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Melissa McCarthy Shows Another Side of Her Talents with Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Updated: Feb 17, 2020

Melissa McCarthy at the New York Press Day for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” October 13, 2018 at the Whitby Hotel. Photo by Brad Balfour.

Melissa McCarthy

Shows Another Side of Her Talents with Can You Ever Forgive Me?

by Jay S. Jacobs

Melissa McCarthy is mostly known for playing broad comic roles, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that she decided to take on the dramatic real-life story of Lee Israel. Israel was a fairly popular biographer in the 1970s, writing about old-time show-biz types like Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead and Fanny Brice. However, by the time that the 1990s rolled around, the prickly writer’s career was pretty much at a standstill. In a desperate attempt to survive and fight off homelessness, she took on a sidelight as a literary forger – making very realistic fake versions of letters and correspondences by literary and show business stars and selling them as authentic.

Israel used all of her writing skills on this sham, thoroughly researching the subjects and imitating their writing styles and cadences. She actually started making a fairly decent living on the forgeries until some customers started to question the legitimacy of the letter and eventually the FBI was on her tail. In later years she would feel very guilty about this scam, but when she was finally talked into detailing what happened in the memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?, she resurrected her career as a writer.

McCarthy first learned of Israel’s story when her actor-husband Ben Falcone was cast in an earlier incarnation of the film – which was due to star Julianne Moore and be the directing debut of co-screenwriter Nicole Holofcener. The film ended up not being made, but the script stuck with McCarthy. She finally decided if she wanted the film to be made, she would have to do it herself. Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) signed on and the film was back on track. Soon actor Richard E. Grant joined the cast as her flamboyant co-conspirator.

McCarthy was right to have faith in the project, because as Lee Israel the comic actress has received some of the best reviews of her career. There is even a strong early Oscar buzz for the performance.

A week before the film’s limited release in New York and Los Angeles – with a wide release coming a few weeks later – we were one of several media outlets who got to sit with McCarthy at the Whitby Hotel in New York to discuss the movie, Lee Israel, and McCarthy’s career.

Melissa McCarthy at the New York Press Day for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” October 13, 2018 at the Whitby Hotel. Photo by Jay S. Jacobs.

Being back in New York, does it remind you of moving there and the beginning of your career?

Yeah. I don’t even know what I thought being an actress was. I don’t know what exactly I thought I was going to do. (chuckles) I didn’t even have a thing to conjure. I know when it came to New York, I just didn’t know how to do the business side of it. I’m not upset that I just focused on the work. I just studied, and I did plays, and I studied, and I did plays. It didn’t help me survive any better, but I think it was good for learning.

Did you ever have a time when someone told you that you couldn’t do it?

I do remember I finally met with a manager, and I was so excited. I met with her in her studio apartment. Then she was like, “You’re never going to work.” I do remember her saying “You’re never going to work. You have to lose weight.” But the point of that is that I think I was like a [size] 6. (laughs) I was like a little thing and somehow in me I was just like “Well that seems crazy. That seems nuts.” Which was funny, it was before I really dealt with weight things. But, I just remember her saying, “You’ll never work like that.”

Wow, what did you do?

I was like, “I think you’re working out of your studio. Maybe you’re not the most business savvy, either.” I don’t know where that came from. Now at 48, I’m so glad I said it. It was probably just a fluke, but I remember just leaving there and being like: “I’m not going to come back and sit in your bedroom to talk about why I’m not going to work, so see you later.” (laughs again) That stopped me from looking for representation for a very long time. I was just like, I don’t know, I’ll just submit myself for plays.

Was the character of Lee Israel the farthest from you that you’ve ever played? She was unhappy. She was depressive. She liked cats more than people.

I’ve had up to 30 cats at a time.

At a time?

Yes, I know, it’s jarring. On a farm, outside. Truly, 25 to 30 cats would rush a car and it would actually scare people. It’s like a horror movie. We took in… you know, people had whole litters and nobody would adopt them. They would come out to our farm. That’s how you end up with like 30 cats outside. (laughs)

Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

What about the other aspects of her?

Energy-wise and social-wise, Lee is very different from me. I also think like Michelle Darnell’s [McCarthy’s character in The Boss] harshness was also so abrupt and a different energy. It’s fist forward for her. It’s funny, I see similarities between them; shove first before you’re shoved. Certainly, the inward quality of Lee was fascinating, and fascinating to play. Instead of always verbally responding, to know that Lee would probably just sit and watch and wait – probably hopefully for the person to leave. Just to wait someone out, because certainly, verbally she could always come up with a line and a quip, and often did. It was interesting to change that pacing and timing, and to just direct it inwards and wait someone out.

What gave you insight in regard to Lee’s mannerisms? Because you played her perfectly.

It was challenging in researching her. Initially I thought I’ll do a ton of research, watch things. True to her personality, she did not want people in her life and did not offer that up. Photos, videos. Also, it was a time before people felt the need to document every moment of their lives, so it’s just not out there. One of the few photos I found was of the back of a jacket.

How did you feel once you were done with the makeup and wardrobe to look like her?

