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“Can You Ever For­give Me?” is a ilm about Lee Is­rael, a bi­og­ra­pher who started a side hus­tle writ­ing fake letters as Noel Cow­ard, Louise Brooks, Dorothy Parker and other de­ceased lu­mi­nar­ies and sell­ing them to col­lec­tors. Part cau­tion­ary tale, part cel­e­bra­tion of this un­apolo­getic lit­er­ary rebel who was so good that her forg­eries even ap­peared in a Cow­ard bi­og­ra­phy, it’s also the year’s un­like­li­est me­di­a­tion on friend­ship be­tween two peo­ple who’ve been tossed out by po­lite so­ci­ety.

Melissa McCarthy plays Is­rael and Richard E. Grant costars as Jack Hock, a charis­matic grifter who ends up help­ing Lee. The two ac­tors be­came fast friends off screen as well, and on a re­cent af­ter­noon in Los An­ge­les ex­cit­edly dis­cussed the ham­burg­ers that McCarthy’s hus­band would be mak­ing for them that evening.

McCarthy and Grant spoke to The As­so­ci­ated Press about the ilm

Were you able to talk to any­one who knew Lee or Jack to pre­pare?

GRANT: All his friends are dead. And he died at 47. And Lee, the true, sel­ish au­then­tic per­son she was, wrote very, very lit­tle about him at all! She wrote ev­ery­thing about her­self. It’s a tes­ta­ment to the screen­writ­ers that be­tween them they have made this friend­ship into a three-di­men­sional, A to zed story. I thought it would be like Wikipedia, like it’s a real life per­son, I can ind pho­to­graphs...

MCCARTHY: Even Lee. There’s no video. I found three pho­tos that were ba­si­cally the same. I was never try­ing to mimic be­cause there’s noth­ing to mimic. But I think we were lucky enough for Lee that two of our pro­duc­ers knew her quite well.

GRANT: But her voice is so strong and clear in the book of some­one who is so smart. MCCARTHY: And so witty. GRANT: And that’s why they got a very stupid ac­tress to play the part. (LAUGH­TER)

What did the pro­duc­ers tell you about her?

MCCARTHY: (That) ev­ery­thing was di­fi­cult: There was go­ing to be a ight about a project and a ight about not do­ing a project. When we were shoot­ing at Julius’ (cafe) there was an older guy who was just kind of lin­ger­ing. We were on a break and I walked by and in­tro­duced my­self and I said “who are you here with” and he said “it’s hard not for me to come and join you.” I didn’t ex­actly know what that meant. And he goes, “I sat to her left. That was my job. Lee was my friend for many years.” And it re­ally did take the air out of me. I said “Would Lee be happy with this?” And he goes, “happy wasn’t re­ally Lee’s thing.” But he said she’d love the at­ten­tion on her work.

What did you find com­pelling about these char­ac­ters?

GRANT: Hock is like a Labrador and she lit­er­ally is a por­cu­pine. So you go a por­cu­pine and a Labrador, it’s the most un­likely friend­ship but they end up like that “In­cred­i­ble Jour­ney” movie where the most un­likely an­i­mals end up look­ing out for one an­other. He’s some­one who, liv­ing on his wits, is go­ing to spend what­ever money he has try­ing to make him­self look as glam­orous as he can. He would take the false teeth out of his grand­mother’s face, pol­ish them up and re­sell them to her at a dis­count and make her feel like she got a bar­gain.

MCCARTHY: They’re per­fect op­po­sites. Lee doesn’t want to put on airs. Their bal­ance some­how meets in the mid­dle. They’ve both been so good at some­thing and they’re meet­ing at a time when they’ve both been told they’re ob­so­lete. And it’s like, well then what? You would go to mea­sures that on a ra­tio­nal day you wouldn’t ad­mit to.

Aside from the lit­eral theft, her forgery is kind of an art.

MCCARTHY: I love that her letters went into that bi­og­ra­phy un­til the sec­ond print­ing of it. I al­ways think that those au­thors would get a kick out of it. I think Dorothy Parker would be like, maybe don’t grift off me any­more, but still the au­dac­ity to do some­thing like that? Wouldn’t Dorothy Parker ap­plaud that?

Direc­tor Marielle Heller recre­ates the New York City of the early 90s so pre­cisely, it’s al­most un­canny. Does that time and place hold any sig­nif­i­cance to you?

MCCARTHY: I moved to New York in 1990. From 20 to like 27, that was my pe­riod in New York City. I lit­er­ally thought, ev­ery sin­gle day of my life “I can’t be­lieve I live here.” We were all work­ing three jobs and try­ing to do some­thing be­cause we wanted to do it and thought we could do it. You could still live in Man­hat­tan. We lived like an­i­mals, two and three in a stu­dio, but, my god, my ad­dress was New York City. I got re­ally choked up one night, it was just like a street scene and I said, “You gave me back one of the times of my life that I think formed me as a per­son. You handed back this golden mo­ment to me.”

It’s sur­pris­ing that you two met only days be­fore shoot­ing.

GRANT: I begged the direc­tor, I said, “I know Miss McCarthy is on many other projects, but please can we just have 15, a half an hour, lunch maybe.”

MCCARTHY: Can you imag­ine meet­ing on set?

GRANT: I wasn’t go­ing to sleep for 72 hours unless we met. And we did. And we didn’t get on.

MCCARTHY: And still don’t.

Direc­tor Marielle Heller (cen­tre) with ac­tors Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant (right).

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