In Pixar’s new animated film, Inside Out, Bill Hader voices Fear, one of five personified emotionsthat inhabit the mind of a little girl named Riley - emotions that grapple with changes in Riley’s physical life, as well as the way she views the core memories that form the building blocks of her personality. Fear, Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and, most importantly, Joy (Amy Poehler) all have defined functions, but Sadness (Phyllis Smith) is an emotion without a job – until she inadvertently sets events in motion which may drastically change Riley’s personality.
The film, directed by Pete Docter (Up), is one of two that Hader makes his mark on this summer (the other is Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck). The Oklahoma-born comedian and actor is perhaps best known for his eight years on Saturday Night Live, but his increasingly impressive film resume includes Superbad, Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and an acclaimed dramatic role in last year's The Skeleton Twins. Hader and Screen Rant had a chance to chat at the Inside Out press junket in L.A. recently, where we discussed Pixar, doing voiceover work and, of course, fear.
What was your first reaction when asked to play the emotion of fear?
It was pretty good. I’m a pretty anxious person, especially when we’re doing shows on SNL. Every SNL episode I would have basically a full-on panic attack before the show. So I was very much in touch with the emotion of fear. And Pete Docter, he was very collaborative and had this great kind of idea like, “What if…how do you see him?” We talked about it. I recorded a bunch of different voices and emailed them to him, and he said, “I kind of like your voice but maybe a little more high-strung and more of a character thing.” He showed me a maquette. Ralph Eggleston had made one of those of Fear, but he had no clothes on.
We talked about it. I said, “What if he’s kind of like a middle management person?” We’d just go into a recording studio and try out a lot of stuff and Pete said, “Yeah, middle management, like a bureaucratic guy, it’s like an archetype that does kind of rule by fear. That’s good.” I remember being in a room. Pete went, “Oh, so we’ll put a little bowtie on him and a sweater and his pad.” And I was like, “Yeah! Great!” He’s so collaborative in that way.
When you get a chance to see visually what the character might look like, does that give you a better sense of the voice and personality?
Yeah. I remember one thing was that -- initially, Don Knotts was one person they kept talking about. I said, “Well, can I do Don Knotts? Should I start there?” And Pete went, “No, no, no. you just play the bureaucrat guy and we’ll make him real.” It isn’t like he’s just someone who is afraid of everything. He likes things and dislikes things. He has all his emotions too.
But yeah, it does help seeing it in the writing of it. But, for some reason, seeing the bowtie and that helped. It was like, “Oh, I get it now, what kind of person he is.”
I think probably fear is a place we all operate from on a daily basis. Is that something you can tap into as well for the overall picture of what he’s supposed to bring to Riley’s mind?
Yeah. I think it’s not a good place to be ruled by, but it is a thing that happens. And it’s a thing that I definitely struggle with. But it’s a thing that I relate to.
You moved here in 1999 without a job or anything. The character of Riley is forced to move and she’s got almost a similar situation. On that level, could you relate to her character?
Yeah. I could totally relate to that. It was something that was really nerve-racking. Just the unknown. Just not knowing. This being a new place and not knowing how it’s going to go, starting from scratch. That’s a really terrifying place to go. And especially when you’re in school and not saying the right thing or doing the right thing or kids…you know, that stuff.
How was the premise explained to you? I imagine a scientist could sit down and say, “This movie is about mapping the human brain,” and it wouldn’t be wrong.
Pete did a great job. His pitch moved me to tears. His pitch was so sweet. He started out with a picture of his daughter. He said, “Here’s my daughter when she was a little girl. And she was so happy.” And here’s pictures of this happy little girl. He said, “Then around the age of 13 she began to look like this.” And it’s her with her hair in her face and she’s kind of sad. He said, “What happened? What’s going on inside her head? I wanted to know that.” And he just had drawn these characters of the emotions, which I thought was really sweet.
It came from such an emotional place for Pete and such a real place for him. It wasn’t pandering, like, “Well, this is what people are going to want to see.” These guys are real artists. So I thought it was really smart and sweet.
Something to look forward to when your kids grow up.
Yeah, exactly. Oh, boy.
You see any of that now?
