[Interview] How the cast of Disney-Pixar’s ‘SOUL’ found and maintained their sparks

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Disney-Pixar’s SOUL follows the journey of middling jazz pianist Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) as he comes to terms with the trajectory of his life while he’s stuck in somewhat of a limbo, mentoring a new, rather annoying soul, 22 (voiced by Tina Fey). They’re tasked to find 22’s “spark,” or purpose-driven motivation to live life, so she can continue the restorative process in turning human, which in turn helps Joe better appreciate the life he’s been given. And as you can imagine, it’s a powerful and poignant adventure that follows.

At the film’s recent virtual press conference, we asked the cast about the moment they found their creative sparks – and how they’ve been able to maintain them without sacrificing anything.

Tina Fey, who voices 22

“I was in college, I studied drama at the University of Virginia. Like everybody, I think I mostly wanted to be an actor. But then the first time I took a playwriting class, and I wrote a one-act play, and I was not in the play. That was the first time I ever sat back and watched other people get laughs and stuff from something that I wrote. It was such a unique thrill that something opened in my brain, of like, “Oh, I think this is it for me.””

Phylicia Rashad, who voices Joe’s mother, Libba

“I was 11-years- old and I stood in a spotlight and couldn’t see anything but light. I held a script of everything I was supposed to say, but because I’d been rehearsed so thoroughly, I knew it by heart. I just talked to the light all night long. [As] mothers came to collect their children – this was when there was a great program we were having in the elementary schools in Houston – I heard one of them say, “There she is, there’s the little girl who spoke so beautifully. Isn’t she beautiful?” Well, you know, that’s manna from heaven, for an 11-year-old – especially one who doesn’t think herself pretty at all. And I thought, “When I grow up, I’ll be an actress. I’ll play in the light. And be beautiful all the time.””

Angela Bassett, who voices Joe’s band leader Dorthea

“One of the first moments was on the stage at Eckerd College in Saint Petersburg, Florida, in a little summer after school program. We had the pageant [where] you had to exhibit a talent. I had been doing a reading and just fell in love with the poetry of Langston Hughes. I used some of his Madam and the Rent Man, Madam and the Operator, Madam and the Preacher. I did a couple of those poems, like, “Reverend came by my house, today. He asked me…He said, ‘I’m interested in your soul, has it been saved? Is your heart stone cold?’” I used that as mine. It went over very, very well. Being able to use the poet laureate’s words to express myself, to have fun, and to see the reaction of the audience, to that, it was uh, it was beginning.”

Disney and Pixar’s “Soul” introduces Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher. When he gets the chance of a lifetime to play with Dorothea Williams (voice of Angela Bassett) at the best jazz club in town, he believes his life is finally going to change. “Soul” will debut exclusively on Disney+ (where Disney+ is available) on December 25, 2020. ©2020 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

Jamie Foxx, who voices Joe, on not having to sacrifice any creative endevors

“I was actually lucky. I remember being on IN LIVING COLOR, I remember be-being told by an executive, “Foxx, stick to the jokes, man. You ain’t gonna be able to do all this singing.” ‘Cause I was always singing in my dressing room. And I remember Tommy Davis and, like, getting my back. “No, he should do everything.”  

Then, a wonderful thing happened: things opened up. And when they opened up, I took advantage of it. By being able to have Kanye West at my house when he was just [coming up]. There is Puff and a young Jay-Z. Nobody even knew who Jay-Z was! He was standing on the wall at the party. I said, “What’s up?” He said, “It’s a nice party. It’s crazy. Is it like this all the time?” And there was a young guy, standing in my garage. He said, “You have parties like this all the time? We’re The Neptunes. My name is Pharrell.”

So, imagine this little, small house with Missy Elliot in one room, Puff, Jay, Young Kanye say he got a song called “Slow Jamz” that he wants me to sing. I said, “Well, I got a studio in the back.” I put the studio back there because every time somebody came to my house, like, Snoop or whatever, I would get music from ‘em, because I wanted to get in the music game.

What happened was a couple of things. I outgrew the Wanda character from IN LIVING COLOR. I was years removed from that. Most people knew me as a girl. Now the younger generation said, “That’s the dude that sings with Kanye and Drake.”

I didn’t have to sacrifice any, but I had to be very careful that we, at least, had to be successful with it. Had “Slow Jamz,” “Gold Digger” and these songs had not worked, then yeah, we would have had to sacrifice some things. But I had a great guy by the name of Breyon Prescott who was able to usher the music in. In a way, he says, “You got to quit joking. Just do your music. And I’m gonna find you songs that are hits before you even touch it. And then, you’ll add it.” And he said, “You can do ‘em all. You just have to respect ‘em all.””

SOUL begins streaming on Disney+ on Christmas.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.