Pixar’s new Inside Out has so many great things going for it, including a clutch of advance rave reviews out of the Cannes Film Festival, that it might take you a moment to process one of the movie’s strongest selling points: It also features two of Hollywood’s funniest women, Amy Poehler and Mindy Kaling. In the animated film, they voice some of the emotions who live in the mind of young Riley, an 11-year-old girl feeling adrift and depressed after her family’s cross-country move: While Joy (played by Poehler) clashes with Sadness (Phyllis Smith from The Office) over how Riley should react to her new situation, Disgust (Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Anger (Lewis Black) are left to steer the girl into tricky emotional territory. It’s heady stuff (literally!), and in large part thanks to Poehler and Kaling, Pixar pulls it off. Vulture sat down with both women yesterday in Los Angeles to discuss how they made it work, what’s in store for Kaling now that her sitcom The Mindy Project is moving from Fox to Hulu, and whether or not Poehler was offered one of the biggest gigs in comedy.
Inside Out may have been the best thing I saw last month at Cannes. I’m shocked that it wasn’t in competition.
Amy Poehler: Again, I still think that it’s not too late to vote for the Palme d’Or. [Laughs.] I heard that the French are supposed to be very independent, and I did not see that expressed!
The macro story here, beyond what’s going on in Riley’s mind, is about a girl who’s bummed and doesn’t know how to talk to her parents about it. The fact that a $200 million movie would be made about something that simple but relatable is so refreshing to me.
Mindy Kaling: I love that. She doesn’t have to find an amulet, she doesn’t have to reverse a spell to save her father, all she has to do is learn how to be happy. Just the fact that Pixar would put the importance of mental health on a pedestal and say, “If you’re uncomfortable about something, it’s worth talking about and it’s a journey worth seeing,” is fantastic. The fact that Pete [Docter], the director, is writing this about young women makes you want to give him a big smooch. He’s really a good guy.
One of the things I found most unique about this movie — and it’s already pretty unique in most ways — is that in the end credits, there’s actually an “additional jokes by” credit that’s given to many of the actors. You don’t often see something so generous in Hollywood.
Poehler: It’s yet another example of why Pixar succeeds: They’re generous in how they collaborate, and they’re not stingy. It’s a very democratic group-mind over there, and it’s just a confirmation of my theory that talented people are usually good collaborators because they’re not coming from a fear-based place of only having one good idea.
Mindy, did you have a lot of input into your character?
Kaling: I would love to take more credit for this than I am, but I really came to it through a traditional route: They offered me the role, I saw an illustration, they talked about it with me, and I just recorded voices. They wanted me to improvise, but the script was so tight that I didn’t need to, which is a rare thing. Most of the time in comedy, you’ll do a movie or guest [spot] on a TV show and they say to you, “Just make something up!” And you’re like, “Oh, because you haven’t done the work?” At Pixar, they actually have done that work, and you can add the icing to that cake if you want, but I didn’t really need to.
How much did the script evolve from when you first became a part of it? I heard that in the original incarnation, Joy’s primary conflict was with Fear, and it wasn’t until much later on in development that the filmmakers decided to pair her with Sadness.
Poehler: From what I hear, since I wasn’t there for those earlier incarnations, it changed a lot. Even in the last two years I was there, the relationship between Joy and Sadness really evolved. Joy used to be kinda rough on Sadness, and that’s one of the things I said when I first started reading the script: “Is there a way where Joy can cajole Sadness and not punish her so much?” The minute you hear Phyllis read Sadness, you’re in love. You never want anyone to hurt Sadness, and there’s no way you’re gonna follow Joy if she’s being a real bitch to Sadness. So that changed a lot.
Mindy, you said at Cannes that—
Kaling: “Mindy, you said at Cannes.” Doesn’t that sound lovely?
Poehler: It does.
Kaling: “Mindy, you said at Cannes that a woman must have 15 lovers to be truly happy.”
Poehler: “Mindy, you said at Cannes that summer lives forever in your heart.”
Kaling: “Mindy, you said at Cannes that a perfume should be like a memory.” I’m sorry, start again.
You said at Cannes that it was amazing to be offered something like Inside Out because you’re not often asked to do other people’s projects, and you’d resigned yourself to generating your own material.
Kaling: When I said that, I later said, “But you can also offer me great parts!” [Laughs.] I meant to say, “Don’t let that scare you off … Joel and Ethan Coen.” But yeah, that has often been my experience, so when this came about, I felt really treated. To think that many actors’ careers are based on really talented people putting them in roles like this? Amy, you probably have more of that sort of experience.
Poehler: But I feel the same way, which is that it was like getting a golden ticket. “Would you like to come to the factory? We’re gathering all these people!” It’s like you get to go see Willy Wonka, and at the end, Willy Wonka is not mean. It felt very special, like you were chosen, and the coolest thing is that none of us took it for granted. No one was like, “Oh, another voice-over gig.” We were getting to do something super special, and we know how lucky we were.
