Mamoudou Athie stars in Elemental, a new animated feature from Disney, and says it's one of the best jobs he's had in his career. “I cannot tell you how much I love this movie,” he exclaims. “It feels like the purest experience I've ever had as an actor. When I was a kid, this is what I imagined professional acting would be like—just a lot of fun and making something that feels just so good to make.”

The film takes place in Element City, where fire, water, earth and air residents live together. Athie plays Wade, a water element who is an eternal optimist. 

“He sees the best in and he wants to bring out the best in people, and he does it so innocently and sweetly with no ego,” Athie says. “He does have his personal issues. It's been tough for him to hold down a job. But he's finding himself. And then he meets a girl named Ember and goes on a little self-discovery journey.”

Athie shares more about his character and why he’s just a little obsessed with water in real life.

EBONY: How much do you have in common with your onscreen alter-ego, Wade?

Mamoudou Athie: I'm actually more like Ember, who is a fire element. She has this passionate, fiery nature that I relate with. But there's something about Wade. His patience with people is something I find admirable and that I'm always striving for because I'm not, by nature, a very patient person. Sometimes I want to rush in and give people advice. Wade is certainly a little bit more gentle with his delivery.

What are some of the real-life issues you think Elemental explores?

The thing that really sticks out the most to me is that it’s all about familial love. I'm from Mauritania and came to the States as a baby. My mom and dad sacrificed everything for us to get over here and they had to start anew. Even as a kid, I understood that they were making a huge sacrifice. My dad had two master's degrees and he wasn't able to use either here. He had to rebuild our life and I can't imagine that. And yet he seemed so at ease and at peace with it because, as he said, “I did it for you.” That debt of gratitude is something that [Elemental director] Pete Sohn and I and I think a lot of people share whether you're an immigrant or not.

 Are you a fan of the water?  

I love drinking water. I'm actually a maniac about it. In school, I was obsessed with telling people just to drink water, because it can change your life. I was shooting a movie last year in New Orleans. I pulled a muscle because I'd been doing a lot of Muay Thai and I was working out outside. The doctor asked if I was drinking enough water and that I should be drinking a lot more if I’m going to be doing that kind of activity outside. You just got to be hydrated. I feel like the world would be a better place if people were more hydrated.

What should people know about your birth country Mauritania?

It's humongous. But it has a tiny population and really beautiful people there. It's been tough times in Mauritania. A lot of things have changed since my parents grew up there, a different government, which is why we had to escape. And it's been a lot more difficult for Black Mauritanians. That said, it has wonderful history and culture.

When was the last time you were there?

I haven't been able to go back yet. I just recently went back to Senegal, which was as close as I could get. That was a beautiful experience and something that I'm still unpacking because it was my first time back in Africa since I was a baby. There’s a lot of discovery that I need to do. I'm producing a movie that's based in Mauritania about a Mauritanian man. It's a true story that’s very near and dear to my heart.

Why should people see Elemental?

Our director, Peter, and producer Denise Ream put seven years of love and dedication into this. It's one of those films that you can feel when you're watching it. It's devoid of cynicism. I've been desperate to watch something pure and from the heart. And it has that Pixar magic, which means it's hilarious and fun and it's just the best. 

Elemental opens in theaters on June 16, 2023.