The other ‘Inside Out’ emotion Bill Hader wanted to play

“Inside Out” is an emotional, sometimes devastating look at a young girl's emotions as illustrated through five dynamic creatures: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader). Fear is the rubberiest member of the quintet, a nervous and jittery fellow whose eyes always seem ready to burst of his head. Naturally Bill Hader is a fine fit for the part. His time on “SNL” proved his greatest strength is playing characters who are soulfully weird. 

We caught up with Hader to discuss how he got the part of Fear in “Inside Out,” how “The Skeleton Twins” changed his life, and why Martin Scorsese is so meaningful to him.

Can you see yourself in the physical movements of your character? Is that disturbing?

Not disturbing, but it's there. I watched it with my wife at this cast-and-crew screening, and my wife said, “Oh my God, they had to have been videotaping you because that's totally the way you talk through your hands.” So yeah, it's all there.

If you could play any of the other characters in Riley's head, who would you pick?

Probably Anger, that'd be a lot of fun. I actually did do a tape for that. I wanted to meet the Pixar guys, and I ended up hanging out with Pete [Docter] and Jonas [Rivera], then recording some stuff. This was four years ago. I recorded all the different emotions. It wasn't that I was going to play any of them, but they wanted to hear them. I was working in the story department. So I did all the emotions and they were all bad except for Fear. They said, “We like that voice.” That's how I got to do it for the movie.

Were there initially other emotions besides the five we see in the movie?

I think Disgust at one point may have been named Disdain, but they're pretty much the same.

The songwriter Aimee Mann once said, “The best serious material is truly lighthearted.” On that note, I feel like your characters — wacky though they are — usually point out certain basic human truths. What do you think your characters tend to say about people?

I think I've been lucky to work with great writers and directors, but I have to tendency to go one direction or the other. I either want to be really crazy or really dark and real. I always feel like I work with good directors who bring me to the right spot. I credit them a lot. The kind of acting and comedy I like is always nuanced and real. I always enjoyed British comedy and comedians. My instinct is I always try to make it a little nuanced and real, even when I'm playing someone like Fear. Like when I did “The Skeleton Twins” with Kristen Wiig, that was a film about finding my personality in this character, the Venn Diagram of our personalities. It was about finding nuance.

“The Skeleton Twins” was a breakout role for you. Did you know you were capable of achieving that kind of droll darkness, or was it a brand new type of character for you?

I didn't know, but I always wanted a shot. We were just talking about Adam Scott in “Vicious Kind.” I just thought, “God, that's so cool that Adam did that. I should try something like that.” I always wanted to try it, but I didn't have the nerve to say it. That gave me some confidence seeing Adam play that part. He was so wonderful. Getting to do that was great. I remember after day two or three on set, Ty Burrell said to me, “Hey, you're doing good. This is really good.” That meant the world to me. It was like realizing, “Hey, I can play tennis!” Or the guitar. Something I had an aptitude for. Something is there and I don't have it perfectly, but I can work on it.

Are there movie characters you first watched as a kid that have stuck with you through adulthood?

The performance that I remember loving as a kid was John Candy in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” He was just heartbreaking. That was inspiring. I remember identifying with Sean Astin in “The Goonies.” I felt a lot like him. There are definitely characters you relate to throughout time. I always go to movies because I liked seeing a certain story through that filmmaker's eyes. Like, “Oh, I've had that emotion.” Sometimes I think, “Oh, I thought I was the only one who felt this way.” That's why I like this movie. It's something everyone goes through, changing, adolescence, getting older. I thought it was so cool to see a movie dramatize it like that. I like a lot of Scorsese's movies, Kurosawa's. They're so good at finding things about humanity, and they just pare it right down. Every scene in “Goodfellas” is about an emotion that's universal. “Age of Innocence” too. Everything's universal in that. I recently watched Scorsese's George Harrison documentary. I thought it was brilliant. Here's the guy who had to fight to get his stuff on, even in the Beatles. You relate to that! I came from “SNL” and I thought, “I want to get my thing on! I need to fight for it!” Getting a chance and taking it. “Taxi Driver” too? 

How does a movie like “The King of Comedy” resonate with you?

I was never Rupert Pupkin. I certainly have friends who were Rupert Pupkin. I was never that character. I was always too afraid to ever say anything to anyone.

To be that conniving and ingratiating…

Oh God, the way he jumps in the guy's car at the beginning? Nowadays I relate to the scene where the woman says, “Will you talk to my son? No? Well, get cancer!” I relate to that. I've had things like that happen. People shouting at you because you won't take a picture. The kind of celebrity craziness, people running up to you with cameras. My wife had never seen that movie, and she finally did and said, “This is like a horror movie!” The stuff of him bringing his tape? In that lobby? God. But everything he does is the way an obsessive person is. They don't shy away from him. That's what I like about Scorsese. I mean, any other person who made “Raging Bull” would've cut out the fact that the guy beats up his wife. They'd be like, “We're not going near that.” Well, the movie's just being honest. He's a flawed, bad dude. We can't not talk about that fact. It's really intense.