Mamoudou Athie attends the Elemental Gala Screening on June 18, 2023 in London, England.
Pixar’s newest feature, Elemental, arrived in theaters on June 16. On the same day, one of its stars, Mamoudou Athie was flying to London. That afternoon when he hopped on the phone with Los Angeles Confidential, he still needed to get his suitcase together.
“I’m usually a late packer,” he admits. “I should maybe break that habit.”
But putting off something as simple as packing is reasonable when you’re a lead in a premiering film from one of entertainment’s biggest animation studios. On a day like this, elation is at the forefront.
“I’m so excited. I cannot tell you,” Athie says. “This is my favorite thing I've ever done. It means a lot to me.”
The Mauritania-born, Maryland-raised, Yale-trained actor’s credits include roles in The Get Down, Patty Cake$, Black Box and Jurassic World Dominion, and later this year we’ll see him in The Burial with Alan Ruck, Tommy Lee Jones, Jurnee Smollett and Jamie Fox.
But for the summer, you can catch him in Elemental as Wade, a happy-go-lucky water guy in Element City whose life collides with the fiery, quick-witted Ember (Leah Lewis). Directed and co-written by Peter Sohn, the film is a love story that scopes in on themes of family, immigration, assimilation and reconciling cultural differences.
“I think there is a such thing as useful, entertaining art,” Athie reflects. “I've seen movies that have changed my perspective, that have opened my heart, open my mind. If I can be a part of projects like that, that is so fulfilling.”
Read below for more from Athie about working with Sohn, the joys of playing Wade and more.
Given the personal nature of the story and his wealth of experience at Pixar, what were your conversations like with Peter Sohn before you started production?
It was really just about our families and being from an immigrant family. I'm an immigrant myself; I became a citizen recently. I've been here since I was five months old, but my dad was a diplomat and we came over from Mauritania through both my mom's and my dad's connections and they had to start all over. And Pete was describing the same thing and how his parents just did so much for them. And as we get older, we get more and more grateful because we understand what it is to build a life in a place, a full life.
[My dad] had a very successful career in Mauritania. And he had to let all that go and completely start afresh without any of those degrees, without any of those connections. And I think about that, and I can't imagine it. It's sacrifice. Obviously, he did it for himself, too, but he was supporting us, my mom was supporting us, and they just did so much for us. So that's what we really talked about.
Immediately when I spoke to Pete, I was like, I want to be friends with this guy because he just felt like a kindred spirit. It's just like, “I love this guy!” It just made sense. This guy, he's just making a movie that I just need to be a part of this.
Pete would show us some drawings, some idea of what the scene was sometimes. But he's such a genius. He describes something and it can get you to really see it. For me, that's what a good actor does. If they're talking about something and you visualize the story or you visualize what happened, then they did their job. And Pete is also, by the way, an actor as well. He’s a voice actor. He just really painted a picture that was just so clear.
How did you land on your Wade voice?
I had a really great class at school called clown class. Seriously, and it was one of the most impactful classes I've ever had in my life… I did a lot of vocal work in school, but also clown class really helped me just be available and open. What you're hearing is just a pitch, like an availability of a brightness and hopefulness, which is part of my natural disposition, to be honest. But also clown class really helped me have access in a way of just being like a kid. That's the point of the class. It's not like Barnum & Bailey clown, it's like you want to access as much childlike nature as you possibly can. And that's what you'll be hearing [in the movie].
Wade is a pretty optimistic guy. Why do you think he’s important for audiences to watch right now?
I don't know about you, but I can barely like look at the news. I just can't anymore. It's been so exhaustingly depressing. And it's not to say I'm running away from responsibilities. Just living in the world, you need optimism. You need hope. You need tenderness. And that's who [Wade] is, and he's made a deliberate choice to be that way. He's naturally emotional. He's made a very clear choice in his life to choose optimism, to choose looking at the world in a glass-half-full way. When I got this job, I was very depressed, to be honest with you. Not because of the job, but prior circumstances. And it really helped me in a way that I can't really fully describe. I'm really so grateful for it because it put me in that place of like, “Oh, there's a lot to be excited about. There's a lot to be happy about. There’s lots to be joyful about. And playing this guy who lives in that— who chooses to live in that— is one of the greatest gifts I've ever been given.
How does voice acting compare to live-action acting for you?
I love voiceover. It's so fun. I've wanted this since I was a kid, to be honest with you. I'm a huge anime nerd. I love, love, love anime, and I'd love to dub some because I feel like I'd be good at it…And this movie, I think we did our thing with it. So I'm excited for people to see it.
It is surprisingly exhausting, physically, when you're putting all of yourself into it. It's hard to describe, but I’m contorting my body, I'm doing everything that I possibly can using all this energy for take, after take, after take, after take, after take. Even though it's only four or five hours, when you're giving all of yourself to anything for that long, there's a physical cost of this. But it's the best kind of tired.
In an interview from last year, you said you're drawn to stories that appeal to humanity and stories that feel useful. Does that apply to Elemental?
You will understand when you watch the movie. Yes, this is number one of all the projects that I've done in that regard. I don't want to rank them because it's a little silly to rank anything, especially when it comes to art. But in terms of how I feel about it, this is everything that I've ever wanted to do in a project. Everything including what I wanted to do as a kid. This is everything. I did this play called The Visit that made me realize why I wanted to be an actor because it provoked these really fascinating conversations with people outside of the theater. I remember being like getting a checkup at the hospital and somebody had seen the play and we just spoke about it. And the way she was looking at me and talking about the play, I still think about that all the time. It's like that. This is how I can do this until I'm 80. Because there are other projects where I’m like, “I'm too old for this. This is silly.” [Elemental], this movie. You have to see it to understand.
That's the power of animation, right?
It's also not just the visuals. The visuals are… incredible. They've never done anything like this. But I'm talking about the meaning of the story, what Pete was after in creating the story. It’s a thank you for people who have sacrificed so much for us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: StillMoving.net for Disney; 2022 Disney/Pixar