Mamoudou Athie on Entering Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘Risky’ World in ‘Kinds of Kindness’: ‘I Love When Something Feels Fresh and Innovative’

Mamoudou Athie can practically taste the lobster rolls from the Carlton hotel. He smiles wistfully as he taps into that sense memory of his first trip to the Cannes Film Festival. In 2023, Athie voiced the lead role in Disney-Pixar’s “Elemental,” which closed the fest. And he’s returning this week as part of the first-rate ensemble of Yorgos Lanthimos’ offbeat movie “Kinds of Kindness.”

Discussion of the crustacean-filled dish might seem irrelevant, but it’s perhaps not incidental. Athie begins our conversation by revealing that his first encounter with Lanthimos’ unique sensibilities was 2015’s “The Lobster.” The Mauritanian American actor, who was studying at Yale School of Drama at the time, was captivated by the originality of the material and the conviction the filmmaker brought to his craft.

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“I love something that feels fresh and innovative and risky,” Athie says, sitting down with Variety in late April and eagerly anticipating the film’s world premiere at the Palais on May 17. “All of Yorgos’ work feels very risky — and not for risky’s sake. It’s nice when people back themselves.”

So Athie was surprised — and thrilled — when, seven years later, the filmmaker reached out to talk about a role in his next movie. Lanthimos had seen Jason Reitman’s 2018 political drama “The Front Runner,” in which Athie plays an idealistic young reporter, and sent an email complimenting the actor’s subtle yet commanding performance. (Lanthimos also sent the script for the film, then called “And,” which Athie read, though he planned to sign on regardless.)

“It means a lot,” says Athie, reflecting on the director’s invitation to collaborate. “It feels like the way I like to work has been recognized, because I endeavor to be honest in what I’m doing. And however that lands, I want to maintain that commitment.”

Athie learned to strive for that kind of naked, egoless honesty in drama school. And he’s carried the approach to projects like “Uncorked,” “The Get Down” and his Emmy-nominated turn in “Oh Jerome, No.” He’s just not usually actually naked too.

Athie gets animated as he speaks about “Kinds of Kindness,” which he calls an “insane fever dream.” The Searchlight film is composed of three vignettes, each following a new set of characters, and also stars Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley and Hong Chau. Athie’s trio of roles ground the action as the plots become increasingly bizarre. He’s featured prominently in the second chapter, where Plemons plays a cop whose wife was lost at sea and returns, seemingly a different person. Athie is his partner on the force.

And yes, the film required him to strip down for a racy sequence, which was the only element of Lanthimos’ script that gave him pause. He’d been nude onstage before, in “The Mystery of Love & Sex” on Broadway, so what was his hang-up?

“I realized it’s not any kind of ethical or moral issue, just fear,” Athie says. He shared his qualms with Lanthimos, including questions about his presentation as a Black man in this scenario, but the director assuaged his worries.

“As an actor, you want to work with people that are very interested in your opinion. You’ll kind of do whatever with them, because you can trust that they’ll have your best interest at heart,” he explains. “So while I was scared, I felt it was time to challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone.”

Filming the brief scene was handled carefully, with an intimacy coordinator on set. Still, Athie was all nerves when it came time to screen the final cut, sitting alongside co-stars Joe Alwyn and Hunter Schafer.

“I want to watch it again with a little bit more peace,” he says, though he doesn’t view anxiety as a bad thing. “That risk is what I wanted to feel. That this could go [over] any way, but I’d know it was made with clear intent, real excellence and full-bodied commitment. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

In the end, the experience taught Athie to let go of his self-imposed limitations. And he’s excited for audiences to see the finished product — well, except his mom and dad.

“I think about them a lot when I choose my movies. I always want them to be proud,” Athie says, sharing his iPhone lock screen, which features a photo of his parents at the L.A. premiere of “Elemental.” “I don’t know if they need to see ‘Kinds of Kindness.’ But I’m 35, so I’ve gotta do my thing.”

“Elemental,” though, was a consequential movie for the Athie family — in part because his mother and diplomat father sought political asylum in the U.S. when Athie was just six months old and settled in Washington, D.C. They’ve always been supportive of his decision to pursue acting, so just as “Elemental” director Peter Sohn was inspired by his late parents’ immigrant story, Athie performed his role in their honor.

“They did everything for me. Really sacrificed everything for us,” he says. “‘Elemental’ was so pure in everything that it was about — the writing and the love story. Hopefully I get to the point where I get to have like a Mount Rushmore of movies — that’s one of them, for sure.”

It’s maybe no coincidence that Athie voiced Wade, a water elemental, in the Oscar-nominated animated movie. With a bright smile and soothing voice, Athie moves like water. He flows — and his career is flowing too, attracting collaborators who share his ethos, like Reitman, Sohn, “The Get Down” creator Baz Luhrmann, “Uncorked” director Prentice Penny and now Lanthimos.

“Normally, I don’t know how I feel about movies until after a long period of time, but this one was like, ‘This is very, very well made,'” Athie says of “Kinds of Kindness.” “It just felt really cool to be part of this company of really cool people that I’ve admired.”

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 17: (L-R) Joe Alwyn, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Emma Stone, Yorgos Lanthimos, Jesse Plemons, Margaret Qualley, Mamoudou Athie and Hunter Schafer attend the "Kinds Of Kindness" Red Carpet at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 17, 2024 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Victor Boyko/Getty Images)
Yorgos Lanthimos (center) with the cast of “Kinds of Kindness”: Joe Alwyn, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Margaret Qualley, Mamoudou Athie and Hunter Schafer at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 17.

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