For more than two decades Sarah Vowell has been publicly observing and commenting on American life and history. She has written seven acclaimed books, served as a contributing editor to NPR’s “This American Life” from 1996 to 2008, and is known for her regular guest appearances on Conan O’Brien’s talk shows and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
In 2004, Sarah Vowell voiced the teenage superhero Violet Parr in Disney/Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” later reprising the role in video games, theme park attractions, and this week’s highly-anticipated sequel “Incredibles 2.” I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Ms. Vowell last week to discuss her thoughts on superheroes, her relationship with Disney, and even– to my absolute delight– a little bit about Abraham Lincoln.
Mike Celestino, Inside the Magic: You write about American history and Americana. In your opinion, what is the role of the superhero in the American experience?
Sarah Vowell: Wow, going big. Well… let’s see… as a person with physical limitations, especially as an indoorsy person, I’m always more interested in the alter-ego of the superhero. It’s funny to me to be a superhero in this movie, because I am, as a person, a definite alter-ego. I have all these allergies and phobias and my publicist had to make sure to get the milk I wasn’t allergic to, because what if it had nuts in it? So I understand how superheroes [are] so aspirational. They’re about strength or heightened powers, and how people latch onto that.
Certainly when I was a little girl in the 1970s, I was obsessed with the TV shows of “Wonder Woman” and “The Bionic Woman.” “The Bionic Woman” especially, because she was kind of a normal person. She was a teacher and then she got the circuitry. Kind of like how Batman is more interesting because he doesn’t have inherent powers; he just has a lot of cool gadgets and cars and manservants to help him become Batman. But as a writer, and especially as a historian, the thing I’m always trying to get to is past the marble surface.
[With] a lot of historical figures, especially people like presidents or something, the story of them is always the “statue” story of them– their big accomplishments and what was great about them. And I’m always looking for the cracks and those little human moments, like one of the presidents I wrote about was president Garfield, who was so boring. He’s such a paragon of virtue and he’s just so normal and dull, but in his diaries there would be these moments where he would play hooky from Congress because there was a new Jane Austen [novel] he wanted to read. He was always going to the Library of Congress playing hooky because he just loved reading.
I’m always looking for some human thing to latch onto, and sometimes it’s a flaw. It’s so interesting how with actual people, their flaws and their good qualities are so intertwined, and that’s certainly true of Violet in this movie. All of her insecurities manifest themselves into her ability to become invisible, but her overcoming those insecurities is how she becomes a hero. And it makes her becoming a hero so much more meaningful than if she was just an inherently always-confident person charging through life.
Like President Lincoln, he was a cautious dilly-dallier, but it was the cautious dilly-dallier who ended slavery, this thing that people had been procrastinating about since the beginning of the country. There’s something about that way, in a human being, the flaws and the strengths are so entwined that superheroes just amplify that, those divisions within the person.
ITM: I was really hoping Lincoln would come up in this conversation, so thank you.
Vowell: Oh, good. [laughs] But I find Clark Kent way more interesting than Superman, just because of course the most interesting people in the world are journalists.
ITM: Well, thank you. [laughs] I want to move on to talking about Disney, because I remember one of your early essays about visiting Walt Disney World for the first time.
Vowell: Yes, with [writer and humorist] David Rakoff.
ITM: Yeah, and you compared Tom Sawyer Island to the Ramble in Central Park. That memory really sticks out to me.
Vowell: That’s funny because last night someone asked, because Disney owns Marvel, should there be an ‘Incredibles’/Marvel crossover. The first thing that went into my mind is Tom Sawyer Island. We should do a Mark Twain crossover. [laughs]
ITM: I was wondering how your relationship with Disney has evolved since you became part of the Pixar family, and particularly if you’ve gone back and reassessed your take on the theme parks.
Vowell: I did go to Disneyland last summer for the big D23 [Expo]. I definitely feel more connected to [the parks]. One thing that’s really great about the length [of time] between the first movie and this movie, is all of us who are these characters, we’re always going to be the characters. I remember once right when we started working on the first movie, being on a book tour, and the original Cinderella [actress Ilene Woods] from the 40s had been at the same radio station, and she [had] been Cinderella for decades. You do feel like part of this Pantheon.
I [also] remember, living in New York I was on the mailing list for ‘Film Forum’ and they used to have on their mailing list this thing called ‘My First Time,’ where people like Mel Brooks would talk about going to the movies for the first time, or a Coen Brother or something like that. And almost every single person, their first film was always a Disney film. And me too, it was ‘Cinderella.’ You get more of a sense of the continuity of the art of animation now that it’s about a century or so old, how much effect the Disney films have had on every American person, every American child.
WATCH “INCREDIBLES 2” PRESS CONFERENCE:
The one thing I would say that’s interesting hanging around with [‘Incredibles’ director] Brad Bird, who is such an artist of animation, or watching all the Studio Ghibli films from Japan, you see how Brad always says animation is a medium, not a genre, meaning it’s not just films for kids. So one of my side interests, especially with the Pixar films or the Studio Ghibli films, is the adult content of the films. And this new ‘Incredibles’ movie has this major plot point which is about how the superhero parents deal with their childcare issues, or some of the Studio Ghibli movies are about adult greed, things like that.
Or like the first ‘Incredibles’ film, a lot of it was about a guy having a mid-life crisis. He just happened to be a superhero. There’s always that tension, especially with Disney, between how it has such an impact on just about every American childhood for the last few decades, and then how these artists work within that and try to make films children will love, but also as adults with adult interests and passions and conflicts, how that filters into the movies as well.
ITM: Let’s go with something lighter for the final question– Violet doesn’t have a superhero name as of yet. Bearing in mind that Invisible Girl / Invisible Woman is already taken by Marvel, what superhero identity would you give her?
Vowell: Hmm… I don’t know. I guess The Force is kind of taken, too.
ITM: Yeah, that’s another Disney property.
Vowell: [laughs] Force-Fielder? I don’t know.
Sarah Vowell’s most recent book “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States” is available now from all major retailers. “Incredibles 2” will be released into theaters nationwide this Friday, June 15.