Fox Searchlight Pictures releases Can You Ever Forgive Me? in select theaters on October 19th, 2018.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you decide to do a more dramatic role after being in so many comedies?
Melissa McCarthy: I didn’t pick it or fall in love with it for any different reason that I do everything else that 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, [my husband], was originally doing it. He had the part first when it was in its original incarnation which fell apart as movies do. I read it because he was doing the part that he ended up playing. 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. 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!” 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?”
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you find the courage to leave the farm to move to the big city?
MM: 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. And then I saw Chicago during my teens and all I could think about was being in the city. I moved to New York never having been there. I was never on a plane until I was 19.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like for you when you first moved to New York City at the beginning of your career?
MM: I don't know if I ever thought of what being an actress was. I don't know exactly what I thought I was going to do because I didn't quite have a thing to conjure. I know when I 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. I finally met with a manager, and I was so excited. I met with her in her studio apartment, and then she was like, “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. 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. I just remember her saying, “You’ll never work like that." and 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, but now, at 48, I'm so glad I said it. It was probably just a fluke, but I remember 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 ya later!" I think 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."
NYC MOVIE GURU: To what extent could you relate to Lee Israel?
MM: I’ve had up to 30 cats 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. 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. Energy-wise and social-wise, Lee is very different from me. But I also think like Michelle Darnell’s, [my character in The Boss], harshness was also so abrupt and a different energy. It’s fist-forward for her. It’s funny, I kind of see similarities between them: shove first before you’re shoved. But 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.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you manage to portray Lee Israel's heart, mind and soul so palpably?
MM: There was a lot of trial and error that went into 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 kind of 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.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How much did you know about Lee before playing her?
MM: I didn’t know her story. It bothered me that I didn’t. I felt like I should've. 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. It’s not like she’s smuggling drugs--it is for literary forgery. Everyone is always kind of like, “Is it that bad?” It’s a crime. She’s grifting people for sure. 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.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you view Lee’s views on talent and the limitations of talent versus the business side of it?
MM: 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. And to suddenly be told that you were no longer valid, that 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 to 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. 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 and 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? The thought that 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 kind of like, “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 experience has become outdated. I find that very odd.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What did you learn about the dark era of New York that Can You Ever Forgive Me? take place in?
MM: Well, 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 loved it. 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. So 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. I think that this is a really great glimpse into what it’s really like to live in New York and to 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. 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, Marielle Heller, 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 thatwere 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.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think of her relationship with Jack?
MM: I think at the time, the 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 ways to go, but it was certainly not as accepted as it is now. In my heart, it’s not something I 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 and 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 collide into each other and it worked. It was a piece of the pie, for sure.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think that Lee would've been a great fiction writer?
AF: We love to categorize people. List and categorize and who did what. Top five of a certain thing. I thought so many times, "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 for 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’m much more assertive, or vulnerable, or powerful, when I get to wear the cloak of someone else. I feel like 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 kind of shield her. She was at her best standing behind someone else.
NYC MOVIE GURU: If Lee Israel were still alive today, what questions would you ask her? What would you tell her if she asked for advice on how to be happier?
MM: Oh my God! (laughs) First of all, she wouldn’t. She would probably tell me to stop talking. I’ve often said, “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. They 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. 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.