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Phyllis Smith goes for the joy even in Sadness

Updated June 14, 2024 - 6:46 am

It’s noon on a sweltering spring day in the Midwest. Do you know where your TV stars are?

In the case of Phyllis Smith: She’s on a family trip in her hometown of St. Louis. But she’s not dipping a toe in a hotel pool while sipping iced tea.

She’s in a backyard. There are giant bugs. And Smith is being summoned by a guy who couldn’t care less that her show is a global hit in syndication.

“Hang on, dear,” she says, pausing a phone interview. “I gotta give the guy some money — he’s cutting our grass.”

Smith not only sounds like a kindly aunt, but the 74-year-old is resoundingly normal.

“Are you kidding? I’m not a big star. In no way am I pampered, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I do what everyone else does,” she laughs. “Stick around today and I’ll be throwing out the garbage and going to the store.”

Of course, there is her nondomestic life to consider. Smith, a former dancer and onetime NFL cheerleader, has conquered TV and movies.

On the small screen for eight years, she played customer service rep Phyllis Vance on “The Office.”

On the big screen, she resumes her role of Sadness in the much-anticipated sequel “Inside Out 2,” out this weekend. A few bummer moments are key as young Riley (Kensington Tallman) has now entered her turbulent teenage years.

Joining Smith is a voice cast including Amy Poehler (Joy), Lewis Black (Anger), Tony Hale (Fear), Maya Hawke (Anxiety) and Ayo Edebiri (Envy).

Smith tips her hand as to which emotion she prefers: “I think you should strive to do things in life that are absolutely fun. Go for the joy,” she says.

Her good life tips:

Her ‘Inside’ voice

Smith was thrilled to resume her role in the sequel to the 2015 hit “Inside Out.” “I fell right back into the role pretty easily,” she said. “We didn’t want Sadness to be one-note. It would have been easy to play her as annoying, crying or whiny, but we avoided it. The key was to draw different levels out of me.”

It’s OK to be sad

“Most people just absolutely love ‘Inside Out,’ but the movies have been something more. Teachers in the lower grades put pictures of all the characters on a board and ask the kids, ‘How are you feeling today?’ ” Smith observes. “It’s so wonderful to learn that something you’ve been a part of has made life better in some really positive way. Maybe I’ve taught kids and adults that it’s OK to be sad.”

Goals can help

How can anyone cope with the moody teen years? “As a teenager, I was a dancer and I was always at dance class. I had a goal and an interest, which was key,” Smith notes. “I was always trying to compete with myself to be a better dancer. The truth is, I didn’t have time to sit around and be moody. … I’d get sad when I would audition and not get the role. It was a big letdown, but I still went to class the next day. You have to push on.”

Chase away sadness

What does Smith do now if she is sad? “Oddly enough, I don’t get sad. I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she insists. “But if I do feel a little down, I think about how grateful I am for what I do have and how blessed I feel. … I always say when someone is talking negative, ‘It can always be worse.’ That’s the one thing that always snaps me out of my negativity. It could actually be worse. Just be grateful for what is now.”

Don’t believe everything

Ask Smith about growing up as one of nine children — or some of the other falsehoods that have been reported on her Wikipedia page — and she laughs. “Sorry, no nine kids — I have one brother. And, oh, by the way, I was never a telemarketer. I was never in ‘Caddyshack.’ I don’t know why this has been reported. … Yes, I was a cheerleader in the 1980s for one season. I was in a vaudeville show, but not as a stripper — as a dancer. I did tour dinner theaters around the country. … There are a lot of crazy rumors.”

Just keep moving

Like so many people, Smith says it’s tough to fit daily exercise into a busy life. “I wish I could tell you about some routine I do, but that’s not me,” she acknowledges. “I try to fit exercise into each day. Maybe it’s a walk, or I have a lot of cats that I take care of in the neighborhood, so I’m out and that’s exercise when I’m busy with them. The key is, I’m constantly on the move. Not a lot of sitting in my life. I’ll say, ‘I don’t have time to exercise.’ But then I realize I’m moving all day long.”

Look back and ahead

Where does Smith think her “Office” character is today? “Phyllis liked to work, so I think she’d still be working,” she says. “She would still be married to Bob Vance.” She admits that she will occasionally watch a rerun or two. “The fun part is like the other night when I honestly didn’t remember an episode and then, all of a sudden, the camera panned over and I thought, ‘I remember it now.’ ”

Be fearless

Smith says her best life advice is simple: “Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she says. I thought I was fat when I was younger. I look back at those photos now and think, ‘Why so hard on yourself? You weren’t fat at all. … And finally, take chances. That is life. Chance after chance. Stumble and get up again and again.”

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