NB: The following contains spoilers for Inside Out and Frozen.
Surprises can be few and far between in major films these days, but Inside Out’s Bing Bong was arguably one of them. Entirely absent from the marketing of Pixar’s summer film, imaginary friend Bing Bong managed to steal every scene he was in.
As voiced by the character actor Richard Kind, he’s an effervescent, sweet and unforgettable supporting character, and responsible for some of the film’s most affecting moments. As Inside Out emerges on DVD and Blu-ray, we caught up with Kind to talk about the impact his character’s already had on popular culture, how he brought Riley’s imaginary friend to life, and why the film as a whole deserves to be compared to A Serious Man, Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2009 black comedy.
Congratulations on a wonderful performance. When you read the character on the page, did you think he could capture people’s imaginations the way he has?
No, I did not think so. I loved the idea that he was the imaginary friend. An actor often says, “What is my want in this scene?” I was trained in Second City, and a lot of times, you’ll ask yourself, “Why am I in this scene? What is my purpose?”
I felt my purpose was really clear in this movie, in that I am guiding Joy and Sadness in order to for them to get what they want. You must understand I’m not talking about performance or longevity, but if you look at The Wizard Of Oz, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion, they’re there to help Dorothy get to the Wizard. That’s what they’re there for. As it goes on, their purpose grows, but it’s clear cut – they’re there to guide Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road.
So I’m there to guide Joy and Sadness. But at the end, what resonates with the audience is the very sad disappearance of childhood memories. I’m trying to remember the line: “When I grew up, I put childish things away” – that is what I am. And there is nothing sadder than the acceptance that we are growing up. Now that I’m as old as I am, I really want something else – I want the fountain of youth! I don’t want an imaginary friend, I want the fountain of youth! But it doesn’t come. These are just things that… we want to shape the lapels of God and say, “Give it back, give it back.” And we can’t – we just have to accept it. I think that’s a very sad thing to accept.
I think that’s what makes the film so resonant for people of different ages. There’s something for kids, but adults too.
I think this speaks greater to adults. In ways that they have no idea. I also think, take a look at this film when you’re seven years old, then see it at age 14, having seen it at seven, and imagine what you’re going to think. See this film at 21 and look back on your life. Look at this as a parent… everyone has such a strong reaction. It’s just – I can’t think of the word, but it’s hard. It hits them hard.
I can only imagine that when they’re 14, that the seven-year-old viewing will impact them as they’re watching as a 14 year-old. Watching it now but seeing it now – recalling, “Oh my God, that’s the first time I ever saw it.”
This is a silly thing, and it doesn’t haven anything to do with anything but I’ve got to fill up 15 minutes. [Laughs] I remember the first time I saw the movie It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Remember that?
Jimmy Durante dies, and there’s a bucket. He kicks the bucket. You see the bucket go down the hill? Okay. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. The audience was laughing and I laughed and laughed. But I didn’t know the meaning – I had never heard [the phrase] “Kick the bucket.” I had no idea that kick the bucket meant he was dead.
So when I saw it years later, I’m watching the movie and the kids are laughing, and I go, “Oh! When I was a kid I didn’t understand that joke, but I remember laughing!”
That’s what I’m thinking about when I talk about kids watching [Inside Out] seven years to a generation later.
Have people recognised your voice since?
Every once in a while I get somebody. I’ll be talking on the street and somebody will turn around and say, “I knew that was you! I could tell your voice anywhere!”
I wonder how many people recognise that it’s my voice. A friend of mine who happens to be… you know Roger Friedman [the film critic]? I think he saw it at Cannes. He emailed me and said that he was watching the movie, and it wasn’t until it was halfway through that he recognised it was me – and I know him!
So some people know it, some people don’t.
It’s the way your voice meshes with the visuals, isn’t it? It becomes another entity unto itself.
Like I said, I knew what my job was. I mean, [goes into the voice of Bing Bong] he’s a little happier when he talks. He talks in a higher voice…
Here’s something. I have the son of a friend who is… he’s slow. Okay? He’s mentally challenged a little bit. And he’s loud, and he gets very close when he talks. He has no filter whatsoever. When he’s happy to see you, he’s happy to see you, and he’s loud about it. “Richard, how are you! How are you? It’s lovely to see you right now!”
