Some of the biggest names in comedy — Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, and Rashida Jones — lend their voices to Inside Out, Pixar's 15th cinematic offering about the complex array of emotions fueling 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) as she moves from Minneapolis to San Francisco. But, in the end, it's The Office alum Phyllis Smith who runs away with the film, bringing an overwhelming amount of heart, pain, and power to her performance as Sadness, the emotion continuously sidelined by Joy (Poehler), Fear (Hader), Disgust (Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black).
"I'd never done voiceover before, so I was extremely nervous," Smith, best known for playing "Bushiest Beaver" Dundie Award winner Phyllis on the NBC comedy, told BuzzFeed News on the phone from her home in St. Louis. "But when Pixar asks you to do anything — regardless of what it is — you know it's going to be a positive thing, so I didn't hesitate when they called."
That all-important call came after Inside Out executive producer Jonas Rivera stumbled upon 2011's Bad Teacher, a raunchy black comedy in which Smith played a put-upon educator who goes through the wringer, courtesy of Cameron Diaz's titular teacher.
"For a long time I didn't know how I came onto their radar," Smith said. "So I finally asked Jonas [and] he said that one late night, he tuned into Bad Teacher on television — it was the scene where Cameron and I were having lunch [and] she kept taking food off my plate. He picked up the phone after that scene, called Pete [Docter, Inside Out's co-writer and director], and said, 'I found our Sadness.'"
As flattering as it was, the faith Rivera and Docter placed in Smith made her feel a bit overwhelmed. "I remember trying to be sad, trying to make my voice sound sad," she recalled of her first day on the movie. "I'm not a method actor, so I didn't sit there and think about horrible things before walking into the room every day to get into that really low place. I just kept looking to the script and reading the lines in an attempt to make it truthful and believable. Fortunately, I don't think any of that session was used, and I'm glad for that."
Docter quickly recognized that Smith was struggling to deliver what landed her the job in the first place and sat her down to regroup. "I think he was very astute and was able to see my hesitations and my insecurities and my lack of confidence, or whatever it was, and we used that in the character of Sadness," Smith said.
With her self-confidence restored, Smith produced a remarkably relatable and endlessly endearing performance in a film she couldn't be prouder of. "Hopefully, when [kids] watch this film, they know it's OK to have tough feelings, it's OK to be sad, it's OK to — in the right balance — feel anger and disgust, but be full of joy too," she said. "I just love the message of the film and to be included in a film that will, hopefully, live on long after I'm gone is pretty amazing."
Doubly amazing because it wasn't too long ago that Smith believed her career as a performer was over.
For much of her life, Smith made her living as a professional dancer — including a stint as a cheerleader for the St. Louis Cardinals football team. "My love for dance was so strong," she said, passion pulsing in her voice. But a knee injury at 37 forced Smith to abandon her first love. "I remember thinking, This is never going to be like it was again, and I decided I wasn't going to be one of those dancers that would try to hang on and make myself crazy. If I wasn't going to be able to dance professionally, I wasn't going to dance. That's my all-or nothing personality coming out."
After resigning herself to a life off the stage, Smith took a long string of office jobs. "The need to be responsible and pay my bills took over," she said. "I had health insurance, car insurance, and rent to pay. Part of being a dancer is that you just have to be responsible and get it done. The discipline as a dancer carried over into my life."
Eventually, Smith found herself working for a casting director. "I loved being around actors," she said. "But I never looked at a script with the intent of finding something for me because I really thought that was gone."
Then, in an only-in-the-movies twist of fate, while Smith was helping to cast NBC's The Office, the show's producers decided to create a role explicitly for her. That role was Phyllis Lapin-Vance, whom Smith played on the Emmy-winning series for nine seasons before the show came to an end in 2013, which was, she said, "a sad time for everyone."
Bit parts on television shows followed, but it wasn't until Smith received that call from Rivera that she felt like she had been gifted with another iconic character. "After the L.A. premiere, Jonas said to me, 'I sure am glad I watched Bad Teacher that night,' and I said, 'I sure am glad too," Smith recalled with a laugh.
"Creatively, I have a new lease on life," she added. "I feel like I'm an ordinary person, but I've had extraordinary opportunities in my latter life and I never saw any of it coming. I never saw The Office coming, I never saw Inside Out coming, and I just feel grateful and thankful to have these opportunities and to have an actual real enthusiasm in my life. This is a new career for me and I intend to do it as long as people want to hire me. I really feel that I'm just beginning."