Wendi McLendon-Covey stars as the ultimate ’80s smother on ABC’s The Goldbergs, which returns this fall for its seventh season, but there’s nothing maternal about her latest movie role.
In Papi Chulo, John Butler’s new buddy comedy, Sean (Matt Bomer), a heartbroken gay weatherman, unexpectedly befriends a Latino day laborer (Alejandro Patiño). McLendon-Covey plays Ash, Sean’s frosty boss, who’s quick to put his fine ass on leave after an on-air meltdown.
But the Reno 911! alum is no fair-weather friend to the LGBTQ community. An outspoken ally who has supported organizations like Lambda Legal, Point Foundation, and the Trevor Project, she chats with NewNowNext about Papi power in the Trump era, lesbian mama drama, and how drag queens are true superheroes.
Before we discuss Papi Chulo, let’s talk about how handsome Matt Bomer is.
It’s really astounding, isn’t it? But he also has the best personality. He’s so kind, sweet, and funny. He’s full service.
You play Ash, a local news exec with no patience for her gay weatherman’s personal problems.
I love that she’s so shallow, so focused on the task at hand. She’s basically like, “You had a breakdown that we can’t even parlay into YouTube likes? That’s how useless you are to me.”
Not only is Papi Chulo written and directed by a gay filmmaker, it has a gay protagonist played by a gay actor. Was that part of the project’s appeal?
That was a nice bonus, and it’s absolutely something to celebrate. I really loved the script. It comes from the truth, because L.A. can be a very lonely place. People think they’re going to move to L.A., work hard, make it all happen, and then their life will be complete, but it isn’t. If you don’t have a support system, and if you aren’t emotionally at peace with yourself and your choices, you’re not going to be happy anywhere. So I love the unlikely friendship between the two main characters, especially now, with our Cheeto-in-chief, when there’s so much division and hatred, and when national morale is at its lowest in decades. I don’t even want to get into it.
When did you become aware of your gay following?
I remember when I was performing with the Groundlings, I’d get really great feedback from gay friends and gay audience members. At first, I was like, wait, did I just have a lucky night? But they kept giving me so much encouragement, and they still do. It means everything because gay fans do not mince words. You know how kids are really honest because they don’t know how to sugarcoat? So that encouragement is worth more than any paycheck. It’s an amazing gauge of how you’re really doing.
Your badass Reno 911! character, Deputy Clementine Johnson, was my spirit animal. Why do you think she resonated with queer viewers?
She had swagger. She didn’t need you to tell her she was sexy. She was as tough as any man and she handled her sexual conquests like a man: “That was fun. You’re still here?” She also had a commitment to glamour, so she always went to work with a thick coat of lip gloss and helmet-like hair.
She’s a great Halloween costume. Have you seen any drag Clementines?
Yes, I’ve seen some drag versions. They always look better than how Clementine actually looked, but whatever. Remember, this was a small-time slut, so she didn’t have access to the good makeup. But I’m thrilled that she resonated with people.
Bridesmaids was another gift for LGBTQ audiences. As Rita, you shared a mile-high kiss with Becca, Ellie Kemper’s character. Is Rita bisexual, or should we blame it on the booze?
Rita was trying to feel anything different than what she felt in her regular life. She was unhappy in her marriage, getting violated without any passion. She’s like one of the Orange County Housewives—she has that malaise where you complain but don’t lift a finger to change anything. So I always felt she was just wasted and wanting to feel something. But who knows? That kiss was sort of thrown in at the last minute.
Bridesmaids 2: Rita Marries Becca. I’d watch that.
Oh, gosh. Or maybe Rita and Becca just stay on the DL for years until it turns into a reverse Grace and Frankie situation.
Have you ever experimented with your sexuality, over cocktails or otherwise?
No, I haven’t. You know, there seems to be a lot of experimentation going on right now. Well, I see it on reality shows like Vanderpump Rules, where everyone’s wiggling their toes in different ponds. I’m like, are you really curious or just trying to be outrageous? I worry about feelings getting hurt. Like, be promiscuous, but don’t be a dick about it and lead anybody on. But yeah, no, I’ve never experimented.
The day is young.
[Laughs] You’re right. I could live to be 104 like my great-grandma, so you never know.
You and Michaela Watkins played lesbian moms Pam and Susan on Modern Family. How did you approach Pam?
Well, she’s a super-capable contractor who builds things, and she’s a person with a wife who loves her child. Monogamy can be full of drudgery, because day-to-day stuff isn’t always all that interesting, so Michaela and I wanted to play the reality of lesbians just living their lives.
In the 2011 indie Fully Loaded, you and Ana Gasteyer were a couple dealing with “lesbian bed death.” Did you know about that phenomenon?