I think I may have channeled him a little bit. It just occurred to me now, but that’s who he is. There’s an innocence and a purity. As I say, he’s challenged. Immediately, you can see why some people would not want to be around him, and I worried about that with this character when I was talking like that. I talk very fast; the lines come out… it was an interesting character to do like that. Very interesting. But there was purity – there’s no malice whatsoever. It’s a wonderful character to do – no malice at all.
When he sits down next to Sadness and says, “How do I feel? I don’t know. I just feel sad.” I can’t quite remember the scene, but he’s answering purely, and that’s what breaks her [Sadness] up, all of a sudden. She is woken up to different feelings.
That’s true of the film as a whole, isn’t it? There aren’t any villains in it. It’s unusual in that sense.
There are no villains. By the way – and this is the first time I’ve talked about this – I remember reading something, somebody pointed it out, that when you saw the movie Frozen, the good looking prince turns out to be a villain. So this is Disney’s hook now, is to introduce somebody you love, and then you find out that they’re not good.
So you’re suspicious of [Bing Bong] at first, I think. Who is he? Is this the guy who’s gonna turn the tables? And then, not only do I not turn the tables, I give my life so that the girl can continue on her journey. That really is a kick in the gut. It’s a real turn of the tables – not only am I not bad, I’m saintly. It’s wonderful.
Some fairytales tend to maintain a certain status quo, didn’t they? In the sense that the ugly characters are often evil. The pure-hearted ones are the young, good-looking ones.
Frozen was really a great twist. I was quite tricked by it. But here, there’s only goodness, there’s only purity. I was watching something the other day, they threw baby showers for the wives of soldiers. They’re not widows, but they’re mothers and their husbands are off at war. But there were close-ups of the babies and the mothers with the babies. And I was thinking, “God, it’s been forever since I last held a baby.” You just look at them, and even the babies of terrorists, there’s nothing there except for a blank slate of purity.
That’s sort of this guy [Bing Bong]. He’s like that, except he can talk and he has opinions. But it’s a blank slate of purity. Because he’s been created so he can comfort a young child. That’s why I exist, to comfort a young child.
Looking back through your career, you’ve worked with some incredible directors. I was looking earlier: the Coen Brothers, Clint Eastwood…
Arthur Penn! Not on film, but on stage. Joanne Woodward. I’ve been lucky, yeah.
Is there a director you’re particularly proud to have worked with?
I’m very proud of the movie A Serious Man. I think A Serious Man is also a masterpiece. I really do, I think that it’s a masterpiece in some of the ways that this movie [Inside Out] resonates with emotion. That one deals with psychological and theological questions that there are no clear-cut answers to. Things go around and intersect and bump off each other, and you wish you could say, “This is how it is,” and it’s not how it is.
It’s really deep. It’s, what’s the word I’m looking for…
I think that’s a really good word. I wasn’t what I was thinking but they are profound movies. Both of them are profound, and deal with profound issues. It delves deep, it’s not just on one layer. It’s not just, “There’s a guy in a building and I’ve got a gun and I’m gonna chase him.” There are layers to both of those films, Inside Out and A Serious Man.
You’ve worked with Pixar quite a few times now…
Yeah, five times. It should have been six, but when I was doing Monsters Inc, they felt that my voice felt too much like Billy Crystal. So they decided to stay with Billy Crystal and not me! That’s a joke. But they were right.
I think there was supposed to be other characters who helped [Joy and Sadness] on their journey, much like Wizard Of Oz. And then they just kept it to me. I would have liked to have seen that. But personally, I’m thrilled, because I got the run of the movie a lot more. I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s really funny that the imaginary friend should be their help. Somebody who doesn’t exist. That’s pretty great. That’s a really imaginative and wonderful thing.
Richard Kind, thank you very much.
Inside Out is out on DVD and Blu-ray on the 23rd November in the UK.