gave us a ten minute standing ovation. Ten minutes. That was unbelievable. I didn’t know after five minutes; now what do I do? It was quite gratifying. I had no idea it was going to have the reception that it’s gotten. 

Did you have a chance to help develop Sadness from the beginning?

I think that Pete [Docter, director] and Jonas Rivera [producer] and Josh [Cooley, co-writer] and everybody, they work on these films for five years. The actors are generally attached in the third year. So they had a clear idea of what they wanted by then. But I think, right from the very first pitch, Pete was saying that he didn’t want Sadness to be one-note. Because it’s easy to play sad just annoyingly crying and whiny. Pete’s so good at his job, he was able to draw levels out of me – my insecurities, and use that with the character. It gave her more avenues to travel than just being upset about something. I instinctively add that weird part of me to the character, but I was really under the guidance of the Pixar hands – I give them credit.

Ad – content continues below

And the editors – the editors are amazing. That they can make five characters look as if we’re standing together at the board when we weren’t even at the same recording session. The editors were able to make it look as if we were having a conversation. That’s a lot of genius going on there as well.

Is that quiet difficult, to keep the performance fresh when you don’t have the other actors there to bounce off of?

I was fortunate, because I had three sessions with Amy Poehler. Because of the nature of our scenes together in the movie, it was better for the process for she and I to work together.

It’s really a double act isn’t it?

Yeah. It was easier. Especially when she’s leaving me and I’m very morose. It was easier to play off of someone than by myself. But again, they’re such pros that they know when it’s better to have these dual sessions and when to have separate ones. You trust that they’ll get what they need. 

Ad – content continues below

I liked the observation that Sadness also has the most empathy.

With Bing-Bong?

Yes. Joy tends to steam-roller people and take control. But Sadness, because of her nature, she listens.

She listens, and she knew that he needed to vent and talk. That was another part of the brilliance of the writing team. They did their homework as far as the emotions were concerned. They knew that there were 28-plus emotions or something, but they homed in on the five. They knew that the emotions…

They mesh together. The film as a whole, which is what I think is refreshing about it, is that it does have that empathy. It’s not about heroes and villains.

Right. And that the unlikely people are the ones who are saving the day. They take you down a different path.

Ad – content continues below

Was there one specific scene that you found difficult?

I think when Joy made the decision to leave me behind. There were parts of that scene that I don’t think made it into the film – they might be on the DVD I’m not sure. I haven’t seen the deleted scenes. That was difficult. As an actor, when you have to keep a quality and timbre to your voice for the character, but you also have to project it – like when they’re on Friendship Island, you have to project from here to there. Because your tendency is to raise not just the volume but the timbre of your voice; that was difficult to mechanically keep my voice where it needed to be, and also be heard.

Pete was great about being able to say, “Okay, when you say this, they’re not here, they’re two blocks away.” So he was able to give us direction with that. As an actor, that was hard. Another thing that’s hard in animation is where they have you make sounds. Like, just guttural sounds [laughs] Things you don’t generally think of, you know? You just do it. And when you’re asked, you’re like, “Oh. Okay… I’d never thought about how that was supposed to sound…”

Like, [makes agonised groaning sound, as though trying to grasp something just out of reach], you know, reaching. Or things that you don’t give a thought to until you’re in the spotlight. I found those sound days difficult – but fun. 

Is it quite playful, then?

Ad – content continues below

Yeah, it depends. It’s a serious thing because there’s so much you have to get done in a short amount of time. But it’s the creative team – they know how to do it. They’re decent people. They’re decent guys. Even the sad parts of fun.

What are your memories of making Bad Teacher? It was your performance in that film that got you Inside Out.

I was really fortunate to play that. I was kind of the afterthought in that movie – they couldn’t find that role. When we were doing The Office, there was an area backstage where they worked on hair and makeup, and I was sitting there waiting to get ready to go on, and one of the writers went, “I want you to audition for Bad Teacher.” I went, “Okay!”

They had me go reead for the casting director, and Cameron [Diaz] came up to me in the table read, and she put her arm around me. I’d never met her before, but she said, “I saw the tape, and you are this person.” Right off the bat, she told me. We hit it off really we did. She couldn’t be lovelier to work with, either. Whether it was six in the morning or 12 midnight, she’s lovely.

There was one scene in Bad Teacher where she didn’t get her close-up until 10 o’clock at night, and she’s so professional that she was just as on eight or 10 hours later as she was when we started. Because they had multiple parts. By the time it was her turn… really, you’d think they’d have shot her first! But it wasn’t – it was 10 hours later! But she was so professional. So the eating scene that Jonas saw – I’d have to say thank you. Thank you for watching it!

Did he say specifically what it was that he liked in that scene?

Ad – content continues below

No, he just told me that he picked the phone up and called Pete and said, “I think we found our Sadness.” I guess it was my weird crazy insecurity. Because I was very, “Uhh, I don’t know.” That kind of a mood. “Maybe I’ll sit in the back, maybe I’ll sit in the front…” I think Sadness has that in her – she’s insecure. I guess he could see the relationship between the two. I’m just happy he did! 

What was working on The Office like?

It was a good nine years. A quick nine years. The first season we started out, they kept us all on set, all the periphery characters, all the time, because they weren’t sure what element of the office was going to be shot. So they had to have the backs of our heads or this or that. So for the whole first season, we were there all the time pretty much – even if we weren’t on camera, we’d be on set. Then as the years progressed, they said, “We’re not going to see them. Don’t bring them in!” They knew how to splice it down so that we wouldn’t be sitting there for 12 hours and not be on camera. The scripts were wonderful. It kind of morphed, you know, after Steve [Carrell] left. The showrunner changed. It went on a different path for a while, but then when the old showrunner came back, it got back on track.

Do you have a personal favourite episode?

Well, there were so many that were good. Of course, I enjoyed my wedding with Bob Vance [Phyllis’ Wedding] and Steve playing Santa Claus [Secret Santa]. When Steve sat on my lap as Santa Claus, you know, or when Kevin sat on Steve’s lap and you hear Steve go, “Uhhh!” [Laughs] There are so many…

Ad – content continues below

Then, one of my favourites is a weird little scene. Michael and Dwight went to the boss to get him to not close the branch down, and they make a decision to keep it open. Then they chest bump each other and they’re so happy. And then they go, “What did we do?” “Well, I don’t know.” [Laughs] It’s a stupid little scene, but I loved that. “I dunno what we did.” But they were happy about it! There are so many. I remember shooting the pilot and Steve saying, “You know, this might be the best television we’ll ever be involved in.” I think he got it pretty much right, you know?

I liked that it was so different from the British one.

Yeah. It maybe took the pilot and the first episode or two. They were pretty in line with the British version, but then they started to get the American humour in there a bit, and it took off on its own. We got to work with Stephen Merchant, of course. We never got to work with Ricky [Gervais]. Ricky never worked on the show or directed – because Stephen directed a couple of episodes and acted. We got to meet Ricky but not really work with him.

Phyllis Smith, thank you very much.

Inside Out will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from the 20th November in the UK.