Melissa McCarthy landed an Oscar nomination for her breakout turn in Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids, which started a string of comedy blockbusters for the pair. Now she’s back in the conversation with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which may be considered one of her first dramatic turns, but only to those who have failed to catch the deftness of her talent on display even in the most outrageous comedies. She plays Lee Israel, a respected biographer struggling to pay the bills who turns to a new form of writing: meticulously forging letters from famous writers like Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward for $400 a pop to pay rent and medicine for her sick cat, until her scheme unravels and the FBI is knocking at her door. Whether comedy or drama, McCarthy explains why it’s all the same to her, and allowed her to frame a picture perfect performance based on the actress’ obsession with the defense mechanisms of flawed people.
You play Lee Israel as an ornery, hard-to-like woman with a total lack of vanity. But you make it hard to walk way without some sympathy for her.
Well, I just loved her. From probably 20-some pages into the script, when I didn’t even exactly have a tangible reason for why I liked her so much, I saw myself rooting for her. I realize she hasn’t really done anything that I should be rooting for. But I loved the thought of someone who just doesn’t need to be validated. It didn’t make things easier for her at all, being caustic and tricky, but I thought especially in today’s world where everybody needs so much validation from other people on social media, I just loved the thought of Lee being like, “I don’t need you to like me, I don’t even really want you to like me.” It’s an amazing way to go through the world. And I thought she was so talented. There were turns of phrase she would use in some of the letters that I just thought, god she’s good and yet she’s being told she was obsolete, and, we don’t need you to do what you do best anymore. What would any of us do in that situation, if you can’t survive?
It becomes clear that, as hard as she pushed people away, she did also have the need to be liked and validated.
Yeah, so it’s a defense mechanism. I always look for that in characters, and probably in people. You can be a people pleaser, or you can be like Lee, who I think was intensely lonely. That’s why she and Jack [the accomplice who sold her forgeries, played by Richard E. Grant] became such unlikely friends. They are invisible, lonely people that just needed somebody else to see them. But she spent so much of her time pushing people away, it’s quite a push and pull.
She died in 2014. Were you able to find out what was at the core of her bitterness?
I could only conjure what I thought it was for her. Being so talented, and wanting to just let her writing stand for her. She didn’t want to become this show pony, a celebrity writer. She thought, “Why can’t my writing just be good? Why do I have to tap dance behind the book?” It infuriated her because it was not a skill that she had. I am sure if she could have, she would have done it. It would have made her life much easier. But she couldn’t make it easier for herself. She knew how good she was, she had no qualms about saying her writing was good. But she just couldn’t get along with people.
How did you find the handle to play her?
I started by reading everything I could, but while Lee was a great biography writer who could live through other people, she didn’t put herself into her book. She didn’t want people to know about her, so I was learning what a good writer she was, but I wasn’t learning about her. I got very lucky with two of our producers, David Yarnell and Anne Carey. Anne knew Lee very well for 10 years, and David knew her for 40 years. He’s the big reason she finally wrote her autobiography. Listening to their stories about Lee was incredibly helpful to me. And there was a wonderful character written into that script. Between all of that, I felt like I certainly knew how I wanted to play her and how she cocooned herself, I suppose, to protect herself. Which it really didn’t; it made her life much more difficult.
The whole market for letters by famous writers seemed very sketchy. Lee committed felonies by forging these letters, but did you view her crimes as worthy of jail time?
Me? I’d let Lee walk in a minute. In terms of all the terrible, hurtful things you can do in the world, I don’t think this even gets put on the list. I do realize it was wrong, but I still think, god, those letters were good. I’m a little biased because I kind of fell in love with Lee along the way. I wouldn’t have even put her on house arrest. But maybe it’s good that they did, because she probably wrote more because of it.
It’s funny, before we started shooting I had an epiphany of sorts. Initially I was thinking maybe she interests me so much because we’re so different. I’m much more forward, I am energy out, chattier, much more likely to strike up a conversation with somebody. I thought, boy she’s kind of an armadillo, just curling up and hoping people go away. And then something hit me. She was able to do those letters because she was better living through other people. She could be anybody she wanted to be and she did it well, but she did it as someone else. I realized, I do the same thing. I feel more comfortable living through other people. I feel a little braver, a little smarter, I’m more willing to be vulnerable through other people in my work, and I think that’s how she did it. She wouldn’t showboat as herself, but she could do it through other people.
