Amy Poehler: ‘I see life as being attacked by a bear’

The day before Amy Poehler and I meet in Cannes, she attends a press conference to promote her new film, the Pixar production Inside Out. At one point, a reporter stands up and addresses Poehler, who voices the lead character: “You must be surprised that you’re here at Cannes. Did you ever expect you’d be here?”

Poehler looks at him. She could, at this point, play the humble-woman card and affect shock at the fact that she, a blue-collar girl from Boston, is working the red carpet in Cannes. She could make an apologetic joke about taking up space a more glamorous actor should occupy. Instead, she looks him square in the eyes and replies, “Sure I did.”

Poehler has been working in comedy for more than 20 years, including seven on Saturday Night Live, where she memorably played Hillary Clinton to her best friend Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin during the 2008 election. There have been appearances in acclaimed comedies, including Mean Girls with Fey and Blades Of Glory with her now ex-husband, Will Arnett. So she’s not that surprised to find herself at a film festival. “I know it was not the journalist’s intention to be insulting, but it’s also OK not to apologise for where you are,” she tells me later. “I can’t pretend to be more coquettish than I am.” She shrugs.

Poehler is probably best known in Britain for playing Leslie Knope, a low-level bureaucrat with presidential-sized dreams in the American sitcom Parks And Recreation, which finished its six-year run in February. Originally pitched as a spin-off to the American version of The Office, it soon took off on its own sweeter tangent. The qualities that made David Brent so laughable – the self-delusion, the arrogance, the gaucheness – Poehler respun as positives, and in doing so she nailed that rare thing: a female character who is applauded for being ambitious and bossy. As Poehler puts it, “You can really tell that Parks And Rec was created by people who love women.” She received five Emmy nominations for her performance, and one Golden Globe.

Poehler at this year’s Golden Globes, with best friend Tina Fey, and Margaret Cho as a North Korean general. Photograph: Getty Images

Her three-year stint co-hosting the Golden Globes with Fey, which also came to an end this year, further introduced her to an international audience. The two managed to do the heretofore impossible and turn an American awards ceremony into an annual feminist cheerathon. They cracked wise about Hollywood sexism (“Patricia Arquette in Boyhood proved there are still great roles for women over 40 – as long as you get hired when you’re under 40”) and Hollywood sexists (“[Gravity] is the story of how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age”) to gasps from the audience and cheers from the rest of the world. This year, they took it further still when they riffed on allegations that Bill Cosby drugged and molested multiple women, with Poehler doing an imitation of Cosby boasting about it. Did she fear any kickback? “Nah.” She grins. “By the third time around, we kinda had a sense of what we could get away with, so we went there.”

In person, Poehler, 43, is small and warm, with an enthusiastic hug and an easy, head-thrown-back laugh that’s more a cackle than a giggle. She looks sleek but comfortable in maroon blouse, black shorts and flat black sandals, although, somewhat Leslie Knope-ishly, she doesn’t notice until halfway through our interview that one end of her blouse is sticking out the bottom of her shorts, and that her fly is undone. It would be tempting to describe her as “cute”, but that would be a grave mistake. In Fey’s 2011 memoir Bossypants, she recounts an incident at Saturday Night Live when she and Poehler were in the writers’ room and Poehler told a dirty joke. Comedian Jimmy Fallon jokingly pleaded, “It’s not cute! I don’t like it!” Poehler, Fey recounts, “went black in the eyes for a second and wheeled around on him”. “I don’t fucking care if you like it!” Poehler said to him.

“Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute,” Fey writes. “She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it.”

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“I don’t fucking care if you like it!” has since, to Poehler’s amusement, become a modern feminist catchphrase, appearing on T-shirts and in cartoons. “I see life as like being attacked by a bear,” she says. “You can run, you can pretend to be dead or you can make yourself bigger. So, if you’re my stature, you stand on a chair and bang a pan and scream and shout as if you’re going to attack the bear. This is my go-to strategy. I really liked being pregnant, for example, because I got to take up more space.”

“Amy finds so much joy in laughing with the group, but she will always stand up for herself,” says her friend, the actor and comedian Maya Rudolph (Saturday Night Live, Bridesmaids). “And it’s great when she does, especially because she’s such a tiny thing, like a beautiful Yosemite Sam.”

In Inside Out, Poehler plays the human embodiment of pure happiness, called, appropriately, Joy. The film tells the story of Riley, an 11-year-old girl who moves with her parents to San Francisco, and we follow the action from inside her head, where five characters – Joy, Disgust, Fear, Sadness and Anger – control her emotions, colour her memories and, ultimately, shape the little girl’s emerging personality.

