Wendi McLendon-Covey is making her mark as one of the queens of comedy. She’s starring on the 1980s, totally throwback TV hit The Goldbergs, playing Beverly Goldberg. She’s got upcoming films with Sally Field, Robin Williams and Jeffrey Tambor, and she recently appeared in Blended and Think Like a Man Too. And let’s not forget her amazing turn as the disgruntled mom in that one movie no one saw, Bridesmaids.
Paste caught up with McLendon-Covey to talk about her journey from The Groundlings to Reno 911! She also opens up about her time working with Williams on A Merry Friggin’ Christmas, and shares advice she’d give her young, comedian self. Let’s just say, it involves a tramp stamp.
Reno 911! was one of your first big TV roles. Tell me about getting involved with that gang, and where it all started for you.
McLendon-Covey: I never wanted to do anything else. When I graduated from high school, my parents were adamant about me not pursuing it.
Paste: Where are you from?
Wendi McLendon-Covey: I’m from Long Beach, California. I still live there! My parents got married really young, and I think they thought I would do the same thing. They really pushed me becoming a stewardess. “Wont’ that be a nice job for you? The Long Beach airport is just down the street! You can still be a mom!” [I told them,] “You just described everything I do not want in my life!” It took me a while to get going with it, because I had no encouragement. I didn’t really get going in earnest until my late 20s.
Paste: What made you get going?
McLendon-Covey: I got married, and left the house. Then I finished college, and started taking classes at The Groundlings, and started shaping my life the way I wanted it to be. That’s what gave me the confidence to pursue it. It took me maybe three years to get through it. In between, I did plays, and I finally got myself into the company. Even after I made that big leap, I thought, “Well, maybe this is just never going to happen for me.” I was ready to quit the whole thing, when someone from a casting office that was casting Reno saw me as an understudy for something and brought me in. I went in with no nervousness and nailed the audition—no pressure, didn’t care about the outcome.
Paste: What’s home base comedy for you, your comedy? Did you ever do stand-up?
McLendon-Covey: I don’t do stand-up. I’ve never done stand-up. I love watching it. I’m too chicken to try it myself! It scares the living hell out of me. I probably should do it! But, I love playing characters. I love playing scripted roles.
Paste: Hearing about your experience auditioning for Reno 911!, I’m curious about what that process was like with Bridesmaids.
McLendon-Covey: Even though the parts were written with certain people in mind, because I’m friends with Kristen [Wiig] and Annie [Mumolo], that didn’t mean anything. Universal was not familiar with any of us. I was at the original table reads in 2007, and the character of Rita looked different from how she ended up being. When we auditioned, it was all improv. I think I went in at least twice. Right before my first audition with Paul Feig, my grandpa had died, and I was not feeling funny at all. I dragged myself to this Saturday audition, and I sat down with Kristen, and I was like, “Well that sucked!” When I got a callback I was like, “Oh, that’s nice!” A lot of actresses were trying to get in on that movie. But, it’s not in your hands. All you can do is go in, and make a good impression.
Paste: Were you pigeonholed after Bridesmaids? How do you break free from getting type-cast, or do you embrace your “persona” like, say, Jack Black does?
McLendon-Covey: The great thing is that you always have the power to say “no” to things. When it looked for a while like I was going to get pigeonholed in the Clementine [Reno 911!] area, I just started saying “no” to things. I had a part time job till two years ago. I was an assistant editor at a social work journal on the campus of Long Beach. I could do it from wherever I was. I would be on movie sets, and TV sets editing manuscripts. I never had to make desperate choices with roles. I never wanted to be in the position to hate what I’d always dreamed about doing. I worked like a demon for a long time, but no one was paying attention. But, that’s okay too! I was having a great time!
Paste: You’ve got A Merry Friggin’ Christmas coming out with Robin Williams. I have to ask about him. Tell me about a particular moment with Robin that’s stayed with you.
McLendon-Covey: Oh boy! That’s a tough one. First of all, the role he plays is not a joyful one. He’s a real curmudgeonly dad who everyone has a problem with. This is a movie about how difficult Christmas can be for people. It’s kind of a more quiet performance from him. When I first met him, he was very subdued, very mellow, not at all what I was expecting. Between takes, if he would say something and you would chuckle, he’d hone in on that like it was medicine. You could see him mentally ramping up; the twinkle would appear in his eye, and he’d start going. It was really cool to see.
