ACTRESS +WRITER + PRODUCER+ COMEDIAN: A CONVERSATION WITH 'THE GOLDBERGS' STAR
Art Hive: You’re a very talented comedic actress, well known for your hit television show on ABC, The Goldbergs, as well as productions such as Bridesmaids and Reno 911!. We’re very interested in knowing how you got started in comedy in the first place. Where did it all begin for you?
Wendi McLendon-Covey: Let me take you back to when I was a weird little kid. All I ever wanted to do was entertain and make people laugh. I used to watch The Carol Burnett Show all the time! I Love Lucy—all of those things—I loved variety shows and Sonny and Cher and Flip Wilson. I used to watch those shows and I thought, oh my gosh, if I could ever make people react like that, that would just be the greatest thing in the world! I would make people watch shows, I would make people be in my shows, I was just generally annoying, but I had a very clear vision of what I wanted to do! Luckily what facilitated that, and my parents didn’t know they were facilitating this at the time, they did not buy us every single toy, they did not schedule every minute of our day, my sister and I. We had lots of time to entertain ourselves and it forced us to be creative. They created monsters and they didn’t know it.
AH: I think it’s important to reference just how hard it is to be a good improvisational actor, and you are amazing at it! Going back to yourReno 911! days—how much of the show was improvised? What are the challenges you face as a comedic actress to really make scenes work well and come off natural?
WMC: All of Reno 911! was improvised—every single bit of it. As an actor, that was great...that was heaven. Once that show came out, a lot of other shows started following suit because they thought, oh that’ll be easy, you don’t have to pay writers, just give people an outline and there you go! Well it’s not easy, especially in the editing room, you have to hit certain points. Just like when you’re playing baseball—you have to run the bases, you can’t just run in different directions and end up at home plate. There’s a structure that has to be followed. You have to shut up sometimes and let people have their moment...which is also a metaphor for life! I got to do another all improvised show called Love Spring International and you can really tell the difference between good improvisers and bad improvisers because the good ones know how to listen...that’s another metaphor for life. You have to listen and add information, you can’t just spew out a bunch of things that you think are funny. At some point there has to be a whole story that gets told.
AH: With all your improvisational background, do directors usually challenge you to improvise all the time, or do they want you to stick strictly to the script?
WMC: You know, that’s funny that you ask because what I’ve noticed a lot of times now is people will tell you, okay, give me the scripted version and then we’ll just do a “fun run” where you can say whatever you want or rephrase it if you want. Then, quite honestly, other times they will ask actors to improvise because the scene written just isn’t working, so they want you to kind of help solve the problem. I’m happy to do it no matter what. When you’re really in your character—you’re really in your zone—it’s so easy to improvise because you just know what your character is going to say.
AH: Often times in Hollywood typecasting occurs, forcing actors to stay in one box or a category. How hard is it to step outside of your comfort zone when playing a role that is not comedy, and do you enjoy doing that?
WMC: Oh, I love that! I’ve done more drama than people think I have, those things just haven’t become as popular—those projects of mine. As far as typecasting goes, luckily, I was never considered the ingénue or the hot girl. I’ve always been considered a character actress, which I love! I can go from one thing to the next, and I don’t have to worry about being typecast and I reserve the right to say no to whatever I want. I won’t let myself get typecast. There is a certain amount of control that you have as an actor, you don’t have to take everything that comes your way. I’ve said no to a lot of stuff. Hollywood’s tough enough, you don’t have to make it worse. You don’t have to treat it like anything different than the rest of your life. You wouldn’t put up with certain behavior at the doctor’s office—why put up with it here? These people are not gods...you know what I mean? That might sound bizarre, but there’s a certain amount that you can control, play an active part.
AH: We know you have been keeping pretty busy and have a couple of projects coming up, including the films Felt, Speech and Debate and Status Update. Can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects?