“When Inside Out’s directors Pete [Docter] and Jonas [Rivera] first came to me, they didn’t tell me what the movie idea was, and I assumed I’d be playing the lunatic shopkeeper. Then they did a 10-minute presentation and if I was a circuit board, everything would have lit up. I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s a story about emotions? Oh my God, the setting is an 11-year-old girl? Oh my God, you want me to play Joy?’ It was, like, all my switches.”

In 2008, she set up an online community called Smart Girls, where young people can watch videos made for them. The videos are often fronted by Poehler, and give advice about everything from how to embrace vulnerability to how to volunteer. Inside Out feels as if it could have been made for Smart Girls, I say. Poehler grins proudly. “It is so Smart Girls, isn’t it?”

Poehler has two sons with Arnett, six-year-old Archie and four-year-old Abel, and Inside Out, she says, has provided a way “for them to talk about emotions in a way that feels safe. Because, with boys, you can’t just sit them down and say, ‘So how are you feeling?’ They won’t say, ‘Thank you for asking, I feel a little anxious,’” Poehler says, hooting at the idea. “It’s breathtaking how different [boys and girls] are. But you can say, ‘Why do you think Fear in the movie is always so scared of everything?’ And they’ll say, ‘Because he’s scared things won’t work out, and that’s scary.’”

As Leslie Knope in Parks And Recreation. Photograph: Rex Features

Poehler was 37 when she had her first child. “It was a relief to care about something other than myself. Also, holidays are better because, when you don’t have kids, it’s a lot of adults talking, but when kids are around, there’s always something to watch. We used to call it Baby TV, because you just stare at babies and talk about them.”

Poehler thinks mothers shouldn’t be so hard on themselves, or each other – a “woman-on-woman crime” that happens when a mother feels so defensive about her own decision about whether to return to work, she ends up putting down other women’s choices to make herself feel better.

“It’s so wild,” she says. “People get so personal, and you’re so sensitive. You think you’re above it, then you see yourself doing it. Just give yourself a break. I wish I could go back sometimes because, God, I really put myself through the wringer about what type of mother I was supposed to be. I used flash cards on my eight-month-old. I mean, Fuck!” She throws her head back and laughs.

Poehler may play indefatigably cheerful characters, but in her enjoyable memoir Yes Please, published last year, she takes pains to stress that she is not like that herself. “I’m not as nice as you think I am,” she writes, demonstrating her not-niceness with anecdotes such as: “When I yell at dads drinking coffee and looking at their phones in the playground while their seven-year-olds play on the pre-school monkey bars, I feel like I am fully alive.”

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My favourite anecdote details the time she and Fey flew first class to Los Angeles to film Mean Girls and gabbed the whole way, much to the annoyance of the man in the neighbouring seat. At the end of the flight, he told them off, adding, “You girls should not be in first class!” Poehler, by now in a full-on “rage-haze”, reeled back, “looked at his boring, rich-guy face” and shouted, “Fuck you! Who do you think you are? You’re no better than me!”

Reminded of this, Poehler says, simply, “I don’t do so well with assumed entitlement and privilege. My blue-collar button gets pushed a little then.”

Female anger isn’t praised much in our culture, but it can be kind of exciting, I say. “It is exciting, isn’t it?” she says, her eyes lighting up. “It’s super-exciting to not care if you’re liked, and to watch someone’s face as they realise that. It’s fun defying expectations about me. It’s a nice secret weapon.”

Poehler was born and raised in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of two high-school teachers. At the age of 10, she was cast as Dorothy in a school play of The Wizard Of Oz and when she realised she could make the audience laugh by improvising with the dog playing Toto, she became committed to a life in comedy. She slogged it out in improv groups, first at Boston University, then in Chicago, as part of the legendary Second City company, where Bill Murray, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Steve Carell all studied. In New York she co-founded the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre, where aspiring standup and improv comedians could work on material (UCB now has four outposts, two in LA and two in New York; Poehler is still closely involved). In 2001 she was cast in Saturday Night Live.

Fey was already working at SNL when Poehler joined; the pair had been best friends since they worked together in improv in Chicago, in their early 20s. Poehler’s initial impression of Fey was, she writes in Yes Please, that she was “sharp, sly and hilarious”. Fey’s own memoir consists of a series of love letters to Poehler. In 2008, they worked on a film together, Baby Mama, in which Poehler played the surrogate to Fey’s baby. They have just finished another movie, Sisters, in which they play estranged siblings, which will be released in the US in December, “the same week as a small independent film called Star Wars”, Poehler deadpans. Today, she lives in LA and Fey is in New York, so the best thing about making the film was that “we got to spend last summer together. We rented a house in Long Island and had all the kids playing together. It was great. She is my comedy wife.”

