Christina Hendricks has always been fascinated by dummies. That is to say that since her childhood, she’s had a soft spot for the wooden, slack-jawed, vacant-eyed ventriloquist props that have been the inspiration for a thousand movie villains, including those in Toy Story 4. So it is something akin to serendipity that Pixar Animation Studios would reach out to Hendricks to play Gabby Gabby, a creepy doll in her own right.
While Hendricks stops short of fully agreeing with how Toy Story 4 director Josh Cooley characterized her as having “a lot of doll heads in [her] house,” the Emmy-nominated actor is proud that after a childhood of wanting a Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist dummy, her husband gave her one to treasure in her home. In fact, she is quite the fan of antique stores and values things that are truly vintage, which as she points out during our interview in Disney World, seems like fate given that Gabby Gabby is a 1950s-era doll trapped inside of an antique store with an army of subservient dummies. Gabby also, in spite of an uncanny valley gaze, is not necessarily the wholly sinister doll she at first appears.
“You go see movies and there’s a good guy and a bad guy, and it’s very cut and dry,” Hendricks says. “I think for children watching this, to have a character where you’re like, ‘Oh wait, if I just heard their story and I knew their background and why they’re doing this, they’re not a bad guy.’”
When we sit down, it’s during the height of Toy Story 4 mania in Orlando, Florida. The film is just about to have its world premiere and Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios is at full roar. Granted it’s actually quite gloomy this particular Saturday afternoon, but that’s okay because Hendricks likes the rain too, just as she likes contemplating that this film might give some children pause about whether or not to ignore old things—also like certain characters take a pause about ignoring Gabby and her dummies. As the actor is quick to point out, Gabby has been isolated with these guys for years. And while her ostensibly wooden henchmen may not be all bad, they’re also the only toys in the Toy Story universe who cannot talk (ironic for puppets), which makes her interest in Woody and new fan favorite character Forky more nuanced than even parents might be prepared for from an animated film.
“Like out of all the toys, they’re just sort of these mechanical things,” Hendricks says of the dummies in the movie. “So here’s this doll who’s been living in a curio cabinet her entire existence with no other toys to talk to; no one to talk to and observe her, and all of a sudden she has Forky who’s just this wide-eyed innocent who is willing to hear her story, and she finally gets to talk about her life to someone and share an experience. It’s this sweet friendship that they have.”
But isn’t she also trying to manipulate Forky and Woody? “I think it’s both,” Hendricks says while acknowledging some ulterior motives (like obtaining Woody’s voice box so as to fix her own). It’s one of several surprisingly layered complexities in Toy Story 4, which we discuss in the full interview below. That, plus Mad Men, the unique challenges of voice acting, and just whatever happened to Hendricks’ Saffron (or “Yosaffbridge” to Browncoats) on a show called Firefly…
What were the early conversations about this movie like? Was the character pitched to you the same one we saw in the finished film?
Christina Hendricks: Yes. When they called me, they sent a picture of what Gabby Gabby looked like and a brief description. She has a broken voice box, she needs this, this is her goal, and so I got on the phone and I said, “Oh, she’s got a broken voice box? What does that mean?” Like do you need me to do like some weird voice?” And they’re like, “No, just your normal voice.” And I was like, “Oh, okay, we’ll that’s fun.” And then they went through sort of her whole story and then I got to go in and I saw the henchmen that she’s got, and I got excited when I saw the antique store.
I’ve heard that you collected dolls and dummies growing up so why did you prefer, honestly, the creepier critters?
[Laughs] It’s not that I really collected dolls and dummies, although that’s a funny sentence, but no, I had always wanted this Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll my whole life and I asked for it every year for Christmas, and my parents never got it for me. So as an adult, my husband bought it for me, and I have one now. So when I went in there, they were like, “And look, she’s got these creepy—” and I was like, “But I actually have that in my life, in my home!” [Laughs] Their reaction is you’re really weird.
So it was fun for me, because I’m like actually an antique store kind of person, so I was like, “Did you guys do background research on me or is this just completely coincidence?” There were a lot of weird coincidences.
So you have sympathy for them already, because one of the great things about seeing Gabby is, she is the antagonist but she’s not a typical animated villain.
How nice is it to kind of play that ambiguity especially in a form where people might have preconceived notions?
Well that’s the nice thing. You go see movies and there’s a good guy and a bad guy, and it’s like very cut and dry, and I think for children watching this, to have a character where you’re like, “Oh wait, if I just heard their story and I knew their background and why they’re doing this, they’re not a bad guy.” It’s about understanding someone’s story and how that makes them who they are, and just because you don’t understand it right away doesn’t mean it’s bad.
