Sarah Vowell is not an actor. She is the voice of Violet Parr, the daughter in the The Incredibles and Incredibles 2 whose superpowers include invisibility and force field manipulation, but through a 30-minute conversation, she makes it abundantly clear that she is no thespian. The making of Pixar movies are famously secretive affairs, but still she imagines that real actors perform their craft in each others’ presence and get access to full scripts and see their movies well before the media or general public. Perhaps that’s true. Vowell doesn’t know, because she enjoyed none of these luxuries. She interacted with just a single person as she recorded her lines. Yet her character is a galvanizing force in Incredibles 2. Violet Parr is tasked with both propelling the plot in crucial moments and injecting raw emotion into the quite funny movie.
The precise balance of the serious and lighthearted is a task with which Vowell is well-acquainted. The scale of a Pixar production means that millions of people all over the world have known and will rediscover her voice by way of Violet Parr. But there is another considerably smaller, but quite enthusiastic faction that is aware of how she routinely finds ways to mix the mind-blowing and the mundane. This faction hears Vowell’s voice in their ears and heads, discrete from any animated character. She is the singular voice behind many of the best stories told on public radio’s long-running show This American Life. She reported stories about America, pop culture, and her family with distinction far before audio documentaries were popular and before the word “podcast” existed.
We spoke earlier in the month, right after Vowell finally saw the entire movie for the first time. She seemed surprised to be involved in the movie, but anyone familiar with her work won’t be. Her books (including Assassination Vacation, a personal favorite) showcase a disarming perspective about the United States, its culture, and its mistakes. It’s a sensibility well-suited to Brad Bird’s animated universe. She explains her involvement in the series as a string of good fortune and happenstance, but it’s difficult to imagine a Violet who sounds any other way.
This conversation has been lightly condensed and edited.
I hadn’t seen the film before I reached out, because I was excited to have the opportunity to ask for an interview. Then I was excited that Violet is at the center of the movie.
I saw the movie for the first time last night. I had only seen mostly little bits and read the parts of the script where Violet is talking but, yes, she really pulls her weight, I think.
Child labor laws don’t really apply to this particular superhero universe.
Do you get the whole script? Or is it so under lock and key that you only have access to the parts you’re in?
Yeah, you never get the whole script. I understand; they’re trying to keep things secret so the viewer can be surprised. It is kind of cool because the cast gets to be just regular moviegoers, too.
I’m [talking about] my point of view. I don’t know. Sam Jackson is probably airlifted into some secret room in Disneyland, where he’s allowed to read the whole script. But for the rest of us chickens, it’s all a surprise. For most of my work on the movie, I just thought it was going to be about a girl who’s really angry with her dad. Turns out there are all these other characters and action sequences and a whole, little old-fashioned slapstick cartoon with a baby and a raccoon and quite a few other characters.
It’s always illuminating to see the whole movie, and also to see the whole movie with the score. Michael Giacchino’s score on this one, as with the first Incredibles, is just such a huge part of the movie—just the way his music emotionally manipulates the viewer in all the best ways. He underlines the emotions and the action and the comedy.
The score has a little bit of a retro feel—it has a little bit of that James Bond and that late-’50s, early-’60s aesthetic, which is sort of mirrored in the architecture. [Mild spoiler warning!] The house the Incredibles move into has that kind of late-’50s modernist feeling. It all adds up in a way that is not completely clear when I’m just in a room and Brad Bird is bossing me around.
Did you interact with any of the other voice actors when you were recording your portion?
No, never. Only Brad, but you know, Brad is … He is the voice of Edna Mode as you know—
He’s a very accomplished voice actor, so he does all the other parts as need be. He actually does a really great Holly Hunter impression. Sometimes when I’m doing scenes with the mother, Elastigirl, he is Holly Hunter. He has a lot of talents and acting is obviously one of them.
I don’t know how it is for the other actors, because they’re real professional actors. I’m just a writer moonlighting on this, as [with] the other movie. I would just be mortified to have to act—and I’m putting air quotes around that word—in front of Sam Jackson. Or, I mean, Holly Hunter is one of our great American artists. Not every take is a keeper if you know what I mean, and I trust Brad implicitly.
He’s the one who had so much faith in me to give me that job in the first place. I don’t know if I would say—I don’t know how it sounds to say—I let myself be vulnerable in front of him. It’s more like I just let myself fail in front of him until he helped me figure out how to succeed, and I would just be mortified to have anyone else witness that. But with him I trust that he’ll be able to find something in me or he’ll be able to inspire something in me, and he’ll also be able to find the take that is the best one. I’m sure the other actual professional actors would probably like to interact with one another, because from what I’ve read as a longtime subscriber to Entertainment Weekly, acting is about listening or something. But from my point of view, I really like the system as is.
How did you first meet Brad Bird?
