Poehler Power: Amy Poehler's Rise to the Top

What's the secret to comedian Amy Poehler's brilliant success? Asking for what you want, getting the last laugh -- and never fading into the background.
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As a girl living in the suburbs of Boston, Amy Poehler was in a big hurry to grow up. "I dressed like a professional businesswoman from Working Girl when I was in seventh grade," she recalls. "I wore shoulder pads and sneakers as if I were commuting to an office. I even did the Jane Fonda workout. I was a woman on the go with ankle weights, even though I probably only weighed 92 pounds."

Fast-forward a few decades and it's clear that Poehler's youthful determination paid off. After cofounding the Chicago-based comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, in 1990, she went on to become a breakout star on Saturday Night Live, creator and star of the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation and coheadliner with pal Tina Fey in movies (Baby Mama, Mean Girls) and as host of the Golden Globes. When she's not acting, she's producing her web series, Smart Girls at the Party, which helps empower tweens and teens, and she's working on a book of funny essays. She also has two sons, Archie, 5, and Abel, 3, with actor Will Arnett, from whom she split in 2012 after nine years of marriage.

We caught up with Poehler, 42, when she had a rare moment of downtime and asked her how she juggles it all (even though that's one of her least-favorite questions). "I just did a movie junket and reporters kept asking me, 'Amy, how do you balance everything?' I started saying things like, 'You have to be realistic about how much you can get done in a day,' and all that stuff. But then I was like, 'Why don't you ask the guy actors sitting next to me that same question? They have kids, too!'"

How do you catch your breath with everything you have going on?

Honestly, my dream would be that I wake up every morning and someone gently leads me to my closet and shows me what I'm going to wear that day. I also want to invent a shower bed, which I can't believe hasn't been invented yet. It's a bed where you pull a cord and water pours down on you like you're Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. So I save time wherever I can. I shower while I'm lying in my bed and I have robots pick out my clothes.

How do you prioritize what you want to get done in a day? Do you have any tips?

My therapist gave me a good visual metaphor that I use a lot: I picture a refrigerator and on the refrigerator are six magnets. Each magnet says things like: relationship, kids, health, work, money, fun with friends -- whatever. Every day you can really only put three magnets on the refrigerator. You're not going to be able to use all of them. Like today is about my work, my children, and my health. Then the week goes by and you're like, "I haven't used my 'fun with friends' magnet in weeks!" So I try to approach it that way.

You started a web series called Smart Girls at the Party. How did empowering girls become your cause?

Honestly, I'd like to tell you that Smart Girls was my intent to change minds and move the needle but it wasn't. I just thought it would be fun to do an interview show where we talk to young girls and have a Charlie Rose round table and take everything as seriously as they take it. I connect to that age. I've learned a lot about myself by talking to young girls.

What kinds of things have you learned?

Young girls feel passionate about things. They remind me that it's okay to really care -- and that cynicism and sarcasm are an easy choice. I also learned that age 12 is a lot different from 13. When kids turn 13, they don't want to dance with their parents as much.

What was your own childhood like?

My parents were public school teachers. We lived in Burlington, Massachusetts, an idyllic, lower-middle-class suburb of Boston. My family [Poehler has a younger brother, Greg] was very witty and quick and you kind of had to keep up. My dad will tell you I got all of my comedy from him.

Do you think it's harder being a girl today than it was when you were a kid?

When I was young I would go to a party, have a good time and take pictures of my friends and me. A week later I would go to the drugstore and get the pictures that had been developed. Any pictures I didn't like I might rip up and throw away. These days everyone's moments are forever. You're a young girl and you make a shortsighted choice to send someone a naked picture of yourself and now that picture lives forever. We've all made stupid mistakes. The difference is that our mistakes were not for everyone to see.

What do you find hard as an adult?

I think the hardest thing is to know what you want, ask for it, and then to stop talking. Early on I worked hard to figure out what I wanted to do -- and that I only wanted to do work that I would be proud of. When I was in my 20s I went on an audition for a lottery commercial in Chicago. They said, "Tell us your most embarrassing moment." I said, "What kind of commercial is this?" They were like, "We want to get to know you." I said, "No, I don't want to tell you my most embarrassing moment on camera." They looked at me like, "If you want to be in this f---ing business, you'd better tell us your most embarrassing moment on camera for this lottery commercial!" Sometimes I laugh when I think about how sure of myself I was at 21, 22.

You've played Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live. If Clinton runs for President in 2016, will you go back on SNL to impersonate her?

I will go back to SNL anytime they need me. I've been a fan of the show since I was born. But I would love to see Hillary Clinton run. I would love to watch that campaign.

Did she like your impression of her?

I think so. She came on the show once. It's always weird to stand next to someone when you're impersonating them. I honestly didn't do a very good Hillary Clinton. I just did a take on her, because I don't do impressions that well. But I found her to be warm, funny and really smart.

What's it like for you, being a single working mom?

People always want to know where your children are in relation to you. So if I'm in New York [Poehler has homes in New York City and Los Angeles] people go, "Are they here?" And it's like, "Of course they're with me. They're wherever I am unless I'm working for a couple days and then they're not with me. And no, they're not at this party because I'm an adult. And this party is for adults." But age gives you a couple of things: One, you get better at not taking everything people say personally. Two, you learn those types of questions are more about the person asking them than they are about you. And three, you realize no one can make you feel bad about your choices without your permission.

What have you learned about friendship? Are friendships with women more enduring?

Most of the women in your life will outlast the men in your life. The SNL ladies -- Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Tina -- and I text pictures of our kids back and forth all the time. It keeps us connected. As my nanny used to say, the older you get the more important it is to know people that knew you when. I also like hanging out with women who are older than me. I like asking them how they navigate life, what they've learned. I respond to people telling me about their experiences rather than telling me what to do. That's the Boston in me. That's why I'm not very good with personal trainers.

What do you mean?

Personal trainers are people who yell at you to keep pushing. I'm like, "No, you keep pushing!" My idea of the perfect exercise class is this: The teacher gives us all a hug and goes, "You did it! You showed up! Let's lie down." We all lie down and she's like, "How is everybody feeling?" We're like, "Great!" And the teacher's like, "Great!" Then we all get to leave 20 minutes early.

 

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