- Mamoudou Athie, who plays Wade in the Pixar movie “Elemental,” spoke to Insider about his two-year journey making the movie.
- He admitted he was in a “dark place” before starting, due to the pandemic.
- Athie said the movie’s opening weekend box office was “disappointing,” but he’s not going to “turn doom and gloom” about it.
In Pixar’s new movie “Elemental,” a guy made out of water and a girl made of fire discover love. But like all movies that come from the animation house that gave us “Toy Story” and “The Incredibles,” there’s so much more to the story.
And that’s why actor Mamoudou Athie says it’s the best movie he’s ever been a part of.
Athie plays Wade (the aforementioned guy made of water) who falls for Ember (played by Leah Lewis). Wade is emotional and filled with joy and optimism. Ember is short-tempered and feels like an outcast whenever she goes to Element City, which is made up of people predominantly of wind, water, and land — definitely not fire.
What unfolds is a powerful examination of love, family, and acceptance.
Athie wasn’t just taken by the world director Peter Sohn (“The Good Dinosaur”) created. By embodying the Wade character, he said he discovered a happiness he hadn’t felt in some time due to the pandemic.
Insider chatted with Athie over Zoom this week to discuss the two-year process of bringing Wade to the screen, the “dark place” he was in before signing onto the movie, and his reaction to the low opening-weekend box office for “Elemental.”
The movie hasn’t done well at the box office so far. In fact, it’s the worst opening weekend ever for a Pixar movie. Is that something that has hovered over you this past week?
What’s funny about that question is, I’ve been thinking about the obsession with box-office numbers. Obviously, it’s important, your movie needs to make money.
It’s still a business, right?
It’s a business. But it’s interesting how prevalent it is outside of just the trades.
That said, obviously, it’s been on my mind, somewhat, but the movie that we made, I spent two years working on it, I believe in it so much. It’s been out since, what Thursday night? So it’s been a week. [Laughs.]
I’m not going to spend two years on something, working with some of the best people I’ve ever met in my life, working on a project that means so much to me, and then turn doom and gloom within a week span. That’s ridiculous.
We’re hopeful that other markets respond to it and word of mouth works out because the movie is getting such love from people who have watched it.
Obviously, that weekend was disappointing in that way, but we had some really beautiful conversations amongst ourselves. That’s what I love about Pixar, specifically [producer] Denise Ream and Pete Sohn. We talked and we made each other feel better. We genuinely love each other. We’re all friends. And we believe in the movie no matter what.
So we’re sure that has to rise above any immediate disappointment of box-office opening weekend.
Doing voice work is interesting, you have to come up with a performance despite working on and off for years, not getting the entire script, and never really ever seeing the actor you’re working across from on-screen. With all those obstacles, was it challenging to play Wade?
I’m not going to say it was easy, but it was very accessible and that has to do with Pete Sohn. When I first met him I felt like I was meeting a kindred spirit.
I was in a pretty dark place when I first met with him and even auditioning for it and eventually getting the job. So this really lifted my spirits in a way that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever done. That kind of vulnerability lends itself perfectly for the character. He’s an open heart. I couldn’t be more grateful to those guys.
And, yes, I wasn’t in the booth with everyone. I didn’t get the full script. I got scenes a day or two prior to recording. But in the booth, Pete created such an atmosphere of play and fun. A lot of my preparation was vocal warm-ups because there was a lot of screaming and yelling and he talks at a higher pitch than I do.
I noticed that.
No one is going to know it’s me. [Laughs.]
You mention you were in a dark place when you started this project, why?
Well, we were in the middle of the pandemic. I had spent a total of nine months on sets and a lot of that time I was alone. So where the world was at and all the disappointing things that happened, with the vaccine being available by the time I got this job, I just assumed the world would be a lot more gentle and it felt like the opposite. And I couldn’t believe it.
So it must have been great when you would look at your calendar and see you were at Pixar the next day.
That’s the thing, man, it was a dream come true. I can’t really even put it to words. This is what I thought acting would be like when I was a kid.
Looking back now, did playing Wade change you at all?
I wouldn’t say change me, I would say I got back to a place of openness and optimism. When you play a character like this it was this wonderful happy place that I got to revisit ever so often.
Because sometimes I would just go into the booth for one day for a couple of hours, and then a month or two or three months would go by and I’d go back in and do it again.
It’s not like I was clocking in and clocking out every day for two years.
The opening of the movie, where Ember’s parents come to Element City and struggle to find their way, it’s really powerful, but reading up on you I would imagine that opening had to be special to you and your family seeing when you were a baby you fled Mauritania for America, as your father received political asylum.
Yeah. From the very moment that I spoke with Pete that exactly hit me. I couldn’t believe this story is being made in the way it was being made.
Has your family seen it?
My dad has seen it. [Pause.] My dad came to the premiere, they loved it, and he’s seen it at least twice since then. Opening day, the next day, and I believe he tried to see it the third day but he ended up not getting to. He’s polling the audience when they come out. He’s the biggest fan of the movie, it’s so cool.
The movie is a love letter to Pete’s parents and I was amazed because he was doing the same thing that I would like to do for my family.
Everything they do, you can’t pay it back but you can say thank you. And a thank you like this goes a long way.
With everything we just discussed, I feel that should have been the focus of the marketing. Do you feel that way at all? Do you feel Disney leaned in too much on the rom-com aspect of it?
You know it’s funny that you say that, I didn’t think they did lean into the rom-com aspect of it. Obviously, yes, I would have liked them to do whatever Pete wanted, but I’m not really privy to those conversations. But the movie’s out. People are going to see it. And the movie speaks for itself at this point. It’s going to be out until Labor Day in theaters and that doesn’t happen anymore. That’s how much the studio believes in it.
Five years for now, 10 years from now, if people still mention “Elemental” when talking to you, that would all have been worth it, right?
Absolutely. This has been my favorite movie to work on. I have no weirdness in saying that. It has everything I’ve ever wanted. So I would love to be eternally connected to this movie.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.