No, I did not know what lesbian bed death was, so it was a lesson for me. It’s so funny you know about that movie. I’ve never seen it. But that was my first onscreen female kiss, actually, and Ana was lovely.
Who would you pick to play your next female love interest? If you’ve got a girl crush, let’s put it out into the universe.
Yes, let’s manifest this. You know who’s yummy? Kate Moennig, who played Shane on The L Word. Now, she’s got swagger. I mean, I’d at least like to slow-dance with her at some point.
In Imaginary Order, which premiered at Sundance this year, you star as Cathy, a suburban mom who sounds like Marie Kondo if she were an American hot mess. Is that a fair description?
Yeah, pretty much. She’s got OCD and likes to create imaginary order all around herself. Unfortunately, you can’t just go into your own brain and throw out the things that don’t spark joy.
Isn’t Cathy drawn to a neighbor who has both a husband and a girlfriend?
Right. This other family has no order, and yet they seem happy, so she’s drawn to that. She’s basically seduced by her and the entire family. It’s quite gross, actually, in the best way.
Growing up in Long Beach, California, what was your introduction to the LGBTQ community?
I grew up in the ‘80s, so we were assholes. People threw “faggot” around very loosely as an all-encompassing dig like “retard.” We had gay bars in Long Beach that were whispered about, but I was raised like veal, so I barely got to go anywhere. When I was a sophomore in high school, there was a very feminine boy who called himself Darling Nicky, and he would try to use the girls’ bathroom. He had a tough time and didn’t last a month at my school. I always wonder what happened to him. I’m not sure that poor kid made it out of the ’80s.
You were raised in a very religious Baptist family. Were they accepting of queer people?
No. Listen, when you trust other people to tell you what to think, it’s comfortable because you never have to question anything. So while I don’t agree, obviously, I understand religious people who don’t want to think for themselves. But I never felt good about that. I remember being told God was making AIDS happen. I always questioned that and knew it was wrong. I’d read Interview magazine, obsessed with getting to New York, seeing the gay scene. I remember thinking they looked like they were having so much more fun than everybody else, so how could that be wrong?
Speaking of ’80s families, what would Beverly Goldberg on The Goldbergs do if one of her kids came out as gay?
Beverly would freak out only because she’d feel like she had to keep them from being hurt. I think it would make her even more of a smother. She would throw punches to protect them. But she’d be so proud. There’s an episode where Adam gets a role in the school musical, and she says, “Oh, having a son in musical theater is every mother’s dream!”
You played a gay teen’s mom in the 2017 movie Speech & Debate. Do queer kids ever reach out on social media for maternal wisdom or comfort?
They do, and it breaks my heart. I wish I could be their mother, or at least give these poor sweethearts the encouragement that they need. I get some messages where I can’t even believe what I’m reading.
I’m sure you gave some queer kids a thrill last month at RuPaul’s DragCon L.A.
Yeah, I’d been a couple years ago, but there were so many more activities and children this year! It was so cute. I really wanted to meet Blair St. Clair, because we’ve chatted in our DMs, but there was a mob of people waiting to see her.
What? You’re a VIP, Wendi!
Not really. When it comes to DragCon, it’s every man and woman for themselves.
Who did you meet?
Oh, I met Danny Franzese from Mean Girls. We’re social media friends but we’d never met. I ran into so many people I hadn’t seen in ages. One of my favorite waiters from one of my former favorite restaurants showed up in full drag, and he was like, “Hey, I used to wait on you!” I saw people I went to high school with, people I used to work with, people from the Groundlings. That’s the reach of Drag Race.
You have a long history with Drag Race as a guest judge on the first season of All Stars.
That was too long ago. I want to do it again! I love RuPaul. I love the pageantry and the camp. And I love the creative expression of drag performers, because they create these colorful personas, and then they basically go out into the world, dividing and conquering, spreading joy while wearing these fun disguises. They’re the closest things to real-life superheroes that we have. It’s an inspiration.
Have you kept up with the show?
I try. I remember being down in Georgia, shooting something that just wouldn’t end, and Drag Race became my happy place. But I need to catch up on whole seasons.
You’ve also done What’s the Tee? with Ru and Michelle Visage.
It’s my favorite podcast. I listen to it faithfully, and some episodes I’ll listen to again. If you asked me what topics I’d like to hear on a podcast, it checks all the boxes. I want to hear about lace-front wigs and eyelash glue, but also about how to stay motivated spiritually and creatively. It’s perfection.
What would be your advice for a queen who wants to impersonate you on Drag Race?
Oh, wow, do I dare fly that close to the sun? That would be so beautiful. Wait, would they be impersonating me or one of my characters?
It’s a fine line, isn’t it?
Right. Well, get ready to put makeup on everything. Because this is my motto: If it shows, it’s part of your face.
Papi Chulo is in select theaters now.