The first thing you notice when you meet Melissa McCarthy in person is how much she likes to laugh. There are actually a lot of comedic actors who, in person, are much more reserved and serious. This is not McCarthy. As she holds court, you start to realize McCarthy is the type of person who you immediately just want to spend the entire day with. She’s just delightful to be around. And she finds humor in a lot of things, even strange turns of phrase. (When this interview ended, I had forgotten my half finished, now flat, Diet Coke on her table and I apologized for leaving my “waste’ behind. She picked up on my use of the word “waste” and made a comedy show out of it.)
McCarthy gives one of her best performances to date – in a career already filled with so many great performances, including her Oscar nomination for Bridesmaids – in Can You Ever Forgive Me. Based on a true story, McCarthy plays author Lee Israel, who at this point in her career is down on her luck, can’t seem to get another book deal, and spends most of her time day drinking with her friend Jack (played by Richard E. Grant, who is also fantastic). By fate, she stumbles on the lucrative world of collectors who pay top dollar for personal letters written by famous literary figures. Lee starts forging these letters (she becomes quite good at it) and makes a lot of money in the process.
When I was waiting in the hallway of a Manhattan hotel to speak to McCarthy, a man came up from behind me and asked, “Are you waiting to speak to Her Majesty? You must address her as Your Majesty.” At first I assumed it was an overly zealous publicist, but I looked up and it was Richard E. Grant, just horsing around. He also suggested that I curtsy. And I had planned to do all of this, but then I entered McCarthy’s room and she just kind of takes over, and then I forgot to do everything Richard E. Grant told me to do.
Where should I sit?
I’ll just go where I’m told. I respect authority.
[Laughs] Oh, then you’re in the wrong room. I’ll just keep pointing at things.
I just met Richard E. Grant in the hallway…
Oh my god.
He came up to me and said, “Are you waiting to speak to Her Majesty?”
He’s such a troublemaker.
I didn’t realize I needed to address you that way, and then I forgot to do it.
He stormed in here, literally he scared me. He stormed in at such a speed. He came in as fast as he could walk with this super menacing look on his face, and then choked that mannequin in the corner and said to the interviewer, “That’s how I feel about her.”
[Laughing] And then he was like, “Helloooo!” I can’t keep myself together around him.
How do you do scenes with him? I assume there are high-jinks?
There are but never at the wrong time. He’s a constant professional and he’s always irritatingly super prepared. And I’m always prepared. I’m quite a nerd about it.
This is a great New York City movie.
It really is. I was here in New York from ’90 to ’97, so to me I literally kept saying “my New York.” I have an affinity for the early ’90s New York and I just never thought I would kind of get that back, but filming this, it was like I went in a time machine and I got it back for a little bit.
I moved here in 2004 and even the 2004 version is very different.
Where are you from?
I moved here from St. Louis. When you did Tammy I was like, “Oh, I know all these areas.”
I went to Southern Illinois University. And my husband [Ben Falcone] is from Carbondale. He grew up there. He went to the University of Illinois, but he’s from Carbondale, but I went there when he was still in high school. We didn’t know each other then.
So maybe this sounds terrible, but watching this movie I went from, “I realize what Lee is doing is wrong but I’d also like to hang out with her,” but now I’m at, “Was it really that bad what she did?”
I mean, I think everybody has a little bit of that. Like, yes, I’m acknowledging it’s a crime, I know that.
Morally wrong, sure.
It certainly was a big part of my affinity for her and I remember even the first time I read the script, I was only like a quarter of the way in and I thought, “Oh, I’m really fond of her.” And then I thought, “Why?” I couldn’t figure out anything tangible as to why I was becoming so enamored with her. I was like, “She’s not doing anything I can put my finger on why I’m rooting for her and finding her likable.” And yet it just grew and grew. And by the end I was so taken with her and I felt very protective for her. I think it’s something about how Lee navigated the world, and sometimes poorly for sure. But there’s something about that, that to me I immediately thought, “Oh, that’s a very interesting character when you like them in spite of everything that they’re doing.”
I kept thinking she’d be a great stranger to have drinks with at a bar with on a lousy day.
I’ve thought about that! Like “God, I’d love to have drinks with her.” And the immediate next thought I have is, “I wonder if she would have hated me. If she would have tolerated me. I’m probably way too chatty.”
Oh, she would’ve hated me. But I think she would’ve liked you.