I guess it’s been like 18 years since I first heard from him, and he was working on the first movie. Must’ve been around the year 2000, and [he] was listening to his local radio station and heard one of the documentaries I had made for This American Life, and for whatever reason he heard my voice, and he heard Violet. I mean it’s sort of a compliment and it’s kind of an indictment of my adulthood. But you know that was it. He heard that and stuck to his guns.
Do you know which documentary he was listening to?
Yes, it was a documentary that was been rerun on public radio a gazillion times over the years about my father. My father when I was growing up was a gunsmith, and then later on he kind of quit gunsmithing to start making his own cannons from scratch in the backyard, and this was, gosh, 20 years ago I made that documentary. I’d go back to my hometown in Montana, and my dad and I dragged that cannon. He’s sent me numerous other cannons, but that was the first time we’d drag it out into the mountains and chewed off the cannon. I can totally see now why [Brad Bird] thought of me for Violet. Because Violet and her dad Bob have a kind of similar dynamic as my dad and me. We’re not always on the same page and there’s a lot of love there, but it’s sort of buried in her sarcasm and his confusion.
That piece [The “Guns” episode of This American Life from 1997] was really about me, especially me, a gun-hater, coming to terms with my dad, the gun-lover, and so that was the piece he heard.
It does kind of lead into some of my insecurities. I’ve sounded 12 my whole life. I am pushing 50. There used to be telemarketers back then—I don’t know if they still exist—but they would always ask me if my mother was home. So when you worry you sound like a cartoon and then someone sends me a message [asking] do I want to be in an animated movie … I guess I am who I am.
I was and am an avid This American Life listener, so I feel very familiar with your voice. I noticed in the film you sound just slightly different. Are there any voice exercises or anything you do slightly differently to get into character?
I’m just as a person, and I guess as a writer, a very lowkey, kind of deadpan person. Even when I’m joking around, I will undersell every joke. I guess I pull back or something, and you can’t do that in animation. Every aspect of it is so heightened and has to be so strong. [Like with] the visuals, why is everything in The Simpsons pink and bright yellow and bright blue? And same thing with voicing animation. One has to be literally more animated and just bigger and stronger and a little more outlandish. It’s more like theater acting than film acting because film acting does kind of privilege the lowkey (live-action films), whereas animation does just require more and bigger things.
It was a complete surprise the first few sessions I did all those years ago. There are these things called vocs—I assume that’s spelled V-O-C-S; I don’t know—where you have to make the sound. You have to make the sound of being hit, or screams, or sighs, or jiggles, and that is something public radio doesn’t really call for. All of these nonverbal noises. The other thing is: I think my writing has emotion in it, but if I’m reading something I write aloud—something really emotional—my tendency is to downplay as much as possible, because I don’t want to over-emote or be overly dramatic. But in animation, like in Incredibles 2, Violet has some really emotional scenes. She cries, she yells at her dad in fits of annoyance and passion, and she is not always a lowkey presence. She has a temper. She a hormonal teenager. And so that does require—I guess you could call it acting.
I was definitely raised to be a stoic person. And so for me, performing those things was really difficult. Like the scene where she cries was really … that was a really [laughs] a really hard hour or so.
But crying in front of people is, crying in front of, like, the sound guy—I’m sure that’s a regular part of regular actors’ lives, but for me I try to keep it together in public so that took a lot. And again, trusting Brad was definitely … I would do anything for him, including cry in front of him, apparently.
Did you get any tips from any actor friends or from anyone who’s done voice acting of how to prepare for those emotional scenes?
I mean, no. Mm-mm. I mean I know there’s—no.
I’ve done a few cameo things on some live-action films since the first Incredibles, because I have a SAG card, but they’re just really like me showing up as me. But because it’s so specific with Brad, and he always has such a specific thing in mind, one can’t really—and because I don’t get the script ahead of time. The day I had to cry, I didn’t know I was going to have to cry, so there’s that. You can’t prepare if you don’t know what you’re doing. He just has such a clear I guess aural image of what he wants, he just kind of hammers until he gets it. No there’s no real prep. But again, I’m a special sort of moonlighting case. I’m sure Holly Hunter would have a obviously much better, more professional answer.
What did you know about the film when you recorded it? You said not much, but both The Incredibles and now Incredibles 2 take up pretty big questions and they both come out at pretty intense political times. Did the deeper questions that the movie invests in affect the way that you play the role?
Did you just say that these are more political times?
I think that both 2004 and right now—when the first one and now the second one have come out—are pretty tense political moments, and both movies dig up pretty big questions. I’m curious how that affects the way that you play the role and the way that you think about the project as you’re involved in it.
I guess I don’t think about it when I’m in the sound studio with Brad. You’re really in each moment. What we generally talk about is architecture. What I mean by that is I’d have to ask, “Where are we?” Like literally, physically, where are we. Because if you’re next to an exploding tank, that affects the performance, as opposed to sitting at the kitchen table with your family. In terms of volume and intensity, a lot of it comes from that—because they record the voices first, and I don’t have a clear visual of literally where she is on the planet, so a lot of it is just in that moment.