WMC: Yes, Mark Felt is about Mark Felt who was the head of the FBI and who played a big part in exposing the Watergate scandal. It’s a period piece, it’s a drama. Liam Neilson’s in it, Diane Lane, Tony Goldwyn—a lot of amazing actors! It was such a privilege to work on that. Speech and Debate was written by Stephen Karam, that’s got a lot of heavy hitters in it, but it’s really funny. It’s about kids in a high school that feel that they’re being censored a lot so they end up taking speech and debate so that they can get their points across to the community. Status Update, oh, that’s going to be fun! That’s just going to be a good time at the movies! There’s musical elements, Ross Lynch is the star, Rob Riggle plays my husband. It’s about a kid that moves to a new school cross-country because his parents are getting divorced and he’s having a terrible time, and through movie magic he finds an app that can make whatever status update he types, turn into reality. I think the climate is right for just having fun at the movies, just forgetting everything, so this will be a great one for that.
AH: We know you’re involved with a lot of different charities such as the Point Foundation, an LGBT scholarship fund, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkison’s Research. Are there any other charities that are close to your heart that you feel are important for people to acknowledge and support?
WMC: Yes, and this all came about because of my family. We all had a discussion a while back around Christmas time, and we said, you know what, why do we buy each other presents? We end up just re-gifting them to each other... so that’s stupid. Why don’t we just donate money? Within the family, we try to keep it to local charities. There’s a woman’s shelter here in Long Beach we donate to; there’s a high school for homeless students; there’s a youth shelter. We try to keep those things within the family local, but I also like to support the Wounded Warriors Project or the Got Your 6 Project for helping veterans who are returning home. The whole Got You 6 phrase means someone is at 12 o’clock and your at 6 o’clock, meaning you’ve got their back.
Stars for Stripes, this is an important one to me. It’s a small organization run by a woman named Judy Seale and she takes entertainment all over the world to different bases and I’ve gotten to go with her to Iraq three times. She organizes these trips—she takes people all over the globe—and she takes them to bases that don’t get a lot of entertainment and that’s important to keep morale up. The USO, they take entertainment to the biggest bases because you can see more troops that way. With her [Judy] we went to bases where there were 30 people—it was a blast! She relies on private donations, this is mostly a one-woman operation. She’s just remarkable!
The ASPCA, dear God, yes, please, sponsor them. Anything involving literacy, anything that fights racism...there’s a lot. That’s what everyone’s getting for Christmas this year! All my agents—everybody that I know—they’re all getting donations!
AH: As an actress and comedian who has had a very lengthy career, what advice would you give to someone who wants to “make it” in Hollywood? What would you say to the beginners wondering how to even start?
WMC: One thing that you hear a lot of is, oh this business is so tough and I can’t get a break. I bought into that for a long time too, like I said before, there’s an amount of it that you can control and you have to create your own breaks. With any creative profession there is no guarantee that you’re going to get paid, you know what I mean? If you’re a painter or a writer the first thing you got to do is create! You have to do that, you have to listen to feedback. If you’re going in the wrong direction you can’t just blame it on the audience, you can’t blame it on the consumers, you have to adjust if that’s what you want to do. No one asks you to be an actor, no one will beg you to stay once you get here and no one will miss you when you leave and that’s just the sad reality, but if you want to do it, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You have to understand how to take notes, you have to understand that the other side is not the enemy. They’re not thinking of you in personal terms, they’re not thinking of you in derogatory terms. No one is there to make fun of you, no one is there to marginalize you, so don’t do it to yourself. One thing that really helped me, is I had a part-time job up until four years ago. I could do it anywhere. I edited a social work journal and it was just a nice little side thing that I did, and because I had that, I never felt desperate—oh, I got to make my rent or I have to take whatever comes my way. So, it is smart and very necessary, not to a have job that you’re going to fall back on necessarily, but something that you can do in addition to pursuing your creative stuff that will give you a sense of balance and a sense of pride because you have to be able to do other things, for God’s sake! You can’t just live and breathe acting all the time! You’ll become a boring person and you’ll go crazy and you’ll drive everybody around you crazy. There’s no shame in having a rent paying job and pursuing this.
This article was originally published in Art Hive Magazine | Issue 20 | Winter 2016