Paste: Like, with children.
McLendon-Covey: That’s exactly how I would describe it! Like a kid, who knows he could get a laugh out of you.
Paste: In this film you’re working with Jeffrey Tambor, Oliver Platt, Williams, and Joel McHale. You also had a large male cast with Reno 911!. What’s that environment like?
McLendon-Covey: When people say, “Oh you know comedy is kind of a man’s world,” that’s weird to me, because I only know funny women. I’ve done plenty of work with other funny ladies. At the Groundlings we had tons of funny girls, and the thing that set them apart from other actresses is there was no vanity at all. That’s what will make or break a funny girl. You have to be able to have egg on your face, and still stand up straight. At The Groundlings it was always a competition—who can be the ugliest, and go out on stage? Who can maybe have an insult hurled, and not have it stop them dead in their tracks? Men get insulted by something in the press, and they’ll just say, “Yup, I’m fat,” and just keep on going! Women will say, “How dare you say that to me?” and they’ll cave in on themselves. That’s a generalization, but that’s what I’ve seen. You have to dial your vanity way back, and show the lady whiskers on your upper lip! People appreciate that vulnerability!
The Goldbergs showrunner Adam Goldberg based the series on his family. Have you met them?
McLendon-Covey: It was weird at first because I hadn’t met Mrs. Goldberg, and I’d only heard the stories. She’s very intense. But I knew that she was only driven by love for her family. As annoying as the character can be, as annoying as it is to have someone love you so much, you can’t fault her for that. She sent me a card one time thanking me for the portrayal. She said, “You know, I didn’t know what I was doing when I was raising my kids. I was doing the best I could. Thank you for bringing so much heart to it. It reminds me of when my kids were small, and my Murray was still alive.” I met her about 10 episodes in, and I was so nervous to meet her! Adam has asked me four times if it’s okay if she comes to set! I gotta wonder what’s going to happen to me! She was lovely. She is very honest.
Paste: Your co-stars Jeff Garlin and George Segal have been in comedy for years. Are there any nuggets of comedic wisdom that you’ve taken from them, or given them?
McLendon-Covey: As far as comedy, I can’t say I’ve given any tips. Your instincts just have to kick in, and there are ways to deliver a line that will make the audience hate you forever, or they’ll empathize. We’re not in front of a live audience, you really just have to rely on your instincts, because you don’t get the immediate feedback! I have to wait till Twitter! I will say that George and Jeff have a completely different way of working. Jeff is coming from [Curb Your Enthusiasm], and they don’t have a script and they don’t do a lot of takes. Jeff gets antsy. George is the consummate professional, and he has a very extensive theatre background. His way of working is very regimented. Jeff has a touch of the ADD, and he’ll tell you that!
Paste: What’s something you wish you had known as a young comedian. What advice would you want to give that 26 year-old self?
McLendon-Covey: I would tell myself not to get a tattoo!
Paste:Ha! What’s the tattoo of?
McLendon-Covey: It’s a yin-yang inside a flame shape! It’s a tramp stamp! Let me just say, when I got it, that was the thing to do! I got it at 27 years-old. Trying to get that damn thing removed, it’s the most painful thing! It hurt so bad.
Number two—don’t listen to people who want you to be as miserable as they are. People will discourage you, just so they don’t have to watch you expanding your boundaries. Because they don’t want to do that in their own lives.
Paste: What’s next for you? Are there any aspirations that would be a culmination of you career up to this point? Maybe your own show?
McLendon-Covey: I’m pitching some movies soon that will hopefully star me! (laughs) That makes me really nervous, because I don’t know that anyone wants to back that venture. My own show? I don’t know—if the right idea came up. I love ensemble stuff, and I know so many funny people that I want to see succeed, who I would also want to collaborate with. I would have to give that a lot of thought. I love what I’m doing now. My character is kind of prominent on The Goldbergs. You’ve asked a question that I’ll be considering for a while now!