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.”
“I think I can comfortably say we were all very happy when the movie was over,” says Channing Tatum of making the crime drama Foxcatcher.
Based on a true story, the movie begins with former Olympian Mark Schultz, played by Tatum, training to regain the glory of his past achievements. When he accepts multi-millionaire John du Pont’s (Steve Carell) offer of sponsorship he begins a journey that will end in world championship glory and murder.
Director Bennett Miller wanted Foxcatcher to be the follow-up to his Oscar winning biopic Capote. When he first approached Tatum to play Schultz the muscle bound actor was best known as the eye candy in teen comedies like She’s the Man and dance movies like Step Up.
“I think the first time I read the script I just didn’t understand why you’d want to make the film,” he says. “There’s no resolve to any of this. No lesson learned. It’s way more complicated than that. It’s actually more close to life. It is a portrait of something that happened. I don’t think I was anywhere near to understanding the story or the character. I think I did a lot of growing in those seven years. I fell in love with this idea of attempting this.”
The actor threw himself into the role, studying wrestling, which he says is impossible to fake on screen—“It is just a melee but you get used to being inside that melee.”—and even destroying a hotel room in one powerful scene.
“I told them, ‘Whatever is in that room probably won’t come out not broken.’ That is all from Mark Schultz. He told me he would punish himself so badly after losing that he would make losing so much worse than any physical pain he was going through in the match so he would never want to lose again.”
He kept up that level of intensity for the whole shoot. “It just never stopped,” he said, not even when his wife, actress Jenna Dewan, came to visit.
“My wife was pregnant and she came to Pittsburgh during [the shoot],” he says. “She was supposed to stay a week but left after the second day. She was like, ‘Nope. It is not healthy for me to be here. You’re in a weird place. It’s OK but I’m just going to go now. Love you! Call me at least once a night before you go to bed and we’ll be fine.’”
If nothing g else “Foxcatcher,” a true-life crime drama from Bennett Miller, director of “Moneyball,” is an exercise in the transformative nature of an under bite. Jutting out his jaw changes Channing Tatum from movie star handsome to thick-necked gym rat Mark Schultz, one third of a story of murder and America’s wealthiest family.
Based on true events, the story begins with Schultz, a gold medal-winning wrestler at the 1984 Olympics, training with his brother David (Mark Ruffalo) to regain the glory of his past achievements. Out of the blue he is contacted by John du Pont (Steve Carell), multi-millionaire and sports enthusiast with a simple but grand offer. The patriotic du Pont asks Schultz to put together a team of wrestlers, who would train at a special facility at Foxcatcher Farms and establish America’s dominance at the upcoming Seoul Olympics. Schultz signs for $25,000 a year–“I just said the highest number in my head.”—beginning a journey that will end in world championship glory and murder.
Even though this is a true story that more or less follows the public record of events I’ve left the synopsis vague so as not to spoil the film’s climax. In doing so I also failed to mention the growing sense of alienation and the slow burn of psychological dysfunction. A pall hangs over the entire film, building toward the culmination of the action that is shocking not only in its randomness, but in its volume. Miller has made a quiet, restrained film, one that demands the viewer to lean forward to appreciate, so when three loud gunshots ring out they shatter the quiet in a jarringly effective depiction of violence.
But for as effective as that scene is, the build-up is demands patience. The leads are uniformly great—particularly Carell who, as a repressed man used to getting what he wants and winning, whether it is a world championship title or play wrestling at a party, hands in a career re-defining performance—but the studied precision of the direction bogs down the pacing. If Miller edited the VERY long pauses in the conversations between Mark and John he could have trimmed half-an-hour from the running time. Some will find the start-and-stop delivery adds to the film’s surreal feel, other will simply find it tedious.
“Foxcatcher” is buoyed by interesting, unexpected performances and an unnerving tone but adds little to the examination of the complex issues that lie at the center of the story. Unchecked privilege and moral decadence are on display but the underlying pathology of the piece remains a mystery.
Synopsis: After enjoying big Easter and Passover meals, the Reel Guys like to treat the family to a good movie. Because there are as many different kinds of family movies as there are colours on the most psychedelic Ukrainian Easter egg, this week the guys have a look at their favourites. From the big screen to rentals for the small screen they choose movies that will put an extra hop in your step this weekend.