And it still has an emotional effect on you when you watch it, after years of working on it in a piecemeal way?
Poehler: Oh my God, yes. We have the premiere tomorrow, and I’m like, “Whoa, I’m gonna watch it next to my parents. What’s that gonna be like?” And I showed it to my kids and got to see them watch it, too.
What did they think of it? The film is so smart that I’ve seen people wondering whether it will play well to young children.
Poehler: My boy is 6, so he’s in the Anger demo right now. [Laughs.] He thinks it’s really funny when the fire comes out of Anger’s head, and he loves when Disgust gets Anger mad. That, by far, is my kids’ favorite comedic setpiece. Am I sure that they got the idea that no feeling is final and change is the only thing you can depend on? I’m not sure, but they feel this thing there. And, you know, too many films are too ahead of children when it comes to violence, and there’s never any question of, “Is this gun-shooting too sophisticated for them?” Too many films decide, “Your child is almost ready to handle this violence.” It’s so cool, then, that Pixar says, “Or your child is almost ready to handle these conversations about his emotions.”
Mindy, your show is heading to Hulu for 26 episodes. Back in January at Sundance, you said that if The Mindy Project aired on another platform, it might be a racier show, because you have a very prurient mind …
Kaling: You know, when you’re on a platform where you hear you have no restrictions, of course my knee-jerk response is to—
Poehler: Is to knee-jerk.
Kaling: My knee-jerk response was to think of all the things I could do now. But I want people to watch the show and know that it’s the same show they fell in love with. And also, 13- and 14-year-old girls watch my show, and when they’re watching it on Hulu, I don’t want it to be something they feel weird about. It shouldn’t make them uncomfortable. We’re writing it for people a little bit older than that, but I don’t want teenagers to feel alienated from it.
Poehler: But they are changing the title to Butts and Boobs. The Butts and Boobs Project.
Kaling: That used to be in parentheses under it, but Fox made me take it away.
Are there any actual changes in the works now that you’re not on network television?
Kaling: It does allow us to do some conceptual things, which is cool. And it allows us to have some flexibility with guest stars that our old network wouldn’t have signed off on.
But your show always had great guest stars. That was a point of contention for Fox?
Kaling: You’d be surprised. We’d have people that weren’t famous-famous but we loved them, and that was always a big fight.
Well, that brings me to another question: You’ve both fronted two of the best-liked sitcoms of the last decade. So why is it that both shows were always on the ratings precipice at their networks? Is the audience that fragmented now?
Kaling: That’s a great question.
Poehler: That is a great question, and I think that networks are in a tough position right now, where they have shows that a lot of people watch — much more than cable shows that are considered “hits” — but they’re not allowed to call them hits because they’re up against an old system. They have millions and millions and millions of viewers, but the number attached to those viewers is now considered a pejorative number.
Kaling: I’ve always found that crazy. You know, people don’t know this, but I know this because I’m a showrunner: Parks and Recreation, in its final season, had the highest ratings of virtually any other show [on NBC]. I remember thinking they could have [been] renewed for another six years if they wanted. If you were on cable, you would have had a fraction of that number, but because it’s Zeitgeist-y, it would be considered a hit there. The plus side of being on a broadcast network, though, is that many, many more people see the show. And that has helped me in my career, certainly.
Poehler: Totally. I wouldn’t know what it would be like the other way, where in season one, your show is taking off and they say, “How many seasons do you want to do, guys?” But comfort isn’t always so great for comedy, anyway.
Kaling: I came from The Office, and after the second season, we were tenured for as long as Rainn Wilson had a beating heart. Even if it was the reanimated corpse of Rainn Wilson, they would have done the show. So to go to another show where you have to scramble, and every season you don’t know if it’s coming back … it was actually great training to have.
Amy, last question: I can’t imagine you had the time in your schedule for it, but did Comedy Central approach you to host The Daily Show, as rumored?
Poehler: Well …
Kaling: I’ll answer it.
Poehler: Yeah, Mindy, answer it for me. Mindy’s my manager. A lot of people don’t know this.
Kaling: I have a little management company.
Kaling: I rep just a handful of really elite female talents.
Poehler: It’s Danica Patrick …
Kaling: Danica Patrick, you, Ruth Bader Ginsburg for personal appearances …
Poehler: … and the bee girl from the Blind Melon video. Who’s an amazing poet.
Kaling: And Mulan. So I rep those people, and they came to me and said, “Does Amy want to do The Daily Show?” And I said, “I’ve never heard of it.”
Poehler: And she called me and told me that and I said, “That’s troubling. As a manager, you should know this.”
Kaling: And then we had an acrimonious falling-out and she fired me.
Poehler: If there was an offer, it fell apart because Mindy blew it.
Kaling: That’s why I’m just gonna stick to writing and acting. [Whispering to Poehler] I feel bad! Do you want to answer that question for real?
Poehler: [Shakes head vigorously.]