I would think it’s also really good to have characters in movies right now, that children see, who don’t settle everything through conflict; through violence.
Yeah. And that Woody understands her plight. To have the hero of our movie understand her and try to help her… I think what brought a tear to my eye is that the whole group comes in and supports her and helps her and it’s that sort of family camaraderie that is like so tender and like what we all want, you know?
But at the same time, Gabby can be very ruthless in her own way. Could you talk about her relationship with Forky as well as the henchman?
Yeah. I think her henchmen… they’re sort of the toys in the movie who don’t talk. Like out of all the toys, they’re just sort of these mechanical things. So here’s this doll who’s been living in a curio cabinet her entire existence with no other toys to talk to; no one to talk to and observe her, and all of a sudden she has Forky who’s just this innocent, just this wide-eyed innocent who is willing to hear her story and she finally gets to talk about her life to someone and share an experience, so it’s this sweet friendship that they have.
So you don’t think she might be manipulating him?
I think both. I think she needs his help and I think she has an ultimate goal in mind but when you’re like, “Oh, but the whole thing is so that she can love a child,” then how can you hate her?
You’ve done voice acting before, but what’s different about doing a Pixar film versus your other experiences in voiceover work?
The process wasn’t any different. It’s just like a grander—here I am in Florida at Disney World, at a theme park that says “Toy Story” everywhere. I mean, it’s just super, super exciting, but the process is the same. You sort of work by yourself in a room and give all these options, and do all these things, and then it’s always exciting to see the end result, because we don’t see the animation as we’re going along. You’re just in there, throwing your voice out there into the world.
And you have seen the movie?
Yeah, I loved it.
I feel like we say this after each one, but it seems like a really perfect ending for this world, and I know you’re coming into it with this film but with your work on Mad Men, what is necessary for a story to have a satisfying ending that leaves fans satisfied?
Oh, I would be writer if I knew that. I’ve just been lucky enough to be on things that I thought were beautiful endings, you know? On Mad Men, I wasn’t like, “Oh really?!” I was like, “Perfect.”
Yeah, well done Matt Weiner.
Why do you think people have a fear of old things? Because this movie is really tapping into our fear of maybe antiques, certainly dolls, and things from the past.
Do we? Do we have a fear? I mean, we have a fear of growing old, right? So I don’t know. Maybe we equate emotions with the history that these sort of inanimate items possess or something? We sort of personify things maybe a little bit, maybe that’s it.
You mentioned you are a fan of antiquing, and the antique store in this movie is depicted, initially, as something very ominous and then as we spend more time with Gabby and the chandeliers, we see the beauty in that. Do you have a hope this movie can show an appreciation for old things versus little girls that might throw Gabby away?
Oh, I didn’t really think of it that way but maybe that will influence some young children. I mean, she’s definitely like a vintage doll and maybe kids will find that they can find treasures in places they didn’t expect, maybe.
I know that Annie when she came back was able to work with Tom and voice with him. Were you able to act against any of the other actors?
. I did it completely [alone]. I think the two of them were the only ones—well, Key and Peele got to work together—but I think the rest of us were solo.
How to physically embody the character while you’re doing the voice?
We were all talking about that last night. You’d be surprised how sort of physical you actually get in the room, and there is sometimes you feel a little bit foolish, and a little bit silly. You’re like punching and doing things, because when you’re doing the physical stuff. You kind of have to have that breathiness and like the sort of physicality behind it. So it’d be like if you had like VR glasses on, like looking a little bit stupid in a room. But it sort of seems necessary and it gets you sort of in the emotional space too, so you do kind of act it out a little bit.
Do the animators use that or look at it for inspiration?
There’s always a camera, they’re always filming you. I think it’s good for the animators so they can see your facial expressions and things like that, but they don’t match it to [your face], but they can use it as a reference
I know you didn’t see a full screenplay when you did your scenes, you just saw your animated sections. So was there anything in the finished film that surprised you?
Yeah, that I was still in it. [Laughs] But no joking, I didn’t know how significant the character was or how much she was in it, because I didn’t know the whole story arc. So I was like, “Oh, I’m really in this movie.” This is awesome.
As a Firefly fan, I just wanted to ask, since we’ll probably not see more of that world, what do you think happened to Saffron after we last saw her?
Oh goodness. I’m sure she’s scamming inter-galactically somewhere. She’s scrappy. I think she probably did alright for herself.
Toy Story 4 is in theaters on June 21.