Discussing Disney's Soul With Angela Bassett and Phylicia Rashad Is as Inspiring as You'd Imagine
Not only does Disney and Pixar's Soul give viewers a visual and musical treat, but it boasts such an impressive voice cast, it's almost too good to be true. Jamie Foxx leads a star-studded cast as middle-school band teacher Joe Gardner who finally gets his big break, only to fall down a pothole and into a coma. He wakes up as a bluish, greenish blob (with glasses) and learns that his soul is in a purgatory, of sorts. His only hope to return to his life is in the hands of the unborn soul 22 (Tina Fey). They take him on a rollercoaster ride that winds up teaching him that he needs to learn more about himself before he can truly live a fulfilling life on earth.
I know, sounds intense for a kids' movie, but Soul endeavors to spark a conversation about one's purpose and the reason for living in a family-friendly format that's under three hours. And it aims to do so with a cast that includes Phylicia Rashad as Joe's mother, Libba, and Angela Bassett as Dorothea Williams, a legendary jazz musician that Joe plays piano for. POPSUGAR got a chance to speak with Rashad and Bassett over a video call, and the icons reflected on Soul's grand message, the trials and tribulations of following your passion, and working with their own legends. Keep reading to see the full conversation ahead!
POPSUGAR: What attracted you to the roles of Libba and Dorothea?
Phylicia Rashad: I received a call from my agent, and she said, "There's a Disney Pixar animated film feature called Soul, and there's interest in you for the role of Libba. She is the mother to Joe, who's being played by Jamie Foxx." And I said, "Yeah, I'll do it. Yeah, I would definitely do that." I didn't really have a storyline or any of that, but working in a fully animated feature was something that I've wanted to do for quite some time. And as this was coming from Disney Pixar, you know it's going to be good.
Angela Bassett: Well, what interested me in the role of Dorothea was just being asked by the Pixar company to come aboard and to participate in this movie called Soul. As a Black girl from Florida who knows soul music, soul food, and knows a soul brother, that sounded very intriguing to me. Then I thought about Dorothea and her being the leader of a jazz quartet for many years. Joe respects her so much, he's nervous to the point of losing his wits at the audition. And that's because she's so revered, respected, and admired because she's so talented and so good.
" As a Black girl from Florida who knows soul music, soul food, and knows a soul brother, that sounded very intriguing to me." — Angela Bassett
And it reminded me of sitting at a jazz club years ago listening to Betty Carter do her thing. She got these young musicians up out of Juilliard and New Orleans who were playing in her band, and she's driving them, she's doing her thing. But when she would turn her back to us and look straight to them and drive the music, it was as if she was saying, "Come on, I'm going to teach you right now. I'm going to teach you and you going to sweat, but you are going to get it. You got to get this lesson right here." And that's the inspiration I took for Dorothea because she didn't land where she landed by not knowing what she was doing as a businesswoman and as a craftsman.
PS: Very true! I thought it was interesting that even as an animated figure, you could tell Dorothea has a strong presence. When she walked into the room, everyone stood at attention. And that's how I imagine your fans see you both as well. Did you see any similarities between you and your characters?
AB: Well, I hope she also has the love and the admiration of those around her. She's formidable, but not in a fearful way. I think when she vouches for you or speaks for you or when you're embraced by her, you know that you're loved. I think she's warm, and she can open up to those that she's closest to. As is evident, I think, at the end of the film, when the gig has gone well, Joe's just wondering what's next and she tells him, "Keep your feet on the ground, baby. We just do it."
PR: I have two children, whom I love very much, and I always want the best for them. And sometimes I have to pull back, be quiet, and listen, because I'll be saying, "Now do it this way and go that way. Did you do this? Did you do that? Did you follow this? And did you finish that?" And that's such an annoyance because these people are grown, and not only that, they have a right to pursue happiness in their own way. But as a mother, you can't help but want to see them stable and safe. But now, life has been upended, hasn't it? And what is stability? What is safety except for good health, and cleanliness, and kindness? Well, I can see they've got that in spades, so I can take my worrying hat off.
POPSUGAR: I definitely noticed some similarities with my mama watching Libba! I was thinking, "Wow, this sounds pretty familiar."
PR: [laughs] I'll bet.
POPSUGAR: So, what do you think is the disconnect between Libba and Joe? Because we can see that they love each other a lot, but there always seems to be kind of just a point where they don't meet.
PR: I think it might be a case of the left brain versus the right brain, something like that. She might be more left-brained than he is, and he's more right-brained.
POPSUGAR: As someone who is in the creative arts as well, did you relate to Joe when you were younger? Or would you say you were always ready to be mama Libba, practical to the end?