Joy (voiced by Poehler) and Sadness in Inside Out. Photograph: Photoshot

Fey, like the loyal best friend she is, often casts Poehler’s partners in her work: Arnett was a regular on Fey’s sitcom 30 Rock, when he was still married to Poehler. In her new Netflix show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Fey cast her friend’s new boyfriend, comedian Nick Kroll, in a small part.

Poehler and Kroll have been dating since 2013, and she has appeared on his skit show, Kroll Show. In her memoir, she writes, “I have a boyfriend who knows how to settle me. He puts his hand on my chest and tells me boring stories… On one of our first nights together, I woke up apologising for my snoring and he pulled out the earplugs he had worn to bed so he could hear what I was saying. It was one of the most romantic gestures I’ve ever seen.”

But in her work, Poehler’s interest remains female friendship. In Parks And Recreation, for example, she says the real love story was between Leslie and her friend Ann, played by Poehler’s real-life friend Rashida Jones. “There’s so much created conflict between women on TV shows,” Poehler says, “and I don’t find that to be my experience. I work primarily with women, most of my projects are female-driven, and my female friends are very important to me.” During my time with Poehler, she breaks off twice: to read a text from from Parks And Rec co-star Aubrey Plaza, and another from Jones, which includes a video of her friend dancing.

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Recently, Rudolph tells me, a bunch of female SNL graduates, including Poehler, met up on 14 February, because it was the only day they could all make. They called it a Galentine’s Dinner, a phrase that also made its way into Parks And Recreation. “Amy decided we all should tell each other how much we mean to each other,” Rudolph says. “And she was right: we do need to remind each other of that, no matter how busy we are with kids and jobs. She’ll also tell you when her life sucks, because she believes in the importance of friendship, and that means honesty. She is a loyal friend.”

On Saturday Night Live with Tina Fey as Sarah Palin. Photograph: Kobal

When Poehler and Arnett divorced in 2012, her friends rallied round, taking her on holidays and attending public events with her. “I don’t see a difference in her for having been through what she’s gone through,” Rudolph says. “I don’t want to say she’s resilient – that makes it sound like it was easy – but I’ve always seen a strength in her that has not waned.”

Part of Poehler’s appeal is that she shuns the self-deprecation game. In 2011, she was interviewed on stage by the New Yorker writer Ariel Levy. During the event, to Poehler’s surprise, clips were played from the early part of her career, and no one laughed louder at them than she did. She grinned at the audience afterwards: “That was funny!”

“It’s a struggle sometimes, to not apologise for yourself,” she says. “It’s not easy. I have to really work at it, to not look in the mirror and think, ‘God, I hate my face.’ That demon is always there, but I tried not to pack him for this trip.” The Brits, she’s noticed, are particularly fond of self-deprecation: “It can be super-charming, but it’s also self-eroding. You also shouldn’t pretend to be harder than you are. It’s about fine-tuning the channel.”

With boyfriend and fellow comedian Nick Kroll. Photograph: Getty Images

She has been thinking about this a lot as she has moved into producing, with a special focus on young women. In 2009 she was contacted by two twentysomethings, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, who had created their own web series, Broad City, and invited Poehler to appear in an episode. To their astonishment, she agreed. She then came on board as executive producer and got the series moved over to TV, where it has become an international hit.

“I love working with women,” Poehler says. “I know I’m generalising, but women are excellent multitaskers, and I’m optimistic about this new generation of young female artists who have such a strong point of view.” She cites Amy Schumer as another young woman she admires, and is also a huge fan of the late 90s British all-female comedy series Smack The Pony: “Just such a great show.”

Part of being a producer means taking meetings with, by and large, men, and Poehler has been “observing how [men and women] sit and talk and occupy their professional real estate”. She has long been scathing about how differently some men treat women in boardrooms, asking, for example, where her kids are. For example, she says, women tend to talk quickly in meetings, whereas men talk slowly. Does she think, now she’s working on the other side of the camera, that it’s getting easier for women to break into comedy? “I do think the market now demands an alternative to the old white male experience,” she says. “But look, here’s my stoner answer: I think the world is becoming more feminine, and there are a few dinosaurs raging at the end, and it causes extreme violence against women, it causes terrible political fires around the world. But I think everyone’s reacting to the universe becoming more feminine in order to save its life.” She pauses. “That is a long title for my next book. I also do it in standup clubs and I don’t have a joke at the end.” She throws back her head again and laughs.