Richard: Mark, if you’re planning to take the kids out to the movies this weekend, there are two recent family flicks that deserve to be seen on the big screen. The Lego Movie is possibly the weirdest, most psychedelic kid’s entertainment since H.R. Pufnstuf, but it is also one of the best films of the year so far, kid’s movie or not. Then there is Mr. Peabody & Sherman, a big animated film inspired by a time travelling segment from the TV show Rocky and His Friends. It’s the only kid’s movie with an Oedipal joke and the kind of children’s movie that I think parents and kids will enjoy, but probably for completely different reasons.
Mark: Richard, so far The Lego Movie is the most exciting movie of the year, family or otherwise, but it should be noted that it, too, has a strong Oedipal theme in it. As a father of a three-year-old, I’m never quite sure what family entertainment means; what’s appropriate for my little boy is different than what might entertain an eight-year-old. Pretty much anything animated works for all ages, but then it gets complicated. And gender plays a role in choosing the right flick, too. Young girls love The Wizard of Oz, but young boys, not so much. But you never know. My little one loves Frozen, just out on DVD, even though it might seem “girly” to some.
RC: People love Frozen. I’m not one of them, but there is no arguing with the success of that movie. I’m more on side with Despicable Me II, which I thought was great fun despite its predictable plot. The story of chrome-domed former bad guy Gru’s (Steve Carell) working with the Anti-Villain League could have written itself, but the inventive gags contained within are the reason the whole family will enjoy the movie. There are lots of fun characters, but it’s really all about the Minions — Gru’s yellow, jelly-bean-shaped helpers — who spice things up with their own special kind of anarchy. Speaking in gibberish, they’re fun and more than worth the rental.
MB: Despicable Me II is a treat but my little guy deemed it “too scawy”. But I look forward to a family viewing of E.T. — the greatest family movie ever. Young or old, boys or girls, who doesn’t love the tale of that lovable little alien? Also on my eventual DVD queue would be Gremlins and even Home Alone. Kids love movies with kid heroes.
RC: Speaking of kid heroes, the adaptation of the classic Maurice Sendak children’s book Where the Wild Things Are isn’t a movie for kids as much as it is a movie about being a kid. Max is the hero, a lonely kid who goes to where the wild things are. It’s a slow moving, simple film about deep feelings. It’s not a slick, brightly coloured kid’s film with a connect-the-dots plot and an easily digested moral, but it is a magical movie.
MB: I never got the appeal of the movie or the book, but maybe I’ve been missing something. But here’s an idea: Sit down with the family and watch A Hard Day’s Night. Everyone loves The Beatles, and this is the pop group in full cheeky-cute mode. Their rock songs from 1964 sound a lot like kids music today, with their melodic hooks and innocent lyrics.
“Despicable Me 2” features some big names. Steve Carrel, Kristen Wiig and Russell Brand headline the cast but the real stars are the nameless Minions who do most of the heavy lifting in this funny children’s flick.
The follow up to the 2010 hit, “Despicable Me 2” sees chrome-domed former villain Gru (Steve Carell)—his days of trying to vaporize Mt. Fuji are behind him now—as a doting single father lured back into the life, but this time working for the Anti Villain League with partner and love interest Agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig). The pair are sent undercover to a mall where one of the merchants is storing a chemical that will turn your average everyday Minion into an unbeatable fighting machine.
The trick is to figure out who is the bad guy.
Could it be the mustachioed hairstylist at the Eagle Hair Club or the salsa-dancing owner of the Mexican Restaurant who bears an uncanny resemblance to El Macho, a super villain thought to have perished riding a shark strapped with dynamite into a volcano?
Despite the humdrum story “Despicable Me 2” is great fun. The predictable plot could have written itself, but the inventive gags contained within are the reason to take the whole family. The animation is excellent and returning directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud take pains to make the most of the visual gags.
A bug-eyed guard chicken, a Lipstick Taser toting agent and Gru’s vaguely menacing accent are worth a look and listen, but the movie belongs to the Minions.
The memorable Minions—Gru’s yellow, jellybean shaped helpers—are back, spicing up the movie with their own special kind of anarchy. Speaking in gibbertish, they’re fun, frivolous and worth the extra few bucks to enjoy in 3D (stay for some more fun during the final credits).
“Despicable Me 2” is silly good fun, the rare sequel that is zanier and more enjoyable than the original.