Do you think there was a part of her that wanted to be caught; to be recognized for the quality of her work?
I think for sure. Getting caught and knowing that people knew those letters that everyone made such a fuss over were hers, I would do a pretty solid bet that she was pretty pleased with that.
Did you get any of her forgeries?
I’m still trying, still looking for one. I want one really badly. I’m still trying to figure out how I find one and where are they and who has them. I’d love to have one. I haven’t been able to figure out yet who actually has them, and then just as a point of interest, I’m also so curious to know what they’re worth. Wouldn’t Lee get a kick out of this, if her Dorothy Parker is perhaps worth more than a real Dorothy Parker? I just wonder.
Paul Feig said that when he was looking for your character in Bridesmaids, Kristin Wiig and others suggested you and said that when you appeared on Groundlings shows, there were lines around the block. You show the same commitment here in a dramatic role as someone like Robin Williams, who was able to bounce off the walls with electric comic wit, but disappeared into dramatic roles too. Why do comics often do so well in drama?
Well, I don’t know [about that comparison]… To me, the key is it’s not any different. I’ve done so much stage work that was dramatic. It’s still the same process. I’m a character actress. I connect to the character, and when you do that, all you can do is serve the character. It dictates everything; how they look, how they laugh, who they love. You start to completely think only in those terms from the character out; even when the character’s not a real person, you end up defending this character as though it is a real person. It’s the Tootsie scene where Dustin Hoffman is arguing with Sydney Pollack about playing a tomato. You get so wrapped up in the character. And you do that for a comedy, or a drama. It doesn’t change. I think in a good comedy there are always moments of heartbreak when you watch the character fall down. You’ve always got to let your characters fall, so you can watch them get back up.
So is your preparation for Can You Ever Forgive Me? any different from, say, Tammy, where you also play a dishonest con woman?
No. It’s the same, the same exact process. I still just think, what would she do? For Tammy, it was a woman who is not trying in her life at all, and her defense mechanism may be more similar to mine than other characters. There, it was to be aggressive, and just punch first before somebody could hurt her verbally or physically. I always have a real interest in people’s defense mechanisms. We all have them, we all do these things. It’s what interests me in people, and people that we love. We all have friends that seem crazy, but they’re great. They’ve been friends for 20 years and we love them because of their flaws. I don’t know or have any friends that are perfect, and I don’t have anyone in my family that’s perfect. I really love people’s idiosyncrasies and flaws and quirks. It is what makes us love people. Even in spite of how crazy or irritating they might be. The pathos is the same, regardless of the genre.
Didn’t this character—the felon who’s flawed—used to be played by men? Maybe I’m generalizing.
No. I think you’re right. I’ve been lucky. I’ve played challenging women in ways that people are not used to seeing. You’re supposed to be cleaned up and perfect and pleasant and I don’t really know how to play pleasant. If they say, “Play blonde,” I can change my hair color, but I don’t understand the rest. Even Identity Thief, when I did that movie, the role was originally written for a man. I was always reading scripts going, “Well, I don’t know how to play the female part, she has no point of view. But this part? That interests me.”
It’s why I write a lot of my own stuff. I get asked, “Why are they always so aggressive or unlikeable?” or whatever the adjective may be and I think, well that’s what real people are. I have no interest in playing beige. It’s not fun to play and I don’t think it’s very fun to watch. If you want to tell a good story you’ve got to love the character at one moment. Sometimes you’re going to hate them, and sometimes you root for them, and sometimes not. It is all those complicated things that make it worthwhile.
But you’re right. And it is changing, inch by inch [for women]. We’re certainly not over the hump, but more women are demanding, “Give me more character, give me something relatable to play.”
You know, when I referred to your turn as a comedic con artist, I was thinking of Identity Thief.
Well, no, in Tammy, I stole, too. I stuck up a fast food restaurant in Tammy. So maybe I’ve played lots more criminals than I thought. I’m a criminal at heart, maybe.