What Melissa McCarthy Learned From A Renowned Literary Con Artist

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Rest assured: Melissa McCarthy will make you laugh in her upcoming movie, Can You Ever Forgive Me?. But the laughs that her character, notorious literary scammer Lee Israel, will elicit are of a different species than the brazen, rambunctious women she's played in movies like Bridesmaids and Tammy. Lee Israel's wit is barbed and disarming, designed to keep her isolated in that sordid one-bedroom Manhattan apartment she calls home. When her biography-writing career dries up, Lee uses her wit to imitate the distinct voices of iconic writers, like Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward, in forged letters.
Aside from making you laugh, Lee Israel might have another thing in common with McCarthy's Bridesmaids character Annie: The role of a brilliant, misanthropic curmudgeon could very well earn her an Oscar nomination. We spoke to McCarthy about why she admires a noted criminal, her crackling chemistry with co-star Richard E. Grant, and the pattern that binds her roles together.
Refinery29: What drew you to Lee Israel when you first saw her on the page?
Melissa McCarthy: "I found Lee fascinating, truly fascinating. What I didn’t expect, and I couldn’t quite explain, is why I felt so enamoured with her. About a quarter of the way into the script I thought, ‘I don’t think she’s doing anything tangible that should have me rooting for her, and yet, I’m so behind her.’ Other people who read script said ‘Oh, she’s very unlikable.’ But I loved her so much. I thought her prickliness and caustic gruff exterior were defence mechanisms. We all have some device that we do that usually doesn’t help us at all. That’s her. I think that’s what made me soften to her and feel for her."
The movie never tries to explain why she is like this, or why she has these defence mechanisms.
"It just is. And that's how she lived. She simply was who she was. She was not apologetic for it. She was not flexible, which also made things much more difficult for her. She didn’t need the reflection of other people to tell her who she was."
That comes through in the courtroom scene so well, when Lee essentially calls this scam her greatest work. Did you learn anything about yourself by playing a woman so unapologetic?
"I’m always trying — and failing — to not have my opinion of myself come from other people. I don't go about it the same way Lee did. I don’t do it without thinking about how my actions could make someone feel. Playing Lee was a really good reminder to simply be who you are without trying to think about how other people think you are. You have to be able to stand in your own shoes. Having two daughters, I try to be very aware of that."
Lee is blisteringly funny. In terms of humour, how does she compare to your comedy roles?
“I’ve been lucky enough to have played a lot of strong, complicated women. They usually play more forcefully out, whereas Lee held it in and waited for someone else to bury themselves. But when her wit came out verbally, it was as sharp as anything else.
“The first time we saw the movie with an audience, I was surprised by how much people laughed. I knew the humour was in the writing, but I didn’t know if it would present in that way. At first I was like, ‘Oh no! I don’t know if people should be laughing!’ I was a little confused. Then I thought, ‘Oh, she’s that funny.’ I was pleasantly surprised when I realised the audience got her wit. I feel very protective of her.”
Right, you have ownership over her legacy. How do you feel about bringing this under-the-radar woman to people’s attention?
"That is one of the best feelings about the whole project. She did know the film was happening. She didn’t want it sentimental, and she wanted it to be about her writing — those were her two things. I feel very confident that people picking up her books, reading her writing, and finding out who she was — even liking her in spite of her personality quirks – would please her greatly."
Do you foresee pursuing more dramatic roles?
"I read anything. I’m never looking for a comedy or a drama. I just look for the story and the character. My pattern, if you had to pick one, is that the women I play are challenging. They’re not always conventionally likeable. A lot of times that comes through comedy, just because it’s maybe more palatable, which I find interesting. It’s almost negating that it’s a real person. But I know plenty of these women! That’s why I'm playing them."
That’s why it’s important someone is.
"Yes, and that’s why I’m always gravitating towards it. I like to see the bumps and bruises. You have to see a character fall on their face if you're going to root for them to get back up."
You and your co-star, Richard E. Grant, have such good chemistry. He celebrated your anniversary with you and your husband, right?
"Yes, our 13th anniversary was having hamburgers with Richard E. Grant. I was like, this is perfect. He’s like a lightning beam. I feel like there's light shooting out of him."
Would you joke around set?
"Oh, yes. There were some days where some of the scenes were quite difficult. Especially when Jack is well into AIDs. I can't get through that scene when I watch it. I don't like to see Richard or Jack like that. Other than that, we’d be laughing hysterically then have to go back into the scene. But I think you felt that even in the scene. Our fondness for each other translated. You get hit with a lucky stick when it’s like, ‘I like you so much I think it’s showing up on camera.’"
Despite herself, Lee likes this person.
"Richard describes Jack as a labrador retriever."
A fashionable one.
"Yes, a fashionable one. Every time I was like, ‘Ahh! Are you wearing a tartan cape? I’m dying!’ But no matter how many times Lee would push him away, each time he’d just come back as happy as the first time. That kind of openness fascinated Lee. When they met each other, they both were in such desperate straits that to have someone that could look at them and see them for their flaws, their bruises, their unflattering things and be okay with it, that’s a huge thing. Who doesn’t need that? Everybody needs someone to see who they really are and not judge them."
That’s love!
"It’s true love. There are no conditions to it."
Can You Ever Forgive Me? premiered at London Film Festival 19th October and is in UK cinemas 1st February 2019

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