Interview: Actor Wendi McLendon-Covey on Voicing a Cloud in Elemental, What She Won’t Miss About The Goldbergs, and the Fun of Barb & Star Go to Vista del Mar

Long before Wendi McLendon-Covey was given the choice supporting role in 2011’s Bridesmaids, she was best known for playing Deputy Clementine Johnson on Reno 911!, after nearly 10 years as a member of L.A.’s famed Groundling Theater. After Bridesmaids, McLendon-Covey went on to be become a recurring character on the series Rules of Engagement and roles in films like Hello, My Name Is Doris, before taking on the role of Beverly Goldberg in ABC’s series The Goldbergs for 10 seasons, which aired its series finale in early May.

Most recently, McLendon-Covey voiced the role of Gale in Pixar’s latest, Elemental, a cloud-like character made of air, but more like a small force of nature. Directed by Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur), Elemental follows Ember (made of fire, voiced by Leah Lewis) and Wade (made of water, voiced by Mamoudou Athie), in Element City, where fire-, water-, land- and air-residents live together in harmony, more or less. When Ember and Wade first meet after her family-owned store springs a leak in the basement, they begin to fall for each other, despite the fact that elements don’t often mix and match romantically. Gale is Wade’s blustery boss who agrees to dismiss violations against Ember’s store if she can secure a water leak that threatens to extinguish most of the fire-based community.

I recently sat down with McLendon-Covey to discuss her spirited work on Elemental, as well as stroll through other parts of her career, including recent roles in the films Paint and Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, and her comedy pilot for St. Denis Medical, with a stacked cast that includes Mekki Leeper, David Alan Grier, Allison Tolman, and Josh Lawson. She was an absolute delight to talk with, so please enjoy our conversation…

You’ve done your fair share of voice work for animated projects over the years. Are you one of those actors who throws their whole body into it and gets very physical in the booth when you’re recording?

Yes, you kind of have to, which is something I was surprised about when I first started doing it—how sweaty I would get.

I’ve heard other people mention breaking a sweat, yes.

Yeah, because you never know what they’re going to ask you to do. For instance, I’m on a Disney+ show called Big City Greens. I play a mom who rides a motorcycle and does all of these really active things. Well, for example, if someone tells you you’re riding your motorcycle and a pizza flies through the air like a frisbee and you catch it in your mouth and then fall in a puddle of mud. How the hell do you make that noise? You really have to use your imagination and you’re going to have to do it over and over and over, because it might not match up to the animation. It is a very physical thing, but it’s very fun.

Have you ever tried to do it standing still to see if it’s less exhausting?

I have, and it doesn’t sound right at all.

Is there anything different about the way Pixar does things that impressed you or felt very different than what you’d done before?

They are so fastidious with their quality control. When I did my recording, it was during the pandemic, so I had to do it in a booth while they were at Pixar and I was at Sony in Los Angeles. So I did that with a bunch of people watching me on Zoom, which is so bizarre, because you’re getting no feedback immediately. It feels so impersonal and odd, but that was the way we all had to work during those three years. But when they look for a story, they want it to be personal. They don’t want you to just say “What about a bunch of flowers that get together and make friends?” No! What’s the personal story behind it? It has to come from something because if it doesn’t come from a personal story, it’s not going to resonate with people as much, so there has to be that human element to it.

How many times did you record for this project?

I think I only recorded twice, long sessions each time. And then I didn’t hear about it for a long time, and then the movie came out . That’s how animation is. I have another animated film coming out next year, but I recorded it a year ago. It takes a long, long time, which is hard for actors because we want it to come out and see what it is. You’re always thrilled when you see what your voice work becomes, at least I am.

How much information did they give you about the kind of character Gale was? Did they have any concept art or anything to show you to help you out in any way?

Kind of, but it was nothing compared to what is on the screen. You really are going in blind, but they guide you and they aren’t going to let you stink, obviously, but it is a little intimidating when you realize “I don’t know what a cloud sounds like.”

But you’re in good company with the other characters.

Oh yeah, everybody else is in the same boat. Exactly. Turns out, she sounds a lot like me, not doing a character voice.

She's a cloud, but more like a violent-weather-event cloud. Boss material.

She’s a very blustery, gale-force cloud.

Okay, so how do you get in that head space when you’re alone, building that character?

Yeah, the other thing about her is that she’s a city official. She’s the one who will collect your money from your building-code violations.

Kids are going to love that.

Exactly. Kids are going to say “Been there!”

No, obviously, that’s one of those details that’s for the parents. Classic Pixar.

Right, so that was an interesting contrast for this pink, fluffy being, who’s got a temper. She holds a lot of power in the city; oppositions are always fun.

Peter Sohn has been at Pixar practically since he was a baby. Compared to some of the other animation directors you’ve worked with, tell me how he was to work with.

This is the sense I got: when he casts you, he knows you can do it. He’s seen your work, and he brings you in because you’re a specific spice that the dish needs. He’s going to let you go and do what you do, and if you need to be reined in, he’ll do it. But he casts you because he knows you’re the one. With that, you feel like “I don’t have to prove myself as much. I can put my ego aside and do good work. I’m in good hands.”

He wants this to be amazing, and his story—because this is a very personal story for him—I fell in love with it and got choked up as he was telling me the story about how his parents came from Korea and built this beautiful life for themselves in the Bronx. He’s got sentimental feelings toward it, but he had his own path and didn’t want to take over the family business, and he didn’t want to disappoint anybody by saying that. And don’t we all kind of live like that?

