Actress Phyllis Smith has had many jobs in and out of show business.
She was working as a casting associate when director Ken Kwapis fell in love with the way she read opposite the auditioning actors and cast her as Dunder Mifflin saleswoman Phyllis on The Office. She appeared on the hit show for nine years and just as that series wound down she got a call from Pixar.
Inside Out producer Jonas Rivera was flicking around the stations one night when he settled on Bad Teacher, a 2011 comedy co-starring Smith and Cameron Diaz. The raunchy film couldn’t be further afield of Pixar’s family friendly movies, but Rivera liked the sound of Smith’s voice. He knew she was the actor to play one of Inside Out’s main roles, the living embodiment of an emotion in an eleven-year-old girl’s head.
“He picked up the phone and called [director] Pete Docter and said, ‘I think I’ve found our Sadness,’” recalls Smith. “I guess it was the timidity in that scene and the timbre of my voice. That’s the nice thing about working for Pixar, when you get that call they pretty much already know what they want.”
Smith joins an all-star cast — Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler as Fear, Anger, Disgust and Joy respectively — in a film that Variety called, “the greatest idea the toon studio [Pixar] has ever had.”
“Long after we’re gone people will still be watching,” Smith says. “Sort of like the Wizard of Oz.”
Smith, who is much more gregarious in person than her onscreen persona would suggest, is riding high today but it was a long circuitous route to television and film success.
“I started out as a professional dancer,” she says. “A show dancer. No stripping, but there were plumes, feathers, g-strings and all that. I was also in two ballet companies, a jazz company. That was my passion but I had an injury and knew logically it was time for me to make a switch in my career. I was getting older. So I just did what I had to do to pay my bills.”
She worked as a receptionist, an NFL cheerleader and manned the box office at a Los Angeles movie theatre. She dressed as Marilyn Monroe and played Steve Carell’s mother in a deleted scene from The 40-Year Old Virgin, but one job stands out for her.
“I worked for JC Penny in the warehouse tagging the merchandise,” she remembers. “I used to stand there and tag thousands of fishing lures or bowling balls or roller shades, which were heavy as heck to lift around. The people were great to work with but the merchandise was a little challenging.
“I used to stand there, thinking about life, wondering what it is we all have in common because we’re not all given the same opportunity. Some people’s health is impaired when they’re born while others are charmed with intelligence or looks. I thought, ‘There has to be something that we all have. A commonality.’ I figured out that it’s the ability to love. We all, in some form or another, want to love and be loved. That was my big revelation. My lightbulb moment. Also, if you’re standing on a concrete floor, make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes or you’ll pay for it later.”