Pulling back to all the political stuff: That was one thing even in the first movie that attracted me to playing Violet, because her story in the first movie was about a young woman literally coming into her powers. And that was a very powerful, relatable, universal human message. And also, from a personal level, when I was a kid I was really intensely pursuing music, like classical music and jazz, and I was composing orchestra music. I remember how Violet, she gets her powers and she wants to be doing that. I remember being that age and just [being] like, “I don’t want to go to algebra today, I want to learn how to write in the alto clef so I can write for viola.”
I had all these other concerns in 10th grade, and I remember the tension that provides in a young person’s life, because you have all these adult pretentions, and you’re kind of doing this adult job, but you’re still a kid with parents and detention and making sure you’re not counted absent from a class that you fail and don’t graduate. So with Violet, it was always a little bit political to me. And especially because one of the ways I earn my living is speaking at colleges. So I do spend a lot of time around young women, and I take that really seriously. And it’s really exciting; one reason I do it is you see all these people and they’re just such question marks. Sometimes I’ll meet new students, and I’ll just want to move to Baltimore and watch them finish growing up, because it’s so exciting, there’s so much potential there.
That was always part of the story to me, and the other part of it: The way the sequel is being talked about is about Elastigirl going off to work and leaving Bob at home with the kids. That’s certainly part of what the movie is about, but ultimately—that’s what the movie is about for a while—but ultimately what the whole movie is about is teamwork. That’s what it’s about on screen, and that’s what it’s about off screen as well. The reason the credits are so long on these movies is that so many different people work on them and it’s just such an embarrassment of riches in terms of behind-the-scenes collaborators.
I mentioned earlier the architecture. There’s a sketch that Ralph Eggleston the production designer did of the house the Parr family will move into, that’s going to be shown in the Museum of Modern Art one day. Or Michael Giacchino’s music. Some of the stars of this movie are not so much—as much as Sam Jackson and Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter—it’s Michael Giacchino’s horn section. There’s this really functional version of teamwork. Even the villains are working together. So yes, Elastigirl gets to flex her muscles, but ultimately to save the day everyone has to pitch in, everyone from Frozone, every member of the Parr family including maybe the baby, and it’s not just showing a woman doing her job and her husband taking care of the kids for a while. It’s a vision of a world where everyone gets to be part of this collective, gets to be part of this family, and everyone gets to shine on their own while working together. It’s this vision of men and women, children and adults all working together with a certain amount of affection and equality and humor and effort.
It’s literally about a team effort, and each member of that team has such a distinct character and personality. Each person has their powers, and all of those powers they’re working together, and everybody needs everybody. That’s what I assume we’re working toward, culturally, in terms of women being able to get equal representation and remuneration in the workplace. [It’s] to get to the point where none of that matters. It doesn’t matter what color you are or what gender you are or whatever, everyone has equal opportunity, equal pay.
One of the things I liked about playing jazz—I remember the writer Dave Hickey, he was writing about how his dad was a jazz musician, and growing up his dad would have these jam sessions at their house, and his dad was the guy who made sure everybody got their solo. And then this weird collection of people, different races, different nationalities, and they would all get together and play songs and each person would get their solo. That is the vision of the world we all want to live in.
It is a beautiful vision. Do you think there’s supposed to be a connection between “Make supers legal again!” [a slogan repeated by an advocate of superheroes in The Incredibles 2] and kind of how it’s vaguely reminiscent of the Trump slogan, and illegal immigration is such a big conversation (or perceived illegal immigration) in this country. Is that an intentional commentary?
Boy. You writers. I don’t know. That was kind of a big subplot in the original movie, that’s what it was based on. These people are underground and they’re not being able to use their powers, so I would say you’re stretching there. And as an essayist, sure go to town on trying to make that point, but I don’t know if that was exactly the intention.
I like that I’m stretching there, that’s a good Elastigirl pun. One final question: I loved Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, so I was curious what you thought about the resurgence of the Marquis de Lafayette thanks to your book and Hamilton in the popular imagination.
It doesn’t really matter what I think. I think the Marquis de Lafayette—he was a real publicity whore, and he would absolutely love it. All he wanted was attention, and he actually got a lot of attention in his lifetime. More than half the population of New York City showed up to welcome him when he returned to America in 1824. So he did get a lot of attention, but he would love it. That was part of his charm. He wanted glory, and it actually had a practical, helpful effect in that his clamor for glory made him an incredibly hardworking, dedicated brave soldier in George Washington’s continental army, so he wasn’t just a French pretty boy who wanted to be admired. It really helped the cause, but I just wish he could be around to see it again. Because the one thing he loved was being loved.