I was going to ask about some of the themes of the movie. From what I’ve seen, there’s this place where elements are encouraged to live apart, which I’m guessing is a bad thing. Aside from the more personal ones, what are some of the overarching themes?

Element City, where all of the elements live, is not unlike Chicago or LA or New York, it is a big melting pot, but yes, there are districts where they all congregate, but there are places where they have to mix. So, how does that work? You think all of these elements shouldn’t interact because they would cancel each other out, but they don’t because there’s respect, a willingness to embrace differences, and the feeling of “If we combine, maybe we’ll come up with the ultimate power. Maybe that’s where our powers lie.” If you put them together like puzzle pieces, we’re in love or we’ve made a friendship or built a beautiful business together. I hope people get that message, that there is a reason we are all here. One isn’t better than the other; we can all coexist and should coexist and live together like that.

In the first 10 or 15 minutes of the film, you get a real sense of how things work in Element City. Were there any things that even you were amazed by, where you said, “How did they think of that?”

There are some sly political or historical things. For instance, when Ember’s parents come over from the old country. At the point of entry, their names are changed. How many of us live with grandparents that that happened to? And that’s very poignant and significant because that is what happened to so many people. I think it’s important to include that in this. “We left everything to come here and give you a better life.” And it’s out of pure love.

Another thing is, yes, most of our parents made great sacrifices for us in one way or another, so you feel beholden to them to make them happy or take on the family business or carry on certain traditions, but they want you to be happy; that’s really what they want. They want you to do what you were born to do, and maybe that is not run the family store but tell these amazing stories, like Peter. Are you going to say no to that? They want you to be happy; they don’t want you to be happy being a slacker, but follow your curiosity.

You just wrapped up 10 seasons of The Goldbergs, and I’m sure a lot of people have asked you what you’ll miss the most. I want to know what you’ll miss the least about Bev.

I will not miss the hair and wardrobe.

I suspected those wigs would be part of your answer.

Yeah. It was great because I was not going to do that to my own hair, and everything I wore was horrifying, but it was period-specific, and that’s what moms looked like in the 1980s. But I won’t miss those things. I will miss everybody, every last crew member. And I will miss having such a joyful place to go and do work and get paid. There were times when it was a little drudgery, like all jobs. You’re working at midnight on a Friday, and thinking “I’m so tired. I just want to go home.” But you forget that by Monday, and you’re ready to go again. I’m very blessed that I got to do that for 10 years, and that just makes it all the harder. That makes me need therapy more.

When you had downtime for the show, you probably had limited time to do maybe one movie. Does it seem freeing that you can actually line up a few things where that series TV schedule isn’t a factor any longer?

I have to tell you, I managed to do about 20 movies during that run and more series of Reno 911!—that came back unexpectedly—and all my animated stuff. I had a short-lived show that Ellen produced, called Repeat After Me—one of those mid-season, summer nonsense prank show. We would send out celebrities to prank people, and I would talk in the microphone. There’s a famous one we did with Michael Bolton in a grocery store that was hysterical. So it’s not like I missed anything . I don’t do well with downtime. You give me two weeks, and I’m like “Alright, I’ve got to do something.” I go stir crazy, so I really didn’t miss that much. When I look back at it, I’m like “Wow, I’m tired.”

One of the things you did recently was Paint, which I really liked. I love Owen Wilson in his Wes Anderson mode, and that was really close to that, in terms of the humor and tone. I had no idea where it was going. I literally thought at one point, all the women were going to either turn against him or unify around him like some sort of Manson Family thing. Can you talk about your experience on that film?

Oh yeah. Paint was just a really fun surprise. When I read the script, it was ages ago. I think he wrote that movie 13 years ago. I loved the world. I loved the small-town celebrity that he was, and that he had such a hold on these idiot women, that we just can’t move forward with our lives. I had the best time filming that, and I loved those girls. We just had a blast. It’s streaming now.

Another movie I want to ask you about, because it was one of the first huge pandemic-era hits, is Barb and Star. People became obsessed with that movie, critics were putting it on the Best of the Year lists for that year. Why do you think people latched onto that movie with such fervor?

I’m so glad you’re bringing up Barb and Star. I loved that movie; it was so bananas, and it was what we needed, just pure, silly, stupid fun, and I loved it. Why did they latch onto it? I think because these two midwestern gals, they were nothing other than themselves. “We’re here at this beautiful resort. I’m going to go practice my calligraphy.” Whenever you break into a dance number for no reason, come on! Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, who also wrote Bridesmaids, there’s something about their sensibilities that’s just, they love stupid things and I love them for it. And they grew up watching ’70s television, and a lot of that stuff is cartoonish. That was the point. It was just supposed to be a big, stupid, live-action cartoon. And I was very honored that I got to do anything in it. It was very fun.

This series you have coming up, is it still just a pilot at this point?

We shot it. It’s called St. Denis Medical, for NBC. I know it won’t be on the fall schedule, times being what they are. If it gets picked up, it will come into play mid-season. They still haven’t made decisions on three shows, whether they’re going to renew or cancel them, and that will determine whether any new shows get picked up. But it was a blast.

Okay, last thing I want to ask you, maybe the most important thing I’ll ask you today. Many years ago, you won an MTV Movie Award with your Bridesmaids cast, for Most Gut-Wrenching Scene. Where is that award right now, or was there just one that somebody else is holding onto?

I think somebody else has it. I don’t believe I’ve ever gotten my trophy, dammit!

Your name was in the list of winners.

Really? Oh, well now I’m fired up because I don’t have it.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to end on a downer. Thanks for talking.

It’s alright. Thank you so much. I hope you love it when you see the whole movie.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.