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.
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.”
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.
What did you bring with? Did you just have a few hundred bucks?
No, I had $35 when I landed at LaGuardia, which was not the smartest move. I mean, thank God it was based on no good thinking. I never would have [gone]. I mean, if I thought it out, I would have [never gone]. I just showed up, and I thought, “Well, this should be easy.” Then I was like “What am I doing? Oh my God, I have no money.” We were eating… like I was sharing a bagel a day with somebody. And then you started collecting jobs.
Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
What do you think of her relationship with Jack? She was a lesbian and he was obviously gay.
I think at the time, early ‘90s, it was a difficult time. Certainly, the AIDS epidemic was. People were not rushing out to acknowledge this group and help this group. We still have a way to go, but it was certainly not as accepted as it was now. In my heart, it’s not something they ever really [thought about]. It was just two people who were on the outside. It was one more slice of the pie of their loneliness. Their isolation. They were both kind of desperate. I think that they both were people who probably could not go back to their families. It was just one more element to why these two very unlikely people floated… I mean, collided… into each other and it worked. It was a piece of the pie, for sure.
When I was watching the film, I was thinking she could have been a great fiction writer, but she was sort of locked into this idea that she was a biographer.
We love to categorize people. List and categorize and who did what. Top five of a certain thing. I agree with you. I thought so many times about, boy, I’d love to have just heard her roll out a fictional story. It would have been so funny and [have had] a bite to it, I’m sure. I also think she didn’t want to venture [out]. This is my opinion, I think I run a parallel to Lee. I love what I do because I do it via someone else. Maybe it’s the coward’s way. I don’t want to play a person that is really similar to myself. I don’t know how to do it. I actually don’t think I really have the skills to in the scene figure out what I would do. I’m tripping and falling on my own, but through someone else. I feel like I’m much more assertive, or vulnerable, or powerful, when I get to wear the cloak of someone else. I feel that Lee did the same exact thing. I feel like we really had the same ability to channel through people. So, her doing biographies was her way of always having someone shield her.
And in her forgeries.
For sure. It’s the same thing. She was at her best standing behind someone else.
In a weird way, she took pride in them.
I think she was very proud of all of her work. I found it interesting as she was being convicted, she said there’s a crime, I’m admitting that, [but] I will not take down the work. I will not say the work wasn’t good. The work was great. She took the punishment. She was under house arrest. But, she had to get that last word in; it was good. She wouldn’t let that be diminished.
After so many comedies, why did you want to go deeper and more emotional in this film?
I didn’t pick it, or fall in love with it, for any different reason than I do everything else I do. I loved the character of Lee, and the story. When I first read the script, I thought this is just something that doesn’t come around. When I first read it… you know, Ben [Falcone, her husband] was originally doing it. He had the part first when it was in its original incarnation [which was to star Julianne Moore], which fell apart for… who knows?… as movies do. I read it because he was doing the part that he ended up playing [as one of the sketchier collectible store owners]. I read the script, and I came out and I said, “This is unbelievable.” I read it in record time. I said, “I don’t know why, I think I love this woman.” With no [expectation of playing her], it was up and going with other people. I said, “She shouldn’t be so endearing, and she is.” I just kept talking about it. When it didn’t work out, I couldn’t let it go.
So, what did you do?
I wasn’t even thinking about it for me. I just actually personally wanted to see the movie. I felt: well, somebody has to do that. It’s too good and she’s fascinating. Who is going to do it? And [Ben] was like “I don’t know! It’s not ours. We don’t own the rights to it.” Three weeks would go by again and I’d be like, “Well somebody should just do it! Those scripts aren’t growing on trees.” He said, “Once again, I don’t have the script.” And I’d go like, “No, no, no, I get it. I get it. I get it.” Two weeks later, he would be talking about something completely different, and I was like “I just think Lee…” And he would say, “Oh my God, let it go!”
It was like a broken record.
It was. I just could not get her or the story out of my head. It really bothered me that maybe her story wasn’t going to be told. So, I wormed my way into Ben’s movie. Finally, I was just like, “I feel like I have a connection to her. That doesn’t happen very often.” Then I asked, “What about me?”
