An interview with Phyllis Smith, the voice of Sadness in INSIDE OUT
To see her, you’d most likely recognize her as Phyllis Vance from The Office. But to hear her…well, after this year’s blockbuster hit from Pixar, INSIDE OUT, you’ll know Phyllis Smith better as the voice of Sadness. Playing the adorable, sometimes-frustrating but often misunderstood emotion was a new experience for Smith and she chatted with us this week about what a pleasure it was.
I think everyone’s initial reaction to this film, even the trailer, was excitement over how different and unique it was thematically. What was your reaction when you first read the script?
Well, first they called me up and invited me to Emeryville, which is the campus for Pixar. I got to meet Jonas (Rivera, producer) and Pete Docter (director), and writers and animators…a lot of people! I walked into a room – a fairly large one, too – and the whole thing was lined with storyboards for scenes in the movie that some talented person had drawn. That in itself was pretty amazing and overwhelming.
They presented the idea of this 11-year old girl having the emotions, and said they thought I might be good for Sadness. So I actually didn’t have a script – that was the first intro. Of course I said yes! As far as the script was concerned, it would change every time we had a session. I would see one script and the next time we’d do it, it would be a completely different section, and I’m thinking “oh…did they cut that out?” It wasn’t until I saw the film in its entirety that I realized how wonderfully they were able to pull it together. It was mind-boggling, actually, that first time around!
Given that it is rather complex subject matter, was there ever a concern as to how it would be received or what its appeal might be?
You know, I kept wondering as I was working with it…and then when I saw it for the first time, I could see where younger children would be drawn to the action and the colours, not knowing how much of the emotional levels they’d pick up. But you’d be surprised. One of the people at Pixar had a child who was having trouble jumping off of a diving board. They had a family showing of INSIDE OUT and when his dad came home one day, the little boy said “Daddy, Daddy, I jumped off the diving board!” The father said, “You did? How did that happen?” and he said, “Well, I decided not to let fear drive me”. And he was 5 or 6! So young children are able to decipher the different emotions driving them at the time. And then of course as an adult, you see it with completely different eyes. I think that’s probably the brilliance of the movie, that as a child grows and watches it, they might see something different every time.
You’re essentially the hero, and perhaps the most complex or misunderstood of the emotions. What did you enjoy about playing Sadness?
I had no idea she was going to be the hero of the movie! Like I mentioned earlier, when we did the script, it would be in pieces. And with things being edited, you didn’t know what was going to stay in and what was going to stay out. So I had no concept that Sadness had such an intricate part in the movie as I was doing it; it was only after the fact that I found out.
When Pete Docter and I talked about her, we decided right off the bat that she needed to be more than just whiny and crying all the time…that would wear thin really fast. We had to find other levels of her, so we delved into her insecurities – which was a lot of me! So it was kind of cathartic for me actually.
Obviously Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen had quite a bit of research to do in terms of the psychological aspects of the story…but how do you even begin to research an emotion or your portrayal of one?
I wish now that maybe I had done it differently, but basically every time I would get the script, I would just sit and read it over and over and try to find the truth of the line. I did it by scene and by line. Our emotions are so much a part of us that I didn’t try to make her a character per se as much as I tried to find the honesty of where it was coming from, if that makes sense. It wasn’t like I was trying to create a character of Sadness – I was trying to find the truth of her.
Was this your first experience doing voice work?
It was! I’d never done it before. I found that I really like it! After the actual film part of it was done, I did levels of games for Disney and I did commercials…I found that I really enjoyed the creative freedom to try and do whatever the lines were in different ways. And to immediately do it – you don’t have time to think and analyze. So it kept my brain going. I would like to do more of it!
You’re obviously no stranger to being on set with a number of comedic actors, but this must have been quite a different type of experience to something like The Office.
Yes…I was fortunate during the actual recordings to work with Amy a few times; we had three different sessions together. I didn’t even see Lewis or Mindy or Bill at all. We were never together until the film was almost completed and we had what’s called a “content day” in LA, where we were putting together information to promote the film. So we had a day of photography and interviews and things like that. That was the first time that all five of us had been together.
I can remember one of the sessions that [Amy and I] had where I was able to sit back and she was recording the Bing Bong song. She was singing “Who’s your friend who likes to play? Bing Bong, Bing Bong”…that part of the film. I was able to watch and learn and listen…and watch how she was able to immediately come up with different ideas and ask to do it again. Things that I was a little bit shy about doing, so it was good for me to just sit back and watch and learn. Besides the fact that when we actually did have dialogue across the room from each other it was much easier with the timing and the facial expressions and things like that to play off of someone. But it was a real joy to work with Amy – no pun intended!
INSIDE OUT is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.