No, not at all. They are still in the happy baby phase.
Pete was quoted as saying he workshopped a lot with the cast and let you throw out a lot of alternate lines and some improv.
Yeah. I actually helped writing on the movie some, too. I just hung out in the story room for like a couple weeks. A couple of times over the intervening years we’d just go to Pixar and hang out with this guy Josh Cooley, who is the head of story. I would throw around ideas. It was a blast. It was so cool watching how those guys work.
And as far as my character, a lot of times when you do these animated movies, you are in a booth and you have your headphones on and you are going line by line. And they don’t do that. Pete is doing the lines with you. He is in the room with you. They just hit record, so it’s just open. There’s no stop, start, stop, start. You are just running. It’s really great. It’s a lot of fun.
Did you ever get to do anything with the other actors?
No. I just met Lewis Black not that long ago. I did an animated movie with Bruce Campbell and we met at the premiere. We have a fight scene in the movie, but we had never met each other.
Do you prepare differently for voiceover characters than for a live action character?
Not really. The voiceover thing, you can kind of find it more. I’ve been on animated things where you do it and then it’s nice to say, “Hey, I think we’re going in the wrong direction.” You stop and regroup and you try a different take on the character. That’s harder to do in live action, when it might be nice to have rehearsals or things like that.
People, I think, assume that doing VO work is really easy. For me it’s not. I’m actually more exhausted after a VO session, I think, than after a live action thing, because you are screaming and you are using your whole body. Usually I’m trying to maintain a different voice that’s not mine. And you are doing take after take. And the words stop making sense. [laughs] It’s like all this stuff. But it’s fun. It’s always fun.
People think that you are in and out in a half hour…
The thing they would say is, yeah, you walk in with your pajamas and say your lines while you have your morning cup of coffee and then you go home. No. it’s not that at all. I actually will say, “Oh, I have a VO session that day? Well, the rest of the day I’m out.” It really does knock…my brain stops working.
What is it about this brand, Pixar, which sets them apart?
Going up there and working with them, they really have the attitude of students. It’s like it’s this giant privilege to be able to make a movie. And they don’t act like they know everything. Most of the people I’ve worked with who are really good at this, the South Park guys and people like that, there’s just not a lot of arrogance or anything. It’s very humble, kind of, “Oh, can we do this?” They’re trying incredibly hard to push themselves and going, “We’ve already done that! Come on, guy. We can do better.”
Pete is definitely that guy. A lot of times, I feel like when they’ve been around as long as these guys have, they get out of the factory floor and they are up in an office looking down, going, “How’s it going out there? OK…” They are kind of managing it. But guys like Pete, he’s on the factory floor with everyone else working, moving the stuff, drawing…he’s in it because he’s an artist. That what you do.
It creates a team spirit.
Yeah. Someone said there’s a chain of command, but there’s no chain of respect when you are working on a movie. There shouldn’t be a chain of respect. Pete and Jonas (Rivera, producer) definitely operate that way. They could easily be walking around saying, “We created Monsters Inc. and Toy Story and Up and all this stuff.” But they don’t. They’re actually very humble and sweet and very appreciative and always checking in: “Is it OK? Are you happy with this? Would you like to try something else?” They’re just great guys.
I didn’t get to interview you for Skeleton Twins, but are you getting more opportunities for dramatic roles as a result of that?
Some things. Yes and no. it’s always different. It’s kind of about what is getting funded and what isn’t. I get a lot of great scripts that have really great people attached to it that say, “We’re just waiting for funding.” It’s hard to get a lot of things made. But there are some things that could or could not happen. I don’t know. I always like to move around. I’m interested in different stories and different characters. So it’s about what scripts are sent and kind of choosing between those.
It’s like dating. It’s like you read things and you go, “Oh, I like this. Let’s go out!” And then you hope that they want to go out with you [laughs]. I’ve had that happen to where I’m like, “I love this! We’ll do it.” And they go, “Ah, no. we want to do it with someone else.” But I don’t think I’m ever going to be the type of actor that’s like, “Well I refuse to audition,” or “I refuse to read…” That’s just part of the game.
Inside Out is in theaters June 19, 2015.