Director Marielle Heller and Melissa McCarthy on the set of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
When you said yes, it was green-lit then?
Then we started putting it together. Yeah, once I was like, “I definitely want to play Lee,” then Mari came in immediately. It was like we almost came in at the same time. We met, and we just had the same gut feeling about the tone and how we wanted to tell it and about Lee. Then it all came together very quickly.
So, you don’t worry about risk then? Like if I do this movie and it’s a little different people may not go to see it?
No, I just think the story is great. That part of the whole machine is never what I’m [thinking about]. Anytime I take something, regardless of how it does or how it plays, I always just think I love that story. I always have been lucky enough (knocks on table) to thus far love the people I’ve played. Once I really lock onto a person, I feel like… this sounds crazy, I feel responsible to tell their story, so that’s really my only purpose.
What was it like working with Marielle? What was the process like?
It was fantastic. Mari is one of the few people – and she would never do this – but if she said she had something for me, but I couldn’t read it ahead of time, I’d still say okay. That is not something I have ever said before. There was a great comforting sense that you knew who was in charge. She had a great tone with the crew and everyone involved. They looked to her to lead us in the greatest way. She did it with such a light touch. She never said, “This is the way we’re going to do things today and it will not change.” Something comes up, something happens in a scene or organically changes, she’s okay with it. Or if something felt a little bit odd, there was this absolute certainty we would work through it. When someone is there to guide you, but also listen to you, it was very collaborative. Everyone, us as actors, every department, rises up to do their best work because we all contribute to make this thing as opposed to having someone say, “it’s my way or the highway.”
If Lee were still alive today what would you ask her, and what would tell her if she asked for advice to be happier?
Oh my God! (laughs) First of all, she wouldn’t. She would probably tell me to stop talking. I’ve often thought, “I wonder how annoyed Lee would be with me,” because I would ask her a lot of questions. I would have loved to have met her. There are so many stories from David Yarnell and Anne Carey, who produced us, who knew Lee. Knew her for many, many years. David knew her for 20 years. He’s actually the reason that she wrote the memoir, which he says she was such a pain in the butt about. (laughs again) She just wouldn’t write it. Did not want to write about herself. Did not want to do that. He kept saying, “Write the book. Write the book.” [She said,] “I don’t want to write the book!” Like he said, “As in Lee’s fashion, everything about it was difficult.” Then she finally wrote it and it was a great thing for her. But he goes, “It took a long time.” Anne Carey knew her for 10 years. That’s who I got all my Lee stories from.
Do you feel this is the best performance you have ever done?
Oh, I don’t know. I have no ability to judge that.
People are saying that.
Well, that’s nice.
They are talking about an Oscar nomination.
Oh, that’s all like bananas. I certainly loved every minute of doing it. There was a very solid feeling of the whole world. Like, Richard E. Grant, I just felt like everything about what he did when we were in those scenes [was fantastic]. And with Dolly Wells. Every person that came into this little movie, I just felt like we were all drop dead [on point]… It felt different. It just felt like we were in this little bubble floating through Manhattan and getting away with something, or existing in some kind of alternate universe. But, God, I’d never want to start ranking. I’d go insane.
What’s a great Sunday for you?
Oh my God, I want to be home with my kids. I hope I’m in pajamas until like a weird [hour]. I want to hit past noon. Drink too much coffee and chase my kids and my dogs.
What about the Irish mobster film you have coming up?
Oh, The Kitchen. Yeah, [written and directed by] Andrea Perloff. We shot that, again in New York City, 1970s Hell’s Kitchen. Tiffany Haddish, myself, and Elisabeth Moss play three – two wives, one girlfriend – of Irish mobsters that get put in jail. Then we can’t sustain ourselves. They’re not giving us our cut. So, we take over the mob and become much more violent and more successful than our husbands were.
Could this be called Bloody Mamas?
I hope not. (laughs) It’s brutal. It’s definitely a drama. It’s a straight up gangster movie. I love it. It’s Andrea’s first time directing, which was really exciting and she’s awesome. She’s awesome.
I still watch Gilmore Girls – it’s like comfort food.
Thank you. It was such a sweet show. My daughters just watched their first episodes.
