It's the first truly chilly weekend of fall in New York when I head to a Midtown Manhattan hotel for an interview with Melissa McCarthy, which feels appropriate. Can You Ever Forgive Me? -- the new film in which McCarthy plays forger Lee Israel -- is a winter-in-the-city movie. It's infused with some twinkly Nora Ephron-esque magic, like the sequence in which Lee and her friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) drunkenly eat Zabar's baguettes on a cold night, an ideal way to spend an evening. But Nora Ephron hated Lee Israel, and Can You Ever Forgive Me? is also a tale of how isolating and crushing the city can be.
Since we're talking about paradoxes here, Lee, who died in 2014, is both a perfect role for McCarthy and somewhat outside her wheelhouse -- far from the broad comedic portraits audiences expect from her. When Marielle Heller's comedy-drama begins in 1991, Lee has just been fired from a copy-editing gig, is broke, and lives in a fly-ridden apartment. Her star as a biographer has faded. No one is interested in a book on Fanny Brice. But she stumbles upon another, adjacent profession when she realizes she can make money by faking correspondence from dead literary celebrities like Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward. It's thrilling, until she begins to arouse suspicion among her network of booksellers.
Lee, though she was a real person, is typical of a McCarthy creation in her refusal to conform to any standard of propriety. She's quick to lob an insult, but also quick to recede. As our conversation warmed up, McCarthy and I delved into Lee, as well as the actor's own experiences as an aspiring artist in the '90s. Plus, you'll find out why people called McCarthy "Sugarcube" in college.