As I sit down to chat with Sarah Vowell, who voices teenage superhero Violet in Incredibles 2, she asks me a question before I can open my mouth. When I joke about her interviewing me she says, "I would prefer that."
Vowell isn't really a movie star. Most of her work has been as a writer or in radio, working on stories for This American Life. As a result, she's usually the one asking the questions, but her role as Violet isn't one she finds difficult to return to 14 years after Incredibles first hit the big screen.
"It's the only animated film I've ever been in," says Vowell. "So it's not like I was off being Samuel L. Jackson and having been in 75 other movies since then." (Later, I counted, and technically Samuel L. Jackson has only been in 50 movies in the last 14 years. But including TV shows, TV movies, specials, and short films, we'll just assume the number is closer to what Vowell guessed.)
Vowell feels closely tied to Violet at this point, having played the character for a third of her life. Even though there was a big gap between the feature films, Violet has still been around. "There were a few years in between films, [but] there were still things to do as Violet. I don't know if you ever caught Incredibles on Ice or there were some video games and toys. So she's lived in the culture."
I wish I had caught Incredibles on Ice simply for the image of Edna Mode and her giant head skating around, but the point is, Violet has remained in Vowell's world for years—and there are clear and definite similarities between the actress and her character. Vowell has the same dry humor as Violet, that enviable superpower of being hilarious without even trying.
Vowell and Incredibles 2 director Brad Bird became good friends making the first film, which was released in 2004. But this time around, she noticed how her personal traits have seeped into the character of Violet.
"[Violet's] inability to stop pushing people's buttons and shut up," is one trait Vowell says she shares. "She always wants to comment on whatever is happening in any awkward situation. She's right there to make things way more awkward."
Later in the day during the press conference, I witness exactly what Vowell means. She continuously chimes in with a witty comment or dry remark when there's an opportunity. Throughout Incredibles 2, Violet plays a similar role, using humor to break the tension and bring the superheroes back to reality. She says what they are all thinking.
"I think Violet is always like that. She's just always kind of a wallflower standing nearby who pipes up. I think she literally says at one point, 'So are we going to talk about the elephant in the room?' No one ever wants to talk about the elephant in the room, but she does."
When I joke that it's something kids are great at doing, Vowell laughs, saying, "It gets less and less endearing the older one gets. You're supposed to learn how to keep that internalized and edit yourself."
And perhaps that's what's happened to many of us over the past decade and a half. When Incredibles came out, I was a teenager. Violet was like me. She was embarrassed by her family, trying to figure out how to fit in, and was just generally insecure. But by the end of Incredibles, she gained confidence and a new purpose. Incredibles 2 starts exactly where the previous film left off — leaving those of us who have since aged 14 years with a little whiplash. Violet remains exactly where we left her, with all new challenges to face.
"One of the consequences of the first film, especially regarding her job of being a superhero is that not only is she more confident, she's more enthusiastic," says Vowell. "She wants to get out there, she wants to be doing the hero work. And I mean, for one thing, she still has to go to junior high, which, you know, really cramps her style."
In Incredibles 2, there's a role-reversal as far as parent responsibilities, leaving Violet stuck at home helping her dad. This juxtaposition of having superpowers yet being forced to constantly watch after her younger siblings is a central struggle for Violet in the sequel—especially since her mom is out saving the world.
"Her mom is working outside the home more on her own," says Vowell. "So Violet has to help her dad pull in this slack and take care of the two younger brothers. And I think she has a lot of disdain for that. I mean, she's the oldest child and that happens a lot to the older child. You know, 'Look after your kid brother. Look after the baby.' And she wants to be out there with her mom working."
But throughout the course of the film, Violet matures. Not 14 years' worth, but some. She learns those lessons we've all had to learn in the last few years. The lesson that taking care of those closest to us, is in some ways being a superhero.
"She becomes more interested in taking care of her little brothers and starts to understand that her family and her younger siblings... they're in the world too," Vowell says. "And part of saving the world is taking care of them. I think she starts to understand the importance of that — taking care of her family, not just taking care of random strangers being threatened by bad guys. And I think that is a definite maturing."
Incredibles 2 hits theaters June 15.