What was that like?
They said, “Oh my God, you’re so young.” They were shocked. They asked, “What’s the matter with your face?” I said, “It’s called youth.”
Are they going to see this movie? Are they ready for it?
Yes, parts of it. I always watch with language and stuff like that with them, but I think so, they love Richard. They’re over the moon for him.
Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
What was it like working with Richard?
Very difficult. Awful. It’s all a sham. (laughs) No, he’s constantly as charming as he seems. It was just fun. He’s attentive and a remarkable actor. We shot this film in 28 days, which seems fairly insane. We both worked similarly. We both showed up, we knew what we were going to do. He’s a tremendous listener. Just the most receptive. He’s like that as a person. When you talk to him about anything, he’s all in. He’s one of the most present fellows I ever met. Each scene, it was like the lights went out around us and we were just singular. What a dreamy situation to have with someone you’re working with. We met on Friday and were shooting on Monday. If it didn’t work it was going to be tricky, but in seven seconds I knew it would be great.
What do you want audiences to take from this film? Crime does pay?
I’m hoping that’s not the takeaway, although it makes me giggle. For me, I hope people will think about seeing the invisible people that are around them all the time. Lee and Jack were just people that no one looked at. No one passed by Lee and thought “I wonder if she’s remarkable? I wonder if she’s smarter or funnier than anyone in my life?” They were just invisible. Jack was homeless when they met. How many people do we pass each day that we don’t even look at? Especially today, we’re all so busy staring at what other people are doing, I hope that people look up and actually see people.
This film is a sorta love story between two queer people in New York. How did you portray that and what do you hope a modern audience takes away from that?
It was very much a part of her personality, and a heartbreak watching it, that she just couldn’t connect. The fact that she went to Julius’ in the early ‘90s was very telling of how uncomfortable she was. In the early ‘90s gay men and lesbians didn’t intermingle. I was at Julius’ in those days with my friends and it was not a place to be seen. I think Lee went there, she would not be bothered. She could still go somewhere where there was a bit of safety in the company, but she would not be bothered. It was another way for her to shield herself. Towards the end when Jack is clearly losing his battle with AIDs, at that point in New York City, epidemic isn’t even a big enough word. It plays back into what I was saying before about the invisibility of people. I don’t think we’re there yet by any stretch, but I think [the fact] that people now don’t have to shield themselves and cloak themselves is a very good thing to be reminded of. Not that long ago you did. You still do in many places now. I love that it was part of who they were without being the topic to the story.
Dotty Wells and Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
I thought it interesting that her gayness was played up very matter of factly, not as a cornerstone of her. How was it to make that aspect so casual?
It made nothing but sense to me. It’s a part of who you are. It’s integrated into your being from the beginning. It shouldn’t be like this separate entity that’s added on, you picked up along the way. I love the history in that scene with Anna [Dolly Wells’ character], because there was a lovely possibility between them and you almost see Lee at her best. Every time I see that scene with Lee right outside the restaurant I think it could work out. Then, when you see her with Anna [Deavere Smith] in that park scene you see someone that knows her well and isn’t so charmed by her. I think the reality of both those situations of who you are and who you have been and seeing past loves that truly know you and aren’t so taken by you, it feels real rather than presented.
Was it on your mind that this person is on the opposite end of the spectrum from a celebrity?
Not so much the celebrity, although I found it very interesting, valid and true point. [She was like] why can’t I just write? Why do I have to sing and dance and be sparkly at a party? Why can’t you just look at my writing? I believe in it too. Why can’t people just do their jobs and not also be a show pony? There’s an element I totally identify with that. She doesn’t want to play the game and I respect that. I wish that was a little bit more fashionable now.
Did it help that you were playing Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live, also playing a person constantly trying to justify lies?
I was doing that on weekends. Oh lord. I’d come back and feel like I was in opposing worlds. So, no, because Lee is someone I found engaging and wanted to look at the heart of why she did troubling things. Whereas with the other one I was just holding the mirror up. I wasn’t examining him. I said we must always use his words. I don’t want to make things up. I just want to hold up the mirror and have his own words reflect back, because they’re crazy enough. It was a very different world.