The team behind Soul didn’t set out make Pixar history. Inside Out director Pete Docter began toying with the idea of an afterlife heist movie — about two souls attempting to sneak off to Earth — though it soon evolved into something far more existential: The story of a man whose life on Earth is cut short, so when he inadvertently lands in The Great Before, he sets out in search of a second chance at living his life to the fullest.
In defining the contours of the man’s life, Docter found himself searching for a fun, cinematic career. At first, the character was an actor, though Docter worried viewers might not root for him in the same way if his goal was to be famous. But a musician? That’s a noble profession. “Once we knew he was a jazz musician,” Docter tells ET, “we felt like, ‘Jazz grew out of Black culture. How can we not make him Black?'”
With that, Soul became the first-ever Pixar film with a Black lead: Joe Gardner, an aspiring jazz pianist getting by as a middle-school band teacher. And when Jamie Foxx was cast to voice Joe, he became the first Black actor to front a Pixar film.
“He’s got everything you need. He’s got the comedy, he can act, he’s got drama, he’s got music — both ability and knowledge — and I think all of that shows up in his performance,” Docter says. “Plus, boy, you talk about a guy who won’t stop. He’s always got, like, 15 projects going [and] so much energy. It was exactly what we wanted in Joe. That enthusiasm, that relentless optimism and energy, that’s all Jamie.”
There was one problem: “Jamie is really, really cool,” co-director Kemp Powers explains. “And Joe is not.” So, as the Soul team got to know Foxx in the recording booth, they tweaked Joe accordingly. “You don’t want to have Jamie trying to be an over-the-top insecure guy,” Powers says. “There were elements of Jamie’s natural personality that just worked their way in. I think it made Joe a more well-rounded, more interesting personality… I think Joe is a little bit more complex than a lot of our protagonists.”
Joe’s authenticity came not just from casting Foxx, but through the presence of Powers and an Internal Culture Trust established at Pixar. Because at the same time Docter understood Joe needed to be Black, “I realized, ‘I don’t know anything about that life. That’s completely different than the way I was raised.’ So, we were lucky to meet Kemp.”
Powers, who also scripted Regina King’s One Night in Miami, boarded the project in the early stages and found he shared quite a few similarities with Joe: They were both in their 40s, both from New York city. But Joe was also, as Powers explains, the least developed of the movie’s characters, despite being its lead.
“I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but there might’ve been some fear. Like, we don’t want to mess this up,” he reflects. “So, I just started pouring my ideas based on my own experiences into him. But I was also really clear from the beginning that I’m one guy from New York who happens to be Black. I don’t represent all Black people.”
Cue the Internal Culture Trust, a diverse group of consultants and the focus of many “vigorous debates,” Powers says. The team rounded out their voice cast with the likes of Phylicia Rashad, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Angela Bassett and Daveed Diggs and enlisted prodigious musician Jon Batiste to compose original jazz arrangements.
Meanwhile, Powers’ impact extended so far beyond simply fleshing out Joe that he was made Soul’s co-director. “It’s really important for people to understand [that] I wasn’t just there for the Black stuff,” he chuckles. “Like, my contributions to the film are not simply limited to, ‘OK, it’s something Black, Kemp take it away.'”
“There were a lot of interesting ideas involving Joe that were not my ideas,” he says. “Similarly, there were a lot of ideas in 22” — a precocious soul voiced by Tina Fey — “and in the soul world that were [mine]. So, I get how easy the narrative is to say like, ‘OK, the Black stuff is Kemp.’ But I can’t emphasize enough how this was a group lift. Whereas my personal experiences were a starting point, I believe that people appreciated my contributions just as another passionate artist.”
Soul debuts exclusively on Disney+ on Dec. 25.