Interview: “Elemental” Stars Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie

Like any good romance film, finding the right performers to embody the roles are critical. With Elemental, director Peter Sohn. He found his voice talent in a rather unique way. For Ember, he found his star while watching Netflix. “She was in a movie called The Half of It,” said Sohn. “I remember her performance: when she got frustrated, it felt real but fun at the same time. It wasn’t a scary, explosive anger that you might expect a Fire character would have. Leah had an anger that allowed you to empathize with her frustrations.”

Wade’s performer, Mamoudou Athie, was also found on Netflix. “I saw him in this film called Uncorked,” says Sohn. “He had this tremendous charm and a sort of spark. He also had a really interesting range where he can go deep but then he can go high in this relaxed way. It really hit that watery go-with-the-flow energy. It all just felt smooth and flowy. And then I found this one clip of him from a show called ‘Oh Jerome, No’ when he was crying. His crying was so caricatured and funny, but it still felt real. That’s what sold me.”

We had the opportunity to talk with both Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie about their roles as well as joining the Pixar family.

Laughing Place: What was it like to make that connection to these characters that you're sort of destined to play, it seems like?

Leah Lewis: I feel like getting to connect with this character was such a privilege because I relate to her very, very closely. But I also think it opened up a lot in me as a human being, getting to learn her experience because it was so close to mine. Just the way that she has this amazing, amazing flame. It can get very explosive or it could be very creative for her. And I do think in my life as well, I'm also trying to find that balance. So getting to tell my story through her story while it's also Peter's story as well was just cherry on top of a great cake.

Mamoudou Athie: It feels like a universal story, I guess that's why it felt like that, because everybody can relate to it, and that's the beauty of Pixar movies in general. They find these universal stories and put them in these strange worlds that everybody can really just let their imagination run wild. But I did feel like, I was like, "This guy, this is my guy. This is my guy. I had to play this guy. I would love to play this guy." And I'm so glad Pete felt the same way, because I wouldn't expect anyway, especially for a voiceover in particular, that my voice would be the, "Oh, this is the guy for that part," because it's kind of deep and low sounding, and he's so bubbly and happy. It was a surprise, but it was a welcome surprise and I felt really, really pleased with the whole process.

Laughing Place: And you guys are now part of the Pixar canon and you're a lead in a Pixar film. We got to meet you in front of 8,000 people at the D23 Expo.

Leah Lewis: That was wild, from the stage.

Laughing Place: And you got to meet your characters at the premiere that presumably will be at the parks.

Mamoudou Athie: That's cool.

Laughing Place: This is more than just a movie now. It's a Pixar cultural moment. How's that make you feel?

Mamoudou Athie: I'm like, "What?" It's been cool. I'm really excited about it. This is really just been my favorite experience ever on a project. I mean, I'm just really just enjoying it and letting it all wash over, at the same time, it's like actively celebrating it.

Leah Lewis: I think something Mamoudou told me early on too, because we're doing so many things with press and then we're visiting parks, and he was like, "Just remember, this is such a celebration." And that really, really stuck with me because I mean, I have so much respect for what Disney and Pixar do in general. And also growing up as a kid who loved the parks and was so jazzed about every single aspect, the rides, the plushies, the candy, the family memories, the fact that we now get to give that back to other people. And I'm also just so proud of this project. We went to Disney California Adventure the other day and we saw one of the Elemental previews before the iconic World of Color Show and chills just went up my spine. It was truly so magical. And every new thing they come out with like the coffee mug, like the ears with our characters on it, it really rings true to everything that I've dreamed of.

Elemental will be at a theater near you on June 16.