There was a lot of trial and error to come up with that. This will probably sound crazy, I have a feeling on the inside of what it should be, but I don’t know what that is. It stays very murky. We just keep trying things. It really is like one thing will click in, and then everything else seems wrong. Or two things click in, and the first one’s wrong. It’s almost like a bit of Tetris of what will fit. But, yeah, certainly when we got everything on and the right pieces… One of my favorite things was when things didn’t fit right, where I was like, “Leave it. It shouldn’t fit. It’s 15 years old.” She’s probably not the exact same shape/size from age whatever it is. I did love that, because you don’t get that in a movie very often, where you let the bad fit ride. It always helps me, because when it all clicks in I feel like now I know the gait. Now I know how she walks. I just kept thinking of it as her armor. It was like cashmere and tweed armor, but once it got on, I did really feel the weight of her. Things were heavy, and we had things of a certain weight on me all times. I just thought she literally feels weighted.

Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Did you know anything about Lee before you got involved in the movie, and what was it about her story that intrigued you?

I didn’t know her story. It bothered me that I didn’t. I felt like I should have. I think what attracted me was… first of all, it’s a fascinating story. It’s not even the area that you expect a crime to happen. You don’t expect that type of person to end up with the FBI after them. (laughs) It’s not like she’s smuggling drugs. It is for literary forgery… Everyone is always like (imitates a shy voice) “Is it that bad?” It’s a crime. She’s grifting people for sure.

But it’s not a typical crime.

I just loved, especially now, how she did not require anyone to tell her what she was. I think we’re in a current state where people really need to have other people validate who they are. How was my vacation. Do you like me if I went to this party? They need the reflection of others to see themselves. I don’t think like that. I love that Lee just didn’t need it. She was just going to be who she was going to be, even when it made it much more difficult for her. I find that a really attractive quality. Even when it’s slightly unpleasant, I still admire it.

How do you view Lee’s feels of talent and the limitations of talent versus the business side?

It’s a very current issue, and it’s a constant issue for some. Lee was an incredible writer. That’s what she did. It was the only thing she did. To suddenly be told that you were no longer valid. You’ve come to a certain age, and you’ve become obsolete? Her writing was still good, but she was a woman of a certain age. I just think, “What do you do?” She wasn’t adaptable. She had no flexibility to go out and just get a different job, go on an interview and charm someone. That was not going to happen. We see it not happen in the film, and that was accurate to her life. She couldn’t do anything else. She wasn’t a people person, to say the least.

No, she wasn’t.

I just kept thinking, “What would any of us do if you’ve lost your one means to survive?” She was on welfare at one point. She was going to lose her apartment. She was going to be homeless. It’s not like she had a bunch of friends that were going to take her in. What would any of us do? At a certain age, instead of people being revered and thought of as “Oh my gosh. They have 30 years of experience. How amazing.” It’s now, “What about that 20-year-old?” Or “What about the person with more fun at the party?” It certainly doesn’t make them a better writer, or artist, or fill in the blanks of whatever profession you may be. It’s a strange thing that more experienced has become outdated. I find that very odd.

Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

One of the things I think the film does really beautifully is recreate a time in New York. I’m curious what you learned about that dark era of New York.

That dark era of New York was my era. I moved here at 20. I was here from 1990 to 1997, so to me it’s the most magical time. I came from a little farm town, so the grit, and people working four jobs because they wanted something, all of us. We lived three in a studio, but we had a Manhattan apartment. We did it. It all seemed magical. Like, going through Alphabet City and being like, “There’s a party on [Avenue] B, do we risk it? Yes!” Now it’s like $2 million studios, and I’m like, “What?” I don’t understand the current New York. I like it very much, but it’s not mine.

Yes, it definitely has changed.

I take maybe unreasonable ownership of those ‘90s. It was everything to me. It’s not the shiny walk through Central Park New York that you so often see in movies, that’s beautiful and I love. This is a glimpse into what it’s really like to live in New York and be a part of the city that you are tethered to in a different way. We’re not always strolling through the park. It’s the real pulse of it.

What was it like to return to that world?

I got pretty overwhelmed a couple of times, because I just thought I never would get to have that back. That New York is gone. So, Mari, being able to visually see it? Not just visually see it, because she was in California during the ‘90s. She’s a New Yorker now, but knowing what it really was and getting that feel right? For someone who wasn’t here? I said, “You found this one sliver that when I look around, I can’t see anything past ’94.”

That’s cool.

Or these book stores that were vanishing as she scouted. As she scouted, she’d call [and say] “We do want to shoot here,” and they’re like, “We’re closing in three weeks.” I mean they were dropping out. She said it was like the floor was dropping out from under her. To capture that again, and I had people that I know really well, they were here, and they were like, “That was our New York.” I think it’s also really incredible to show a different side of New York. (laughs) I hope that answers your question.

How did you leave the farm? That’s so gutsy.

I just wanted something different. We went to a Chinese restaurant, probably on the outskirts of Chicago, when I was a kid. I literally heard like theme music [in my head]! I was like: “Ohhh!” It was the most exotic thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. My dad – he’s from the south side of Chicago – he said, “We moved out to the farm to keep you out of the city, and you literally had a magnet. Once you hit a certain age, the fascination was unreasonable for Chicago.” I saw Chicago during my teens and all I could [think of was being in the city]. I moved to New York never having been there. I was never on a plane until I was 19.