Funny girl gets serious
McCarthy loves playing ‘ heroic and flawed’ character in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
NEW YORK — With such scenestealing performances as the foulmouthed Megan in Bridesmaids and the brash Shannon in The Heat, Melissa McCarthy knows you love it when she plays wildly comedic characters.
But in her latest turn, the 48- yearold Oscar nominee is getting serious. In Can You Ever Forgive Me? she plays an acerbic, down- on- herluck criminal.
McCarthy plays Lee Israel, the real- life writer who made a name for herself writing bios for famous women including Estee Lauder and Katharine Hepburn. But unable to get a new book contract, Lee turns to forgery, writing fake letters by such famous writers as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, then selling them to collectors. Q Can You Ever Forgive Me? and the role of Lee seem so different from what we’re used to seeing you play. Was it a big stretch for you?
A In my head it’s not, but I see what you mean. It certainly has a different tone and a different type of energy to it. But I read it and I just loved her. I found her heroic and flawed, and I knew that I was rooting for her very early on when I read the script. I liked her so much, but I couldn’t pinpoint anything she’d done that I should like. When I’m befuddled by a character, I take that as a very good sign.
Q Lee’s not easy to like, but watching this I was hoping she’d figure out a way to be likable.
A She was exactly who she was. When you watch Lee navigate society, she was likely more extreme than many of us. But I think anyone can watch this and just think, ‘ Aw Lee, c’mon.’
There are so many instances where she could have had a different kind of life. But she couldn’t bend and she couldn’t stop pushing people away.
Q Audiences have seen you do drama in 2014’ s St. Vincent, but you’ve mostly stuck to comedy. Was this rebrand something you were seeking to do?
A For me, I never think about what category something is supposed to be in. When I get a script, I don’t ask about genre because I don’t want to have a preconceived idea of what it will be. I read the script, and if I love the story and I’m really grabbed by the character it makes no difference to me if it’s a comedy or a drama. I’ve done comedies on screen, but
I’ve probably done more dramas when you include all the random plays I did in New York when I was in my 20s.
Q Lee Israel died in 2014.
What do you think she’d say about your performance?
A I’ve often wondered if she’d find me annoying, which also tickles me, weirdly. I think it’s not sentimental. That’s something I don’t think she’d have wanted with this movie. It doesn’t paint her as pathetic when she’s down on her luck. She still maintains who she is and I think that would be important to her.
Q I was pretty good at forging my parents’ signature in high school. Were you a master of forgery by the end of shooting this?
A I loved the ways that Lee does it. How she matched the paper and the pen ink. I don’t know if you can learn how to forge, but I have notebooks of me re- creating all these signatures. I had to be able to do it for real. I have notebooks of pages and pages of fake Noel Coward signatures. Someone’s going to find that later and think, ‘ What’s the matter with her?’
Q Lee is a person who struggled to find her way as a writer, but Melissa McCarthy the actress has turned out to be someone a lot of people love and admire. I’m curious how your dreams of being an actor measure up with where you are today?
A I don’t know that I knew exactly what I wanted. I liked the thought of doing something where I felt I was making a visceral connection that people would react to. I remember telling people stories or having people laugh, and that spurred something in me ( to act). I remember growing up around the dinner table, everyone would talk about their day and we laughed a lot. We weren’t doing bits, but I remember everyone was really able to tell a story in a funny way ... So I started in standup and then I moved into dramatic work onstage. But with dramas, I’ve always felt a need to show ( characters), in a light that made people understand them better. Q You went from living on a farm in rural Illinois to moving to New York City at 20 with $ 35 in your pocket. Now you’re one of the most well- known actresses in Hollywood. When was the moment you felt,
‘ I’ve made it?’
A I’m always comfortable when I’m working. I’m very comfortable when I get to step into someone else’s shoes. The other stuff is never something I’m ever super comfortable talking about. When people say to me, ‘ Let’s talk about what it means,’ I’m always thinking, ‘ Just give me a project.’ I don’t know what it means and I may never know what it means. All I know is I love acting and I love the fact that I get to do something that I love from the bottom of my heart. Having people fall in love with a character they might not have liked ... I like being able to do that.
Melissa McCarthy in a scene from Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Actor Melissa McCarthy.