Pixar’s breakout summer hit Inside Out — about five emotions that live inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley — achieved the near-impossible: helping children and adults alike better understand the complexity of feelings like joy, sadness, fear, disgust and anger.
Though the cast boasts an impressive array of comedians like Amy Poehler (Joy), Mindy Kaling (Disgust), Bill Hader (Fear), and Lewis Black (Anger), most agreed that The Office alum Phyllis Smith stole the show as Sadness, an emotion whose down-in-the-dumps mentality belies a brilliant, nuanced performance. Ahead of Inside Out hitting Disney Movies Anywhere, and digital HD formats on Oct. 13 with a release on Blu-ray to follow Nov. 3, Smith — a former casting assistant and burlesque dancer — chatted with EW about breaking into animation, encountering film fans at Target, and about the possibility of an Inside Out sequel.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Sadness was one of the more thought provoking characters in the film and was a total scene stealer. Did you expect it to be such a hit among audiences?
PHYLLIS SMITH: I really didn’t. I had no concept when I was making the movie of how it was going to be edited together, and what the final product was going to be like. The first indication that my character might have a lot to do in the film was when a short Inside Out commercial aired after the Super Bowl. [The credits] listed Amy Poehler and then me, Phyllis. I thought to myself, “I got second billing?” [Laughs]
Were you surprised that Sadness resonated as well as it did with children?
Well, sadness is often thought as a bad thing, and not necessarily as a healthy way to navigate through a situation. And I’ve had kids come up to talk to me about the movie. The other day I was in Target, I heard this voice behind me and there was this tiny little girl. I think she was in kindergarten or in 1st grade and she had this Sadness doll and she said, “Would you sign this please”? [Laughs] And she said “I love Sadness.”
That’s adorable. So for the record, you still shop at Target?
Absolutely. I have a whole fan club at Target. You know what? One of the first places I was ever recognized after The Office came out was at Target in Los Angeles. Someone came up to me and she said “Are you Phyllis from The Office?” We were in different aisles, but she had recognized my voice.
Did you draw on any specific emotions or memories in doing the voiceover work for Inside Out?
I really didn’t. I didn’t think about my dog dying or anything like that. I didn’t try to, I just did it intuitively or instinctively, I should say.
Your Office co-star Mindy Kaling voiced Disgust. Who signed on to the movie first?
When I was first told about the project, they told me that Mindy had been approached about playing Disgust. But when you sign with Pixar, you sign an agreement that you can’t tell anybody about it because it’s a secret. So when I got back to The Office trailers, I couldn’t say anything, since I didn’t know how much she knew about the project and what we were allowed to say. It was awhile before we were able to enjoy the news out in the open.
What was it like reunite with Mindy to do press for Inside Out, more than two years after The Office ended?
That was great. Her series [The Mindy Project] has gone so wonderfully for her, and when we were at Cannes Film Festival, she was just in the process of getting her crew back together to start her new season. She had quite a bit on her plate, but it was fun to be with her and see how much she’s grown as a person and as an executive.
Has there been any talk of an Office reunion? Do you have any interest in getting back together with the rest of the cast?
I think it would be a really great idea. I haven’t heard anything. It was such a joy to work with those people, so any time they want to pull us back together, I’d be on board immediately.
Speaking of sequels, what’s the word on an Inside Out 2?
I haven’t heard anything from anybody official about it. How about this? If I hear anything, I’ll meet you at the Target in New York with the news.
Your Inside Out co-stars Amy Poehler and Mindy Kaling both have written memoirs. Is that something you’re at all interested in doing? You have an incredible story – you were once a NFL cheerleader and then a burlesque dancer before you transitioned to casting, and later acting.
I’ve never thought of it. Someone recently told me, “Phyllis, you should write a book” and I said, “Really?” I’m just a weird, normal person. [Laughs] I’ve just tried to be a responsible person and pay my bills. But whatever it is I do, I want to do the best I can. I know how difficult it is for actors to get work, because I did casting for all those years. I know how difficult it is to get one job, much less an entirely new career. I’m very blessed and grateful. It’s like I’m a normal person with an extraordinary journey.
Check out this behind-the-scenes look at the process of designing Sadness, straight from Inside Out character art director Albert Lozano, character artist Chris Sasaki and production designer Ralph Eggleston.