Wendi McLendon-Covey was supposed to play the cat lady.
It makes sense. McLendon-Covey is hysterical. Scene-stealing character work is her wheelhouse.
It’s what catapulted her to fame after playing Rita, a mother at her wits’ end with her disgusting kids in Bridesmaids. It’s why a scene from Reno 911!, in which her Deputy Clementine Johnson turns a traffic stop into a drunken dance lesson, may be forever cataloged as one of the funniest bits that ever aired on Comedy Central. It’s what’s gotten her two Best Actress nominations at the Critics Choice Awards for her work as Beverly in the hit ABC sitcom The Goldbergs.
So when writer-director Debra Eisenstadt was casting her new feature, Imaginary Order, McLendon-Covey was a coup for the role of the lead character’s hoarder, cat-obsessed sister.
But when the film premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival, McLendon-Covey’s only encounter with a cat on-screen was in an intense face-off that ended with a gruesomely scratched arm. During pre-production, Eisenstadt’s lead actress dropped out and the Goldbergs star got a promotion, to the role of a lifetime, really.
“I’ve done drama before, but no one has ever seen those movies,” McLendon laughs when we meet in Park City the morning after Imaginary Order’s Sundance premiere.
In Eisenstadt’s passion-project film, she plays Cathy, a suburban mother whose life starts to unravel with intense speed. Her 13-year-old daughter has started to push her away, she suspects her husband is having an affair, and she begins acting out over the startling realization that she no longer knows her purpose.
The film is funny, of course. This is McLendon-Covey playing a woman in a spiral, and Eisenstadt writes her characters with a dark, well-worn sense of humor. But as Cathy navigates a bumpy tumble to rock bottom, and struggles to pick herself back up once she lands there, McLendon-Covey delivers a kind of laid-bare, naturalistic performance that should come as a welcome surprise to those used to her loud, brash characters.
“You know how Adam Sandler did Punch Drunk Love and it’s his best performance?” Eisenstadt tells me. “To me that is the most interesting thing for an audience, to see something that defies expectation in a performance. All these actresses I was going to were afraid of the role. I never had this trouble before, but this one, I gave it to a lot of actresses that were really freaked out.”
It’s only now that the film’s been made and has premiered to exuberant applause in Park City that McLendon-Covey can talk candidly about how she was freaked out by it, too.
For some actresses, it was the storyline in which a 15-year-old boy (played by Max Burkholder), blackmails Cathy by offering to keep one of her dark secrets if she would take his virginity. For one in particular, who Eisenstadt is still stunned over but won’t name, it was the fact that Cathy spends the lion’s share of the movie disheveled and wearing little-to-no makeup. But for McLendon-Covey, it was different. She wasn’t sure she was talented enough to do it.
She remembers she was in Atlanta over the summer shooting What Men Want with Taraji P. Henson, and wasn’t in contact much with Eisenstadt, who was busy in pre-production on Imaginary Order. “I emailed her and was like, ‘How is everything going? If you’re having second thoughts and you feel like you want to replace me, you totally can. It will be fine. I won’t be insulted,’” McLendon-Covey says. But Eisenstadt didn’t let her off the hook.
That’s how the filmmaker and her leading lady found themselves on a busy morning in Park City reflecting on insecurity and triumph; Imaginary Order’s long, frustrating journey to Sundance; the obstacles facing women and specifically mothers who endeavor a career in Hollywood; finding success later in life; and the power of determination.
Debra Eisenstadt made her first feature almost 20 years ago. Daydream Believer, which she wrote, directed, produced, shot, and edited herself, won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance and she was given the Someone to Watch prize at the Indie Spirit Awards.
The year before, Marc Forster was given the award. His career immediately took off: Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, and even a Bond film, Quantum of Solace. Eisenstadt didn’t even receive a call from a manager or an agent after she won. She kept writing. She kept killing herself, wearing every hat for every film she made, hustling maddeningly to get them produced. But none of them were hits. James Bond never came calling.
“I had gotten to a place where I was like, well, it keeps me sane,” she says. “I’m never going to stop doing it. If only a handful know about my work, I was fine with that in a way because I didn’t expect more after so long.”
She had spent years trying to get Imaginary Order, the most personal script of her career, made, but it kept falling through. She finally decided to produce it herself, once she got McLendon-Covey on board, and shot the film in 15 days during a California heat wave.
The film was inspired by her feelings about uprooting from New York City, where she had lived her entire life, to Los Angeles, a move necessitated by her husband’s, director Brett Morgen (Jane, Cobain: Montage of Heck), surging career. She soon found herself raising her three children in the suburban climate—an “imaginary order”—that had always made her sick.
“I basically put my midlife crisis into the script,” Eisenstadt says. “All my fears and everything were sublimated onto the page.”
“It’s impossible to be a good mother and have a career. It’s impossible. It’s a lie,” she continues. “So I spent a lot of time abandoning my career to be a mother. And I didn’t know if I could ever go back to a career. But that was my choice. I had kids. I felt responsible for these people. They really need you, up until a point. And you get to that point, and that’s where the character is, where kids don’t really need you. They’re fine. You did your job. Your job as a mother is to make it so they don’t need you. You know you’ve done a good job. But when it gets to that point, it’s so heartbreaking.”
McLendon-Covey doesn’t have children. But there is something viscerally relatable about a woman at a certain age and a transition point in her life who feels lost at sea because the thing she thought was her purpose isn’t her purpose anymore, forcing her into an identity crisis.
“You see people start to lie to themselves a lot as they reach middle age,” she says. “And maybe it’s that fake it ’til you make it thing, but it’s those lies that you keep telling yourself and trying to pass off as the absolute truth: I’m OK. I have this under control. It’s those lies that make you lose your identity.”
The actress has always been candid about what it’s taken to invest in herself and her career. After college, she worked at a hotel near Disneyland—a job that she loathed—so that she could afford to take classes at the Groundlings improv school, eventually landing a spot in the performing company. She had a part-time job working at a social work journal published at Cal State Long Beach all the way through 2012, which meant that she still worked there even while filming her roles in Reno 911!, Rules of Engagement, and even Bridesmaids, editing manuscripts between takes on set.
In 2012, a year after Bridesmaids was a box-office success, the journal folded. It’s only since then that she’s been a full-time actress. She was cast in The Goldbergs in 2013. The series is currently in its sixth season. Imaginary Order is her first lead role in a feature film.
There’s a certain poignancy, then, and absolutely an unexpectedness, that Imaginary Order happened for both McLendon-Cover and Eisenstadt at this point in their careers, after having weathered so much of their professional and even their personal lives with a learned practicality.
“It feels pretty damn good, you know?” McLendon-Covey says. “Because, you know, I’m not young. I absolutely do not feel like I’ve peaked yet. I don’t think I have. So for a little gem like this to come up and be able to prove people wrong and be like, oh yeah, I can do other things. It feels pretty damn good, I’ve got to say.”
Eisenstadt remembers the number of times she’s applied to Sundance with her films and been rejected. She’s still exasperated over how hard it was to get Imaginary Order made. She gets teary-eyed every time she recounts what it’s meant to premiere this film in Park City. And this time, the industry has called. It was reported Tuesday that she signed with Gersh talent agency.
“For me at my age to have it here,” she says, “you can imagine it really is like I’ve entered through Emerald City.”
Editor’s note: This article originally misspelled Wendi McLendon-Covey’s last name. We regret the error.