She’s best known for her loudmouth antics on Saturday Night Live. But with a starring role in a feature film and a new animated TV series, Amy Poehler is learning to take it down a notch. Kind of.
On the first day on the set of a new film production, Amy Poehler offers a warning: “I tell the director, ‘You know how you get into someone else’s car and turn it on, and the radio is really loud, so you have to turn it down? Well, that’s how I’ll be for the first couple of days -- loud. So you’ll have to keep adjusting the volume.’ ” This is, in part, simply her nature. Poehler, who’s from Burlington, Massachusetts, grew up in a family that was talkative and funny. So, in order to stand out, or to fit in, she became, in her words, “a loudmouth.” Today, she’s still loud. Her voice easily fills a room, even though it emanates from a tiny woman who stands just five feet two inches tall. But this is also a learned trait, something she has picked up in the 15 years she’s been making a living -- or trying to make a living -- performing improvisational and sketch comedy. Poehler has spent the past seven of those years at Saturday Night Live, where she, today, is clearly that show’s marquee star -- one of the few women to stand out so prominently in the cast of a show that has routinely made stars of its male performers.
And all that loudmouthery is well and good if you’re trying to make an audience laugh at, say, a character like the hyperkinetic teenager named Caitlin that Poehler plays on SNL. But on the set of a movie, which is where Poehler is spending more time these days, it can help to take it down a notch.
SNL is very different from making a movie because it is in front of a live audience,” Poehler says. “So you’re kind of having to perform to that audience and also trying to get something that resonates at home. You sometimes have to take it to a high level. It’s like Spinal Tap: You have to kick it to 11. That’s what my tattoo says, anyway.”
To be sure, this is not a new realization for the SNL star, who is trying to make the transition from small screen to big screen. Plenty have tried to find a quieter, funnier film presence. Few have succeeded. Even fewer, like Will Ferrell, have succeeded by not toning it down. But then, Poehler says, Ferrell has an advantage. “A lot of people don’t know this, but his dad is Gary Hollywood,” she says. “His dad started Hollywood. Will’s real name is Will Hollywood. He keeps that kind of low.”
She’s making this up, obviously. But this is her gift. Improv. Riffing. Being funny without a script or a fancy set or a team of directors and producers and makeup artists or anything else that goes into a movie production -- a production, like, say, Baby Mama, the comedy that is Poehler’s first foray atop the big-screen marquee. In the movie, she costars with SNL alum Tina Fey, a longtime improv pal who has found her own quieter place on the acclaimed NBC comedy 30 Rock.
But that’s the weird thing: For Poehler, making movies like Baby Mama and last year’s Blades of Glory, starring Will Hollywood, er, Ferrell and costarring Poehler’s husband, Arrested Development’s Will Arnett, has been a natural career progression, even though the process of making movies may seem like the least natural thing for a loudmouthed improv expert to do. And while it hasn’t yet been formally decided, indications are that this more controlled, quieter world of film acting is exactly where Poehler is headed whenever her run on SNL ends.
If she does choose that route, she has her improv background to thank -- specifically, a lesson she learned in Chicago from a guy named Del Close, who literally wrote the book on improvisational theater before he died in 1999. “One of the things Del used to say was, ‘If you’re doing a scene about two skydivers in a plane, you shouldn’t be talking to each other about jumping. Don’t talk. Just jump,’ ” says Poehler. “I think sometimes you’ve got to do that -- just jump -- even if you don’t know where you’re going to land.”
THEN AGAIN, SHE’S NOT GIVING UP her day job. In addition to working on Saturday Night Live, Poehler is one of four actors who run the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improvisational theater troupe based in New York and Los Angeles. UCB has a theater and a classroom space in each city, and Poehler, along with UCB co-owners Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh, teaches classes and performs. She’s a regular in the troupe’s Sunday-evening improv shows, which cost $10 or less to attend and often star an uncredited who’s who of New York–based comedians.
