Inside Bo Peep's Toy Story 4 comeback, 20 years in the making
A famous toy band from the ’90s is reuniting! When Pixar’s summer sequel Toy Story 4 flings Woody (Tom Hanks) to a sleepy upstate town, the spindly sheriff finds a familiar face from home whom he’d long since put out of mind: Bo Peep (Annie Potts), a seasoned shepherdess who’s gone rogue on the road, reemerges to her old pal as a toy displaced — and a woman changed.
“Bo’s been lost a long time, and she’s had a lot of time to work it out, and I have a feeling that as with things in real life, that journey was not easy, but she’s come to a happy place on the road,” says Potts, 66, who voiced the character in her 1995 debut and again in 1999’s Toy Story 2 — but was sadly nowhere to be found in 2010’s Toy Story 3. But if Bo accepted her fate, so, too, did the veteran actress. “Honestly, I felt a little bit like Bo when I heard that they were doing Toy Story 3 and I didn’t get a call,” admits the Young Sheldon star. “I became a lost toy! So when I did get the call to come and do Toy Story 4, and that I would have a principal role in it, it was one of those wonderful feelings in life when you feel like you’ve been left behind and then all of a sudden the universe goes, ‘No, no, we never forgot you. We had a bigger plan for you.’”
Bo’s omission from Toy Story 3 has been explained away over the years from a variety of conflicting reasons: One theory claimed that the filmmakers couldn’t justify how Bo’s porcelain would ever survive the climactic scene in an incinerator; another filled in the blank that Bo was just absent because she was sold at an offscreen yard sale. Potts says she was told that Bo was purposefully missing in 3 specifically so that she could return as a surprise in 4. Even Toy Story 4 director Josh Cooley had to do his own digging into the mystery. “I talked to Lee [Unkrich] about it — he directed Toy Story 3 — and he said that for him, it was difficult to think about that last scene in the movie where Andy’s handing his toys over to Bonnie and he’s naming off all of the toys, and he’s like ‘This is Buzz, he’s the greatest! And here’s Woody, he’ll stick by you!’ And [Lee] had trouble with him going, ‘Here’s Bo…. she’s part of my sister’s lamp,’” recalls Cooley. “At the same time, I know that Andrew [Stanton] started thinking of the original outline of this film right after he wrote the third one, so [Potts’ statement] is definitely possible. Bo was always in every single version of this. We knew that it was going to be about her, and that there was going to be a big reason why Woody is meeting up with her again.”
Whatever the reason for her absence, Bo is back — and she’s got a new outfit and outlook that she now proudly wields in her life as a lost toy (in the company of her three loyal sheep and her similarly-lost sidekick, a Polly Pocket-sized police officer named Giggle McDimples). Potts relished every layer of the born-again Bo. “Pixar has teams of people that are assigned to a character and I had the delight to meet my team, who invented this new Bo, and it was like they had done their doctoral thesis on her — what she could and couldn’t and would and wouldn’t do, and battle lines as to how she needed to move,” says the actress. “They were solely dedicated to making her a modern woman: loving and fierce and capable and unafraid. And happy. Bo was a little hampered by the fact that she was porcelain and stuck to the lamp, so they freed her up from that and had her evolve, and she’s reinvented herself as a bit of a refugee. All she has is what she had on her back, and she’s made that her cape. She’s kind of Mad Max…well, Mad Maxine.”
Cooley doesn’t disagree but points to another iconic action film as inspiration for Bo’s adventuring dynamic with Woody. “Because they’ve known each other for such a long time, the relationship that Indiana Jones had with Marion is something I had in mind with Woody and Bo,” he says. (And on the topic of film inspirations, early descriptions of Toy Story 4 had also earmarked the film as a rom-com, but Cooley says that label has since been left behind as the story evolved. “I would say if you call Raiders of the Lost Ark a rom-com, then this is a rom-com,” he laughs. “But it’s not.”)
Bo Peep, at least, is all the better for it. Potts has seen firsthand the way fans have reacted to Bo’s kick-ass redesign and the early footage that’s showcased the way the character carries and defines herself on her own terms. “There’s no self-pity. She’s a very modern woman. And I think she’s a great role model now,” says Potts, who also cites Bo Peep as her biggest topic of fan mail (yes, even more than her characters in Designing Women and Ghostbusters). “Pixar is sending a strong message and one of support for women, and you can’t miss that,” she continues.” There’s a great balancing out that needs to happen, and I think little girls need to know that they need these art forms, these fairy tales that suggest that we are second to none, and that we have great strengths and great powers and we only have to believe in ourselves. All that good stuff that boys have been spoon-fed for millenniums. The films [Pixar makes] are not political, but I think it’s sure going to make a lot of little girls feel really good.”
Potts volunteers a recent epiphany she had involving her oldest son, writer Clay Senechal: “A script had just come to me and I was not paying any attention to him because I was trying to read this script and make dinner at the same time, and he said, ‘What’s that script about?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I just started it, and I’m trying to make dinner.’ And he said, ‘Well, what did they tell you it’s about? Because you know, there’s only really three characters in any film.’ I went, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, there’s only really three characters. There’s the good guy, and the bad guy, and the woman who waits.’ And my jaw just dropped. I was like, ‘Say that again.’ And I thought, that’s it. I am never going to play another woman who waits — waits on a man, waits for the guy to do something, while she’s not active, while she’s waiting.”
Potts pauses. “Well, let me tell you, Bo Peep is waiting for no one.”
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