PR: No, I wasn't always practical to the end, but I related to Joe through my brother. My brother is a musician, and he got his first trumpet when he was about 8 or 9 years old. And without one lesson, he picked it up and played "Taps." So it was obvious what was in him. He continued to pursue his trumpet with private lessons that my mother had arranged for him, and by the time he was 11 years old, he was conducting the Houston Symphony Orchestra. And people would say, "Oh, this is wonderful. You're so talented. But you know, you have to have something to fall back on. Now, you know there's no security in this. You can't plan a life on this." And that was so discouraging to listen to.
I also had the example of my mother, who's a poet, and nobody saw anything of value in that either. They thought she needed to get a job as if that isn't work. They should have been at my house to watch what she did every morning from 3 to 6 a.m. when the world was asleep. You're a writer, yes?
PR: So you know!
POPSUGAR: Yes, I've had similar conversations in my day. [laughs]
PR: Okay. And you know what to do right? All right.
POPSUGAR: Was there ever a time in your career where you had a moment like Joe, where you felt lost or you were scared that you weren't going to be able to make your passion your purpose, so to say?
PR: Absolutely! Early on in my career, I'd been in New York for almost a year. I had trained in college as an actress and had trained in theater, but I hadn't trained my voice for singing. So here I am, cast in this musical, and I'm just out there singing hard. I wake up one morning, and I have no voice — gone with the wind. But I go to rehearsal, and I keep singing. It gets worse, and then it gets even worse. The third day, I went to work, and the stage manager said, "You can go home. We don't need you today." And they didn't need me the next day or any day after that. I was fired. And that was devastating. I felt like someone snatched the Earth from beneath my feet. I couldn't see today, let alone tomorrow. Everything looked bleak. As I'm saying this to you, what's coming to my mind is the image of gray, just gray everywhere.
My mother became very concerned about me and said that I should come home and work with her in her gallery. And I said, "No, I have to stay here. I have to stay." But I couldn't see how anything was going to work out or how anything was going to be different or better. But sure enough, it did, because when I took that specific job, I was offered three other jobs. The reason I took that job, well, that's another story. But I ended up playing three roles that I wouldn't have gotten had I stayed in that one role. And those three roles propelled me to something else, that led me to something else, that jumped off into something else. So, somehow the great lesson of that was, you can't always see all that's happening. There is grace in all things, and even if you can't readily perceive it, you've got to hold on.
POPSUGAR: So, as Joe's fictional mama, what do you think he should do with his second chance that he gets at the end of the film?
PR: I'm going to let him make up his own mind.
POPSUGAR: Learned that lesson, huh?
POPSUGAR: As for Dorothea, she gives him that analogy about the young fish, asking the older fish for directions to the ocean, and when he points out they are in the ocean, he responds, "I don't want to be in water. I want to be in the ocean." What is your interpretation of that analogy?
AB: I thought it meant he spends all these years and decades trying to get there, trying to get to the "ocean." But what's the ocean made up of? Water. And what's he been swimming in? What's he been teaching? He's been teaching present day and future musicians. Some who will never be great, that's okay, they'll be there for a year. But some will go on to do make beautiful music, inspiring music, music that moves and transports, but he can't see that. He thinks he's just flopping around, right? He's a fish out of water, flopping around in the wrong environment. Not understanding the work is right there in front of him.
POPSUGAR: As you were saying, he's teaching future generations. I thought the film was going to end with Joe going back into teaching, but they never really tell us what he does with his second chance. So, what do you think he should do with his second chance?
"It just didn't work out for some reason, but you're never forgotten. So, don't be forgettable in the room. You have to consume the room and give it all that you have." — Angela Bassett
AB: I think he probably goes back to teaching, but the word is out. I was telling a young actress this the other day. I told her, "Don't give up. When you go into an audition, you give the full measure of your devotion. You're the actor, you're the producer. You're the director of that moment. You don't leave it all there. Some roles are available for you. And sometimes it's not available for you, but if you really give it all you've got, you're memorable. You'll be remembered because that's not the last role ever, and someone always wants to look good. So you'll be like that lover, you're no longer in their life, but they can't forget you. They can't forget what a warm, kind, generous, and vibrant person you were.
It just didn't work out for some reason, but you're never forgotten. So, don't be forgettable in the room. You have to consume the room and give it all that you have." And I think Dorothea will never forget Joe because he saved the day. He may not go on the road with her, maybe her original player will come back or whatever, but you best believe whenever that man's not there — who she's calling, who she's recommending, who is she speaking well of because he met the moment where she most needed it? Joe. So, he may go back to teaching, but the word is out.
POPSUGAR: So, who is your Dorothea Williams? The person you would love to work with, who's kind of up there in status, and you're just like, "You and me, we've got to make a connection."
PR: You know, I've worked with my Dorothea Williams. I have worked with Nancy Wilson. I have worked with Gloria Foster.
POPSUGAR: Oop, alright, tell 'em!
PR: Yeah, I've worked with Whoopi Goldberg. Yes, I have worked with my Dorothea, and I'll continue to work with her. I know that.
Soul is now available to stream on Disney+.