How Phyllis Smith’s Sadness became the unlikely heart of ‘Inside Out’

Senior Television Writer
06.22.15 15 Comments


Based on the box office results, odds are many of you saw “Inside Out” over the weekend, which meant you got to enjoy Phyllis Smith's extraordinary voice acting work as Sadness. All the major performances in that movie are wonderful (I may not be able to watch a live-action Richard Kind performance for a while without thinking of Bing Bong), but Smith's work, and the way that the movie uses Sadness, is ultimately what's put it in the discussion for being Pixar's best film ever.

It's a performance that almost didn't happen, twice.

First, “Inside Out” director Pete Docter has been pretty candid that for the first three years of development, the two main characters were Joy and Fear, not Joy and Sadness, because he remembered how many of his own decisions at that age were driven by fear. At a certain point – perhaps after recognizing that he was modeling the story after his daughter's journey into adolescence, and not his own – he recognized that sadness was the story's crucial emotion, and they had to tear up a lot of their work and start over. The end result makes it clear how correct that decision was. 

And then there's Phyllis Smith, whose journey towards getting this role is even more improbable than the path the script took. It's one of the great showbiz origin stories.

In her younger years, Smith was a burlesque dancer and aspiring actress, but an injury and mounting bills led her to give up her dream in favor of something more practical. She eventually found steady work as a Hollywood casting associate, who would read lines opposite actors auditioning for the kinds of roles she had once hoped to get. While doing that job for “The Office” pilot, director Ken Kwapis kept laughing at her delivery, and as she entered a meeting with NBC to discuss where the process stood, she overheard Kwapis tell a colleague, “I want Phyllis on the show.”

Smith wound up, like Leslie David Baker, Brian Baumgartner, Kate Flannery and the other members of the larger “Office” ensemble, in a part that started out as glorified extra work, and turned into something a lot more – and for Smith, it was the career she had never thought she would get.

Midway through “The Office” season 2, I went to the set to do a story on the Dunder Mifflin background players, who had already grown significantly in prominence since the series began. When I sat down with Smith at a table at craft services, she blushed and told me that I was the first person who had ever asked to interview her. Not knowing her story, I was surprised to hear this, and as she walked me through the improbable tale, she got very emotional.

“I've been in the business so long,” she told me, fighting back a few tears, “and you don't want it to go away, so you don't think it's going to happen until it happens. And I didn't believe it until I got a call from wardrobe saying they needed my measurements.”

Watching “Inside Out,” I couldn't help but think of that interview a decade earlier and feeling an immense level of joy that Smith's career had reached this point. It's a great story that got her here, and it's a great performance that makes the movie so special.

If you also saw “Inside Out” over the weekend, feel free to discuss any aspects of the film – the cat joke, Dream Productions, and, of course, Bing Bong.

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