Pixar Animation Studios’ all-new feature film Soul introduces Joe Gardner (voiced Jamie Foxx) – a middle-school band teacher who has a passion for jazz.
Joe wants more than anything to become a professional jazz pianist, so when he’s offered a rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play with one of the greats, Ms. Dorothea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett), Joe feels he’s reached the top of the mountain but one small misstep takes him from the streets of New York City to The Great Before – a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth.
Soul travels between New York City, with its dynamic, diverse and complex populace, and The Great Before, which features an ethereal array of inhabitants that creates a rich tapestry of characters who are uniquely connected and yet worlds apart.
The roster of characters in Soul features talented musicians, a strong mother, new souls, camp counselors and a therapy cat, among others—all ushering Joe Gardner to the kind of life-changing self-awareness he never saw coming.
The Koalition spoke to Angela Bassett about voicing Dorothea Williams, being part of the Pixar family the what Soul means to her.
Confident, strong and poised, Dorthea is also truly talented when it comes to her saxophone. Exuding pure confidence on stage and suffers no fools when it comes to jazz or life. Her band is her family, and joining that family is an honor she’s willing to extend to very few. It’s not easy to impress Dorothea, but it’s worth trying.
Dorothea is very thoughtful and intentional about who she wants in her group and as a result, Joe has admired her from a distance, so it’s a very big deal to him to get the opportunity to play with her.
When it came to finding someone who could convey Dorothea’s command of a room, but with undeniable likability, Angela Bassett easily fit bill. In any role she plays, Angela conveys strength. When walks into the room, you feel it. When she speaks, you listen. So it was easy for the development team to literally draw from her strength and put that in the character. From the way she walked, the stance in her posture, to the eye contact, you could feel her not just look at you but stare into your soul.
Bassett, whose powerful performance underscored Dorothea’s love of jazz, was inspired by the story. “”It was wonderful working with our directors Pete and Kemp,” says Bassett. “It’s a long process, it takes a number of years. Everytime I came back to record again, their enthusiasm was infectious, I could sense their passion for the story.”
She continues, “I was intrigued it was a story about the soul, about the spirit, about who we are at our core, about what we hope to do with our lives. I thought it was really unique. Being a lover of jazz, wishing I could play piano or guitar or some instrument, I was really thrilled to play this character.”
Soul captures the spirit of being in “the zone” a place that literally sparks joy, a force so powerful you get lost in your thoughts, the music, the moment. For Joe and Dorothea it’s jazz and for Angela it’s the moment when she becomes a character.
“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 and you had to exhibit a talent. So, I had been doing a reading and just fell in love with the poetry of Langston Hughes. So, I used some of his Madam and the Rent Man, Madam and the Operator, Madam and the Preacher. Being able to use the poet laureate’s words to express myself, to express drama. To have fun and to see the reaction of the-of the audience, to do that; it was the beginning something.”
Angela continues, “If I’m onstage, I sincerely hope I’m also in the zone and not outside of myself observing. It’s something whether on stage, you’re always hoping and praying you can capture that moment but I love sitting in the theater and observing it and others. And it’s happened time and time again. It’s a great place.”
“[For Sou] all I had, literally, were the words on the page. I didn’t have the music. I didn’t have her composition. I didn’t have her moment of when she’s in the zone. What I did have is what she’s worked hard for, what’s before her right now. Someone who desires to be in her group. And she’s the gatekeeper of her own excellence. She’s the gatekeeper of all that she’s built. And she takes very, very seriously. So she’s gonna approach the music with that same degree of excellence and passion.”
Soul also marks the first film at Pixar to feature a host of characters with black and brown skin. Filmmakers took special care to ensure all skin types were richly and authentically depicted by representing a wide range in the African American characters.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to portray maybe a handful of [African-American] characters. But it means a great deal, the more and more we get these stories and these images and opportunities out there. You know, we think of animation usually for the youngsters. But it’s also families. So, if we start early with these images and this idea that it’s a vast and diverse humanity. I think it’s a great thing.”
Soul is set in two fully realized worlds: New York City and the wholly-imagined world of The Great Before. and in many ways, it feels like two distinct movies, each with its own style.
Filmmakers sought to set the movie in a recognizable city to ground that part of the film and jazz was the perfect excuse to explore New York City. Though jazz didn’t originate there, New York is the jazz capital of America. It is a center of culture, full of immigrants and influences from around the world. It’s a rich and vibrant place with the strongest histories of jazz—some of the most famous musicians are known for their performances in New York City.
Soul is a story about the meaning of life and the connections we make with each other. In New York, people are literally bumping up against one another. Diversity is visually evident on every single street. There’s really no place quite like it.
Like Soul, Angela believes life, “[is] really about just sitting still and really being appreciative of all that’s around, of who that’s around and just being reflective of life, and how how far you’ve come and from whence you’ve come. And realizing sometimes those moments do come and wrap you up a little bit. But they come to pass. They don’t come to stay. I hope [the audience] takes away their own special brand of uniqueness, their personality, their quirks, their gifts, their talents. That’s an important asset to the world, and to the community.”
Angela continued, “I think this talks about being focused on your dreams, maybe sometimes too much focus, or hearing negative chatter from outside can derail you and [can] take you to a dark vortex or space. I hope they just take away positiveness that you’re unique, you’re destined for this journey. So live it with gusto, live it with pride, live it with spark and vitality.”