She is one of our most inspired comedians, whether leading a blockbuster comedy like The Heat or playing a Barbie-wielding Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live. Boundaries don’t exist—she’s full-bore, immersing herself in characters with zero vanity. Why should a dramatic role be any different? Can You Ever Forgive Me? ushered the Emmy winner (for the series Mike & Molly) under the skin of the anti-social Lee Israel, a real-life struggling author who turned to forging letters of the famous (Dorothy Parker, Fanny Brice, Noël Coward), until she was arrested by the FBI in the ’90s. The film, directed by Marielle Heller and based on Israel’s memoir, has just earned Mccarthy a Golden Globe nomination, and Oscar buzz is brewing. The actress saw Israel as “an armadillo, cocooning within herself and hoping if she stayed still long enough, people would go away.” Though the real Israel died of complications of myeloma in 2014, Mccarthy hopes to “do right by Lee.”
Lee is not easy to sympathize with, but you make us root for her.
There’s very little information on her. Luckily, our producer David Yarnell knew her for 20 years and is a big reason she wrote her memoir. He says she was a complete pain in the ass about it. [Laughs.] But you can’t fake the writing of some of the best writers and not be great at what you do. How many remarkable Lees do we pass on the street without noticing them?
What do you think she would make of your portrayal of her?
When we were shooting at Julius’ [a New York City gay bar], where she really did hang out, somebody was watching us. “It’s hard not to come sit next to you,” he said to me. “That was my job—i sat to Lee’s left. She was my friend.” I was like, “Oh my God, am I doing OK? Would she be happy with what I’m doing?” Without pause, he said, “You know, happy wasn’t really Lee’s thing.” Which totally made me laugh! But he added, “She would love the attention on her work.” [Laughs.] I think that’s true.
Why do you think the media makes such a big deal when comedy actors move to drama?
I feel like it’s a recent thing, that you have to pick a side. Look at Planes, Trains and Automobiles; nobody goes, “Well, what’s this about?” A great story is like life: You’re laughing, crying, angry and happy. There is something tragic about all the characters I play. Just tell the story.
Lee was like “an armadillo, hoping if she stayed still long enough people would go away.”