Wendi McLendon-Covey is at a place in her career she never would've dreamed of. She not only starred in one of the decade's biggest and most celebrated films — 2011's Oscar-nominated Bridesmaids — and followed it up with a lead role on ABC's The Goldbergs, which landed her a Critics' Choice Television Award nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy, but playing "smother" Beverly Goldberg is also "the most fun I've ever had doing anything ever," she told BuzzFeed News.
The well-received role has vaulted McLendon-Covey into an elite group of female comedians — alongside other hyphenates like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and multihyphenates like Amy Schumer — celebrated for their contributions on television.
That such a group exists suggests things are changing for women in comedy, but being funny while female can still be a challenge in Hollywood. "Yes, women are treated a certain way and it's not always great," she said. "But I am grateful that a light is being shined on it and I will concentrate on the good that is coming out of that. But I can't say that it isn't annoying. The only way to combat that is just to hit back harder, be funnier, and keep on doing what you're doing — it's survival of the fittest."
That unwavering tenacity was developed at an early age as her desire to act was met with a starkly unenthusiastic response from her parents. "It was not encouraged at all," she said of early acting aspirations. "And yet, my parents, without knowing it, fostered all of this nonsense by giving us a lot of free time. So my sister and I had no choice but to put on our bedspreads and stage plays or throw parades or write our own scripts or whatever, because they did not schedule every minute of our day for us. It was like, 'Go entertain yourselves, we're barely hanging on to our sanity!' That's how we did things, and it really fostered our creativity."
Then, in 2003, McLendon-Covey scored her big break playing the bawdy Deputy Clementine Johnson on Comedy Central's Reno 911!. For the then-33-year-old, the role was both her first significant on-screen credit and the first evidence that her childhood dreams were attainable.
For many dubious parents, seeing their child realize a lifelong goal would trigger an about-face and inspire an effusive string of bragging phone calls to friends and relatives. That was not McLendon-Covey's experience. "My parents were not happy about Reno because they could not separate the fact from the fiction," she said of the Cops-like comedy that aired for six seasons. "My mother wrote me the meanest letter — my mother who lives two miles away from me! She wrote me a letter and sent it through the mail, telling me, 'I want you to quit that show. I am so disappointed. I am mortified.' It's like, 'You know this is all fictitious? I'm not really a cop, either — and my boobs aren't really that big.' It was truly astounding."
Thankfully McLendon-Covey did not acquiesce to her mother's request, as Reno 911! quickly turned into a cult classic and spawned a feature film in 2007. But the beloved role proved to be a confusing launching pad for the actor within the industry. "My character was real specific, and I think casting people expected to see that walking through the door," she said, kicking her legs over one side of an enormous armchair in her dressing room at The Talk, which she sporadically guest co-hosts. "I am a specific spice on the rack … so I did have to hustle for a bit."
That hustle has resulted in McLendon-Covey dabbling in a little bit of everything that Hollywood has to offer. She's made a name for herself in the comedy community through the Groundlings, guested on dozens of TV shows, co-hosted everything from CBS's The Talk to ABC's hidden-camera series Repeat After Me, made a myriad of indie films, and starred in Bridesmaids, where she played Rita, the harried mother of three boys who can't stop talking about how disgusting puberty has made them. The movie turned out to be an absolute career-changer for McClendon-Covey and one she nearly didn't star in.
McLendon-Covey with Ellie Kemper in Bridesmaids.
"My manager at the time told me not to take Bridesmaids because he didn't understand it," she recalled, with a roll of the eyes. "He didn't find it funny, and yet he had nothing else in line for me. After the movie came out, he still had nothing else for me to do, so it was like, Why are you even representing me? You don't seem to have any interest in my career. I feel like he was on Ambien a lot of the time, because a lot of our conversations — I'm not even joking — took place at weird times in the night, where he would just ramble and then hang up."
After a pause, she added, "I had some good years where I did a lot of guest-starring stuff and a lot of indie movies no one will ever see, but everything changed after Bridesmaids came out. I have never wanted to do anything else. Never. I set my whole life up so I could do this, and I feel like I'm finally where I'm supposed to be."
At the moment, that means working with artists she loves (like writer-director Stacy Sherman in the newly released film The Breakup Girl) and starring on ABC's The Goldbergs, which will return for its third season this fall.
The overbearing yet endlessly loving Beverly Goldberg is the latest in a string of roles that offered McLendon-Covey the opportunity to play a mother — a turn of events she has long anticipated, professionally speaking. "I just figured as a woman, at some point, I'd start playing mothers," she said. "Because of that, I do get asked a lot about why I don't have kids in my regular life, and I find it odd that I have to justify that. Well, why should I? Some of us were not meant to breed. I know my limits, and I think that's OK."
Regardless of the members who comprise it, the dynamics of a family have proven to be incredibly fertile grounds for comedy in McLendon-Covey's career. "Families are rich with comedy and tragedy, often in the same dinner," she said. "You'll be laughing and then crying and holding a grudge and hugging it out. That's just how families are, and you can only get away with that with your family."
This is an unexpectedly resonant lesson that has also come with her portrayal of Beverly. "I sit with her a lot and digest what she's all about, so I've really gotten into her thought process, and even though I don't have kids, I now understand the need to act first and apologize later," she said. "That's just how life goes: You cannot push pause, figure out what you're going to do, and then decide how to proceed. No. You have act on instinct."
Those instincts are about to become more important than ever, as McLendon-Covey has found herself in uncharted territory. With a hit film and a hit TV series to her name, she — for the first time in her career — has choices, a fact she doesn't take lightly. "I try to be strategic and think three moves ahead," she said. "At the end of my career, when they show my 'In Memoriam' of me twerking in a chocolate fountain, I hope people remember me fondly and remember my projects as being things you'd want to watch on a day when you were sick. Like, if I Love Lucy is on, I will always watch. If The Golden Girls is on, I will always watch. If Sixteen Candles is on, I will always watch. That's the kind of stuff I want to put out there. Now, am I doing it? I don't know. But my mom's not writing me hate mail anymore, so that's a step in the right direction."