UCB’s New York headquarters, if you’re supposed to call it that, consists of a small office space and a 150-seat theater in a fairly undistinguished part of Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. I meet Poehler there one rainy afternoon to chat in a cluttered conference room. Several dated TV sets are strewn about, as are boxes and books and a lot of other things that don’t look the least bit funny. Several students chat in a lobbyish space just off the conference room. The whole thing looks not unlike a scene from the lounge of a college fraternity house -- tile floors and dingy couches and someone scribbling in a notebook and so on.
Poehler makes her entrance into -- well, let’s call it what it is -- this mess, booming out a greeting to me. This 36-year-old, who has been dubbed both a “brilliant comedic artist” and “Saturday Night Live’s golden girl,” looks, surprisingly, exactly like she does on TV. Maybe because there’s not much size difference. She’s wearing dark jeans, a black shirt, and an off-white knit hat that hides her unfinessed mop of überblond hair. And though I doubt she’s wearing any makeup beyond some foundation, she’s pretty in an unkempt way. Counterchic, I think you might call it.
Also, she’s eating lunch during our chat: a turkey sandwich, chips, and a Diet Coke. It is not really the meal of a movie star, and she knows it. “Look at me!” Poehler yells, her voice echoing off the walls of the conference room. “It’s the middle of the day, and I’m eating a turkey sandwich. I mean, I’m sitting in an office, eating a turkey sandwich. This is my life.”
Actually, Poehler’s life is somewhat more interesting than that. She lives in New York’s West Village with Arnett. She is indeed SNL’s golden girl, starring as the anchor in the long-running “Weekend Update” sketch, among other roles. And she is capturing a steady stream of big-screen credits. She had three movie roles last year, including those in Blades of Glory and Shrek the Third. And she has three more this year, including one in Horton Hears a Who! and one in Baby Mama. Add to those successes her new TV show, The Mighty B, which just premiered on Nickelodeon. Poehler produced and stars in this 2-D animated cartoon about a somewhat Caitlin-esque preteen character named Bessie Higgenbottom. This is not the résumé of someone who regularly eats turkey sandwiches in conference rooms.
Still, while Poehler isn’t complaining about her recent success or the potential for moving on from SNL, she seems perfectly content to be here at UCB, performing in dirt-cheap shows in the troupe’s theater and teaching classes to young, aspiring actors. “I keep getting older, and they keep staying the same age,” she says, accidentally channeling a Matthew McConaughey line from Dazed and Confused. “UCB has been a really amazing experience. It’s the thing I’m most proud of.”
It’s also a thing she’s an expert at. Poehler, like seemingly every single person who’s ever been on SNL, came onto Chicago’s booming improv scene in the 1990s. She joined the Upright Citizens Brigade in 1993 and became a partner by 1996, when the group moved en masse to New York. That she still performs with UCB, even on Sundays after having stayed up late to do SNL the night before, is unheard of. And it’s not something she’s doing for the money. She wants the laugh.
Fey has praised Poehler for being “fearless with her comedy,” unconcerned with what she looks like or what she has to do to get a laugh. Indeed, her husband, Arnett, whose comedy chops are undisputed, says Poehler is the funniest person he knows.
What makes her so good at improv and sketch? It’s simple: She doesn’t get nervous in front of a live audience. This is clear during our chat. Though I am an audience of only one, I find Poehler to actually be funnier in person than she is on SNL -- and funnier than she was when she played the drunken mom in Mean Girls. And I laughed out loud while watching that.
This is no small feat. Comedians regularly complain that people don’t think they’re as funny when they’re offstage. But Poehler has a relaxed confidence about her in face-to- face situations, and, yes, a fearlessness. Ask her about Baby Mama’s premise -- Fey plays a woman who, since she can’t conceive, hires Poehler’s slacker character as a surrogate -- and she’ll create an alternative instead. “Baby Mama is a $500 million action flick starring me and Tina Fey,” Poehler says, her blue eyes conveying complete seriousness. “Robots are trying to take over the earth. The Statue of Liberty has exploded.
“We really need people to see it, because, as I said, it cost $500 million to make. We’re in real trouble.”