I don’t know. I think about that all the time. I would have taken the barbs from her. Because I always find the prickly appealing, especially when someone’s not trying to be mean but they’re just grumbly. I kind of have a weird soft spot for that because I always think, “What’s that really coming from?” It’s so much bluster. Not that I think it wasn’t a real true part of her personality. She was difficult by all accounts, but I also think don’t we all do a weird defense mechanism thing of what we put out to the world versus what’s actually happening?
I know a lot of “difficult people” that I like being around.
I do, too.
Sometimes they’re funny.
I think so, too. And Lee certainly was.
Also, it’s weird that there’s a subset of collectors who want to own letters, not written to them or meant to be read by them, by famous authors.
Yes. And what does it mean and why is it expensive?
So it’s already this shady enterprise and Lee was giving them what they wanted. I realize I’m morally wrong.
I also never thought about that whole world. I mean, I really let Lee off the hook in my head where it was like, “So she was adding some things to a letter.” But she’s good at it. I kind of desperately want one.
You want to own one of her letters?
I’m really, really trying to find a Lee letter.
I bet they are more expensive than the real deal now.
I’ve though about that, too.
It would be like insider trading for you to start buying them out.
I would love if I committed a crime based on someone who committed a crime. Maybe I’ll try it.
I was a big fan of the Tom Clancy dig.
Yeah, it’s a pretty funny one.
I can’t help but think of a relative of Tom Clancy just randomly seeing this movie. Like Cody Clancy, or whatever, at the box office, “One ticket please.” And then that’s in there.
“Oh, to be a white man.” I found that line so delicious that I’m like, “Oh god, I don’t want to rush it. I hope I don’t blow the line.” Just because I want to say the line so badly.
And it’s not a character playing someone kind of like Tom Clancy. The character’s name is Tom Clancy.
I know. And we’re saying it. We’re going for it.
I know anyone can say, “Oh, you do interesting things,” but you actually do and take a lot of risks.
Well, I think trying…
A movie like Tammy was a risk. And people have this conception it didn’t do well, but it made a lot of money.
It totally did. Yeah. And people were also strangely upset by the tone. Which I think Ben and I were both like, “What?” It’s exactly the story it is: This woman who cannot get her life together. And is failing and is thriving and just not doing well. And parts are funny. And parts are messy and people are not great and shiny and perfect. And I got a lot of questions like, “This isn’t a comedy.”
Did that make you mad?
Well, when did I hold up a banner saying it was or it wasn’t (a comedy)? And when did we have to start putting things in compartments? I was very confused by it. “How do you explain it?” I’m like, “I don’t!” One of my favorite movies in the world is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. And I find it one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen and I also cry like a maniac through the other half. And do I have to defend that? Does that work? Not saying our movie’s that, but I just think you’re in this category or you’re in this category. And somehow if they meet in the middle it’s, “Are you trying to con us?” And I just think, don’t you want that in a story? I love a messy, weird story where I’m like, they’re terrible and I love them. And those are my favorite stories. I just think if you’re trying to show real people and it’s messy… I don’t know, I always like the mess. I refuse to kind of pick a side. Or people who were like, “Were you trying to make a statement doing this dramatic movie?” I have never once thought about that. I liked her so much and I thought the script was unbelievably good.
Do you mean you never thought about that with this specific movie or just ever?
Anything! I’ve never given that a thought. But I’m getting asked a lot for this one and I understand the question.
What would even be the statement?
I don’t know.
What do people think you’re trying to say?
Even if I get scripts I’m never like, “What is this? I want a label on it before I read it.” I’m like, “Don’t tell me anything about it.”
That makes sense.
I don’t want to know about it! I don’t even want to know the gist of it. Because I want to be able to read something and be like, “Who thought of that?” Or, “What a weird little great story.” I think that’s the fun. I don’t read reviews of anything I’m about to see. I try to see things early because, to me, that’s the fun. Whatever it is. I think that’s supposed to be part of the fun of it.
You mentioned Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. What is it about that movie for you?
I mean, “Those aren’t pillows!”… [starts laughing]. I mean, I just remember the first time, but I still react to it the same way every time even though I know it’s coming. I have an uncontrollable reaction. It just makes me laugh so hard. And then when you realize that John Candy’s wife is gone and he’s sitting in the car. And, I mean, John Candy in that movie to me is just, and they’re both so great, but John Candy.
There’s just that look on his face.
He’s perfect. He’s perfect in that movie: the most lovable, the most annoying, the most heartbreaking, everything. He just did everything seamlessly.
‘Can You Ever Forgive Me’ opens on Friday, October 19. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.