'Parks and Recreation' star Amy Poehler: 'It's kind of ruined me for anything else'
When Amy Poehler says that "Parks and Recreation" "kind of ruined me for anything else," it's not hard to understand why. For seven seasons, she was the star, producer and emotional tone-setter (on screen and off) for one of TV's best comedies, in a job that allowed her to do ridiculous things but also play big dramatic moments, that let her work with a wonderful ensemble, that gave her opportunities to write, and direct and constantly exercise her muscles as a master improv comic. One day, Poehler may be able to find another character as rich and tailored to her skill-set as Leslie Knope, but to do that in a project with all the other benefits of this one seems like it would require an astonishing amount of luck.
The series finale airs Tuesday night at 10 on NBC. Early last week, Poehler and I spoke about the show's bumpy origin story, Leslie's relationships with Ann and Ron and Ben, her least favorite part of the job, and a lot more.
I want to go back to the very beginning, because this show was developed in a mad rush, with you leaving "SNL" and being pregnant, and NBC wanting an "Office" spin-off while Greg (Daniels) and Mike (Schur) didn't want to do that. Would you have left "SNL" whether or not this opportunity was out there?
Amy Poehler: I was up on my contract and about to have my son. That was already a decision. I forget the timeline about when Schur actually talked to me, but at the time, it was this actual idea of, "I guess I'm pregnant now. Who knows if this is going to work?" I feel like so much of our early experience of the show was getting people used to what we weren't. "This isn't an 'Office' spin-off, I'm not on 'SNL' anymore." Instead of just being a new show, there were a lot of first impressions. I think when Ben Silverman made the announcement of our show, he called it an "Office" spin-off and gave it a wrong title by accident. We didn't even have our title yet. We had an inauspicious entry. Those first six episodes were shot all at once, and we were doing it a little bit in a vacuum.
Mike says he and Greg dismissed the spin-off idea pretty quickly, but the trade stories at the time said "Poehler joins 'Office' spin-off." Was that still in play when you signed up?
Amy Poehler: That was already off the table when they talked to me. And also, frankly, I am such a fan of Carell and his work, and just felt like that would be kind of a tough thing to step into. So, no, it was not an "Office" spin-off when they talked to me. Leslie Knope already existed, her name was there, and the idea was there, long before they came to me. I was the final part of that.
So other than the chance to work again with Mike, what was it about Leslie Knope and the show that made you want to do it?
Amy Poehler: What I liked about it, at the time it was being pitched as, "What if this woman, in 2008, with very little power, and very big dreams, kind of gets inspired by the 'Yes we can' of it all, the Obama idealism of the time, 'the audacity of hope,' and transfers that big government thing onto her very small pack of weirdos?' I liked all of that. I also just love Schur's writing, and him, and then when we just started talking about this world, we were both giggling, which is a good sign.
Greg and Mike are the show's creators, but you're a producer. What kind of role did you play in shaping things in those early days when the show didn't even have a title?
Amy Poehler: I don't know. I don't have much perspective on it. I was producing with them, and I'd like to say I had a big role in assembling the Avengers. Like Mike and Greg, I like to think that I had come from a collaborative sensibility. I've made a career of working with people more talented than me, and riding off their drafts, like a Subaru riding next to an 18-wheeler. It was really bottom of Show Mountain. It was all those blurry memories, that are hazy for a reason. (laughs) But for me, it was just figuring out how you could sustain a character like this, how you could root for her. I think in the beginning, people mistook naivete and enthusiasm and excitement for being dumb. I think a lot of people thought, "Oh, she's just going to be like Michael Scott, completely unaware of herself." But what started to happen over the weeks and months was that we realized this character was actually a very efficient machine, and it was satisfying to play the energy of that. Her blind spot was her on/off switch, you know?
Mike has talked about how he had a breakthrough with Leslie when you did the moment in the first season finale where Leslie tells Brendanawicz she's had a really crappy day. At what point did you feel like you had a full grasp of who Leslie was, and what made the character work without people thinking she was just like Michael Scott?
Amy Poehler: I remember that first episode of season 2, the penguin wedding. I had a little time to look at our six episodes and get a little bit of perspective, and Schur and Greg and the writers were all talking. I just remember things clicking a little bit more. I'll be honest with you, looking back, I don't know if my performance was all that different in that episode to the first one. I always thought I had her down, or a sense of her. Maybe it was that episode. But I'm not sure. It's a little revisionist for me to talk about how those first six were disjointed. When I look at them, there's a few things like shooting style and our aesthetic, and the biggest thing being everybody being irritated with Leslie. Those kind of things changed fast. But even episodes 3, 4, 5 of that season, it doesn't seem that different. I fought hard in the beginning to say that Leslie had zero style. And as seasons progressed, we would talk about, "Maybe she shops at Sears. Maybe there's a good Dress Barn in Indiana." We started saying, "With a little bit of power, she just gets a little bit more fashionable." I always tell Schur, "Leslie just kept getting darker at the roots, literally and figuratively." For the longest time, I felt like I had to keep my hair the color of someone who doesn't quite know the right look for her yet. That was fun. But those kind of things, some of the ways it was shot, some of the ways we lit it and edited it and wrote it were different. But I don't know if Leslie was all that different. That would be for you to decide.
No, I agree with you. I don't think your performance changed so much as the context the show put Leslie in. In the first season, Tom and April are mocking her behind her back, and starting in season 2, they and everyone else are in awe of her.
Amy Poehler: And I think Tom and April still do that in season 7; it's just that we've been through it together. You can't get instant chemistry, instant history in a television show. One of the constructs is, "Hang in there, you'll start to like us. We'll start to earn this."