Melissa McCarthy Gets Nostalgic for '90s New York in Oscar-Worthy Performance as a Forger
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.
Thrillist: I saw this movie at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it made me homesick for New York.
Melissa McCarthy: I know. It's funny because people have been like, 'It's not the romantic version of New York.' And I was like, 'Oh, it is to me.' I was surprised by that. I thought it was a really romantic story. Maybe it's not in the typical way.
I think it is. One of the things I loved about it is it's both romantic and unromantic about New York. Especially if you have come with dreams about being a creative person. It calls bullshit on some of those ideas, but also totally feeds into them.
McCarthy: That's kind of what I thought, too. Everybody's in the struggle, and there's something great about, like, you're all trying and scrapping and doing everything you can to get a little slice of this thing you dream about. I kind of like the grit and the turmoil.
Isn't that why people move to New York?
McCarthy: It's why I [did]. I came in '90. I was here from '90 to '97, so this was my New York. I claim it personally because it was near and dear. There was something about it. It's lovely now, but it is so different and cleaned up. Never did anything in Alphabet City, [now] there are like $2 million studios. And all that stuff. I think when I started coming back here more often and would talk to people more often, I was like, 'Where do people live? Where are artists living if places that we would barely even go to' -- and we were idiots, we'd go anywhere, we just were like, 'Where's a party?' -- 'now no one can afford it?' Where would I have lived? We were two in a studio, but we could still swing it mostly, until we didn't have enough money for rent. But, I don't know, I liked seeing that version of it. I felt very sentimental about weirdly having this 28 days -- which is all we had to make this movie -- and being able to get back such a huge part of my life. That's just a New York I never thought I'd see again.
Were you and [your husband] Ben [Falcone] together? Or were you living with friends?
McCarthy: Hell's Kitchen was my first apartment. I was living with Brian Atwood, who is one of my best friends from high school. He's a shoe designer now. We were all just working in bars and restaurants and I nannied. He was still at FIT, actually. I moved here at 20.
To do stand-up?
McCarthy: No, I thought I was going to go to FIT. I thought I was going to finish school because I had left college in Illinois. And then I got here. I figured I'd get settled, I'd get a job, and I would apply to FIT and the first night I was here, Brian and I were at a grocery store, he picked up a Village Voice and said, "You're doing stand-up tomorrow night." I was like, "All right." I was just so kind of like, 'I'm in New York now! Anything's possible!' No thought behind it. No common sense about, have you written anything? Are you prepared? I had never been to a comedy club. But I think luckily at 20 you were just like, 'Why not?'
And you did it?
McCarthy: I did it the next night.
What was your material?
McCarthy: It was probably terrible.
Do you remember it?
McCarthy: Yeah, I went on as Miss Y. What's now funny to me is even then, I couldn't do it as me. I wouldn't know what to say, but could do [it] through a character. I had a big wig on. I think I had this silver, lamé trench coat dress on and sparkle tights. I always say I was the only woman trying to look like a man trying to look like a woman. I was much more comfortable with the drag of it. I didn't know or think of myself as an actor at all. But I loved the concept of drag and taking on this other persona where you could be much more bold and brazen than I truly was. I wouldn't ever go up onstage, even today, and be like, 'Let me tell you what happened with my day.' I would be so awkward and weird.
Did it go well?
McCarthy: It did and it didn't. If you watched it now it would probably be just terrible. Mind-blowingly terrible. I kept complimenting myself. At first I think people were very put off by it, and I remember pushing harder. I was not really complimenting myself, but I don't think they knew it yet. The more I pushed, I thought, 'I'm going to get run out of here, or maybe they'll start to think it's funny that clearly I'm making fun of myself.'
And then there was a moment where I think they realized: I think I finally had to start talking about being so tall and thin and how troubling and difficult it can be. The more I complimented myself, I remember them being, 'Oh, she's making fun of herself.' Then they started to laugh. I remember how fun that felt, letting it ride, and I got a good laugh, shockingly. It was the same time as the guy flashed the light in the booth, which means get off the stage. Two more sentences and get out. I didn't know that. I thought it was a visual applause. I thought he was saying like, 'Atta girl!' Now I realize if you want to make other comedians want to murder you, you go over your time. So the light kept flashing, but I didn't know that. The first time I saw it, it was with laughter, so the more he did it the more I kept going. I literally was like [thumbs up] to the booth. I probably doubled the time, which really is like you're asking someone to murder you. It's not OK. I remember coming off and him just screaming at me in the hallway. "Are you an idiot? What's the matter with you? Are you blind?" He said something like, "What the hell did you think I was doing with the light?" I said, "I thought you were encouraging me." He was like, "Oh my god." I think I was like, "I'm from a farm in Illinois."
Where was it?
McCarthy: Stand Up New York was the first night. I always loved doing the Duplex.
Did you ever go to Julius, the gay bar that Lee frequents in the movie?
McCarthy: Yes. Oh yes. That's why I'm like, 'Was I there with Lee?'
Seeing the movie, Lee definitely reads as a Melissa McCarthy character. She's one of these complex, unlikable women you often play. But is it different taking on her because she is a real person, as opposed to someone you just invented?
McCarthy: There was added pressure to that for sure. This is the first time I've done a real person. Other than something on SNL that I don't think counts.
McCarthy: Yeah. Lee is a person with a beating heart, so it's different. But I feel super protective of all my characters. Even when they are not real, they are real to me. Maybe that sounds crazy. They also usually stem from some woman I've seen. I'm a real intense people watcher, with love and admiration. I really love to watch people, especially fantastic women that just completely are on their own thing. Walk to their own beat, don't care, are in purple head to toe. There's something about that I am just immediately like, I love that. It makes me truly happy.