This makes her laugh. Me too. And she clearly enjoys this kind of nonsense. I ask Poehler whether making movies is frustrating for her, given how tightly controlled they can be. “Well,” she says, “SNL is actually kind of like that, too, although people don’t think it is. But it’s very tightly timed. The thing with movies, though, is that making them does require different acting muscles than improv. It’s still a director’s medium. You don’t have a lot of control. When you improvise, you are in total control. You’re the writer, director, editor, producer, and actor all at the same time.”
That’s why Poehler would also like to direct and produce her own projects, starting with the animated Mighty B and moving on to live action. “I’m actually kind of a control freak,” she says. Indeed, she and Arnett are both obsessive schedulers, and she glances frequently at her BlackBerry during our chat as it blinks alongside her turkey sandwich. “I’m realizing more and more that the actor has very little control in film. So I want the control part. But I also like doing things where I’m not too comfortable. That makes it exciting for me.”
She pauses, perhaps realizing how serious all that sounded. A sly grin comes across her face. Then she offers, “However, I also do love lying down and watching TV. So while I want to do all these projects, I also want to be held like a baby by a giant strongman while I do them.”
Poehler isn’t pretending, of course, that she can start calling her own shots in films as soon as she walks away from SNL. She’s well aware that, for one thing, male stars still rule today’s comedic box office. (Though Baby Mama could certainly help to change that.) And she has no illusions about her place in the Hollywood hierarchy. It’s true that no less than DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has called her “brilliant” and praised her potential, but Poehler’s dad was, after all, a schoolteacher in blue-collar New England. He was most certainly not Gary Hollywood.
That’s all the more reason, though, for her to take movie roles that veer far from her improv roots. “It’s too late to get on the superfamous train,” Poehler says. “I was supposed to get on that 10 years ago. I don’t know what happened. So I’m just happy to be a working actor. My goals are longevity and diversity. I’d like to be able to do things that people like, yet maintain a certain amount of integrity. That’s all, really. “Oh, and also, I’d like to buy Coca-Cola. And I want to own my own solid-gold jet plane. Just those two things. That’s not much.”
birth name: amy poehler
marital status: married since 2003 to actor will arnett
hometown: burlington, massachusetts
early life: her parents were both teachers, and poehler thought she’d be one too. “i don’t think you’d have picked me out as being the girl who’d end up on saturday night live,” she says.
yearbook moment: “i was voted third runner-up for most casual in my class,” she recalls. “still to this day, i don’t know if it meant i’m casual in dress or in manner. either way, i didn’t get it. i guess i was just too formal to be most casual.”
early career: she started acting in improvisational theater while attending boston college and then moved to chicago upon graduation and eventually joined the upright citizens brigade, of which she is now a co-owner.
the price of burgeoning fame: “i never wanted to do anything else other than what i was doing,” poehler says. “i was creatively inspirited. and even though i didn’t make any money for a long time, i felt blessed that i knew what i wanted to do. that was a relief. that made rolling pennies that much easier.”
but if she had wanted to do something else, she’d have done this: “i would love to be a tour guide at a museum,” she says. “i would love to be able to stand in front of people and act all smart, and they can’t challenge me. doesn’t that sound satisfying?”
important achievements outside the entertainment industry: “i was a great waitress,” she says. she is particularly proud of the time she spent at aquagrill in new york. and though she hasn’t waited tables in more than a decade, she says, “i still have waitress dreams. i still have dreams that i’ve forgotten someone’s order.”
on whether there is a cashmere comedy mafia in new york: “i am lucky to have so many friends who live in new york,” she says. “i just did a yoga class today with a bunch of girls from snl. but we’re not as exciting as sex and the city. tina and i, we can’t get into the heels. have you seen the streets of new york? cobblestones. you can’t do it. i have very high arches, and i am not good in heels. and i have a hard time holding those martini-glass things. those cosmo things. i spill them.”
secret to success: poehler says, “when people ask me, ‘how do you become successful in this business?’ i just tell them that you can’t own anything or make any money for 10 years. and after that, your friends will probably give you a job. i mean, it’s hard out there. it’s hard out there for a pimp. when he’s trying to make money. for the rent. i would also like to be a pimp. i forgot to mention that.”