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Actress Amy Poehler: Women must be allowed to fail to the top, like men

Comedienne Amy Poehler says female directors and actresses need to be allowed to make mediocre movies like men

It has been a day of never-ending press interviews for her new movie, The House, and actress Amy Poehler is clearly flagging a little.

Her make-up appears to be disintegrating in the Los Angeles heat, but she shrugs it off and greets this reporter with a sunny smile.

"My lipstick looks a little bananas but it's okay, we're not on camera," she says cheerfully as she sits down with The Straits Times for a oneto-one chat.

This is not typical movie-star behaviour, although Poehler is one of the brightest stars in Tinseltown, according to The Hollywood Reporter magazine, which two years ago put her on a list of the 100 most powerful female entertainers.

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Yet, compared with other famously funny women, the 45-year-old comedienne's career has been something of an iceberg, most of it hidden from viewIn recent years, her most highprofile appearances have been at the Golden Globe Awards, which she hilariously co-hosted with her frequent collaborator, actress Tina Fey, from 2013 to 2015.

At the 2014 ceremony, she snagged one of the top honours herself, winning Best Actress in a Comedy for playing Leslie Knope, the irrepressibly idealistic civil servant in cult sitcom Parks And Recreation (2009 to 2015).

It’s about a huge combination of things: allowing women to have as many chances to succeed and fail and to make a mediocre film just like a guy.

ACTRESS AMY POEHLER

By then, Poehler had already quietly shaped a whole generation of top comedians.

In 1990, she co-founded the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) theatre, an improvisational and sketch comedy space where many of the biggest names in comedy today cut their teeth, including Master Of None star Aziz Ansari, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's Ellie Kemper and Anchorman scribe Adam McKay.

Poehler - who has two sons aged eight and six with ex-husband, actor Will Arnett - is tickled by a description of the troupe's influential alumni as the "UCB mafia". "Oh, I like that. So I am one of the dons?" she says.

Gender imbalance

These days, she rarely performs at the UCB theatres in New York and Los Angeles, having moved on to bigger and better things.

In 2015, she was the voice of Joy in Pixar hit Inside Out – which won the Best Animated Feature Oscar. She also produces acclaimed comedy series Broad City (2014 to present).

Her latest star turn is in The House, which opens in Singapore tomorrow. The movie casts her and Will Ferrell as a suburban couple who start an illegal casino in a desperate bid to pay their daughter’s university fees.

Poehler’s last lead role before this was in Sisters (2015), in which she and Fey played siblings who decide to throw one last crazy house party before their parents sell their childhood home.

The film performed solidly at the box office, earning US$105 million (S$146 million) worldwide despite opening against the year’s biggest film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but the actress says female-led films such as these ought to be allowed to fail.

Poehler – who owns production company Paper Kite and has been working behind the camera increasingly over the years – continues to be frustrated by the gender imbalance in Hollywood, where directing jobs and speaking roles disproportionately go to men.

“It just kind of makes me want to barf,” she says. “It’s about a huge combination of things: allowing women to have as many chances to succeed and fail and to make a mediocre film just like a guy. Everything doesn’t have to be so god**** special.”

She believes things are improving, but at a glacial pace.

“And it’s a constant frustration. But it’s truly about keeping your own side of the street clean: Do you have enough women in your writers’ room? Are you giving opportunities – especially to women of colour who are first-time writers, directors and producers, in ways that you’re giving to men of the same age and ability? And are you trying to tell interesting female stories?”

She says she is trying to “chip away” at the gender imbalance “as much as we can” at Paper Kite.

The star, who also founded Smart Girls, an organisation which promotes positive content to young people online, is hopeful about the prospects of seeing more femalecentric comedies such as Sisters being made.

“If anything’s been proven in the last couple of years, it’s that there’s always room for original voices. People are drawn to them, whether it be Trainwreck or Wonder Woman,” she says, referring to Amy Schumer’s 2015 comedy and the recent superhero movie respectively.

“Sometimes those original voices are female. They don’t have to be, but when they are and they succeed, it’s good for everyone.

“And I would also like to fight for the ability for things to also not succeed, and for that not to mean that everybody gets one swing and they’re done. Because it doesn’t quite happen that way in this business – you have to keep making stuff over and over again and you need to fail your way to the top.”

When women do reach the top of their profession and fail, the comedienne firmly believes they should be criticised just as one would a man, especially if the woman in question is an elected official.

This is why Poehler had no problem mocking former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she impersonated her as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, despite endorsing Mrs Clinton in her failed presidential run last year.

“It’s exciting to have a lot of women to talk about and play in politics. That’s why it’s important to have women in positions of power – so they can also be made fun of.”

• The House opens in Singapore tomorrow. See the review.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2017, with the headline 'Fighting for the ability to fail'. Print Edition | Subscribe