Even my characters usually stem from someone I've seen that I kind of daydream about. I get protective of all of them. With Lee, there's so little stuff to actually see in her. True to her character, she did not want people in her business. It wasn't about her. I had to, you know, glean stuff from her writing. Luckily, two of our producers knew her very well. Just hearing the stories they told about her that were kind of always like a dream. Amazing. She did something difficult and was causing problems, and at the end did something where you can't say it's not funny. She just always did something that was so bombastic and truly funny to me.
And then just how much she resisted people and how inflexible she was. At the worst point in her life, when she really was not surviving, certainly not thriving, she was about to lose her apartment, she was on welfare, she still could not be flexible. She couldn't just go out and get another job. She couldn't be anyone other than who she was. I kind of love her for the fact that she was like, 'Why do I have to be, why can't I just write? Why do I have to be dazzling? Can't I just do what I do?'
She's forging. She's impersonating other people. It's analogous to acting, in a way.
McCarthy: Totally. And it was really shortly before we start shooting I was like, 'She's such a different energy than me. She's so inward and protective.' Even all the other complicated, flawed women I've played, their defense mechanisms have been "distract." Like loud, showy, bombastic, different. And hers was almost, 'If I sit here still long enough, you'll probably go away.' It was a very different energy.
At first I was like, 'Oh it's such an interesting fun challenge to play so different.' And then I was struck suddenly by like, we're running exactly parallel lives. We're so similar. Other than my family, probably what means the most to me is my work, and the work meant everything to Lee.
I don't know if it's cowardly or what -- but I'm a character actress. I have to work through other people. I don't want to play me. I wouldn't know what to do. I would be so weird and awkward. I wouldn't even know how to approach it. But through someone else, I have a much more definite [idea]: I know how they walk in a room. I know what they order. I know what they say. I know how they look at someone. Suddenly it all becomes very clear. Right or wrong. I feel like I know it.
And then I thought: Well, Lee did not want to write her memoir. She did not want to play the game. She didn't want to be the celebrity author. She didn't want any of the light on her, she wanted it on her writing, which she really could only do through someone else. We both put up these veils of someone else, and then we can do our work. If it's just on us we're like, errr. All of a sudden, I was like, I think we're much more alike than I initially thought. I don't know if it's cowardly or if it's a device. But I thought that was certainly an interesting thing to realize before you start shooting that you're not playing your opposite so much.
You seem lovely in person, but you're so good at insults on screen.
It's true! But Lee does that as well. I wrote down her Tom Clancy burn: "Oh, to be a white male who doesn't know he's full of crap."
McCarthy: When I read that line I literally was like: Gahhhhhh. I can't wait to say it. While we were shooting it I was like don't want the line so much that you rush it. You just felt like, 'I can't wait to say that line.'
What do you like about spouting insults?
McCarthy: Because it's not what you usually do. To be able to play someone that says, 'I think it, I say it.' There's a cathartic quality to it that is really therapeutic and kind of fantastic. Even if you would be like, 'Don't say that!' when you know you're thinking it too, and there's that person that lets it fly, there is something super powerful and remarkable about it. Because that person, usually, truly does not care what they get back. It's like, 'I'm not requiring you to tell me if I'm likable or you like me. I really don't care. Here's what I think.' And they just let loose. There's a renegade quality to that that I find like wildly exciting.
There's really no soft core under her--
McCarthy: Well, I think she did. I don't think it was all bluster. I think she really was very smart, very witty, and thought most people were idiots. I do truly think that. I also think there's a version where she still wanted people in her life and someone to actually see her. I think when she met Jack they were both pretty desperate and isolated and very lonely. I think they were both at such a low point that they just needed somebody to see them to see who they really were -- bumps, bruises, good, bad, ugly -- and to really know, 'I know what I'm looking at, and I'm still OK with that.' I think that's a tether to all things human. That everybody needs somebody to see them for who they really are.
You mentioned earlier that the movie brought you back to the New York you knew. Was there a specific moment?
McCarthy: What's funny is it wasn't a big scene. There are so many scenes that mean so much, but that feeling for New York: We were over by Zabar's. I was walking down the street, walking into the subway. It's like an in between thing and I had headphones on. I had a cassette, and Mari[elle Heller] put a Blossom Dearie tape in my headset. So I was walking around on the Upper West Side. Nobody looked at me, which is, you know, good and bad. It's something I've lost quite a bit of. I can't always just wander. I loved to walk around and just people watch and wander. It's a little trickier now. I can't always just do that.
As Lee, nobody looked twice at me. I had Blossom Dearie on. It was nighttime. We were in Manhattan and, because of how we were shooting, nobody had a cell phone. Nobody was looking down. I got really overwhelmed. I got super overwhelmed and really sentimental. And Mari's like, 'Is everything OK?' I was like, 'Oh my god, I'm so sorry.' First of all, this seems super weird that I got really choked up. I don't know what it was. I think it was a cumulative effect, and I just thought, I felt exactly how I did about New York. Every day I woke up when I lived here, I can't believe I live here. I never lost that feeling, and it just came back, like rushing back to me. I will forever be grateful for that.
I have a quick question before we wrap up: Miss Y?
McCarthy: I grew up as Missy and when I went to college I changed to Melissa because apparently I thought that's what you did. Somebody I knew who was very eccentric -- somebody [else] I knew for a long time called me Missy in front of her, and she was like, "I can't tolerate Missy. I will call you Miss Y." And weirdly that stuck. I was Miss Y for the rest of college. I was like, 'Really? That's sticking?'
That was your nickname in college?
McCarthy: That and Sugarcube. Sugarcube because I looked like Bjork. I had exactly her hair and dressed like her. It was either Sugarcube or Miss Y.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.