Melissa McCarthy’s understated dramatic turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me? is many things, but anyone tempted to describe it as “surprising” or “transformative” simply hasn’t been paying close enough attention to the actress’s body of work. McCarthy built her film career by playing larger-than-life comedic characters, yet her turns in films like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy were never pure burlesque creations. At the heart of these outlandish women is a kernel of sadness and loneliness, one that compels them into acting out in order to avoid confronting this internal void.
As celebrity biographer turned literary forger Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy finds that same insecurity in her character and mines it for empathy rather than laughter. While different in tenor than the roles that made her one of Hollywood’s few remaining bankable stars this decade, McCarthy’s performance as a writer whose self-protective instincts lead her to disgrace is still ultimately of a piece with her recent filmography.
At a roundtable interview prior to the opening of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy discussed how her process changed to play a real person for the first time on film, as well as the challenges of portraying someone many viewers might regard as “unlikable.”
What part of this film tested you the most?
I think the play of stillness was a really fun challenge. I’ve played so many strong, challenging women that have been kind of energy-forward, with more physicality and verbal sparring. I just felt Lee was more turned inward and did a type of deflecting that was more like, “I will wait you out in hopes that you will go away,” and it usually worked. There was a stillness to this character that I found very interesting.
Were you familiar with Lee prior to filming?
I wasn’t. And I felt like I should have been. But that was my takeaway when I first read the script. I was like, “Why don’t I know who she is?”
Who gave you insight into her mannerisms?
It was challenging in the research of her. I thought, “Well, I’ll just do some research and watch things.” But true to her personality, she didn’t want people in her life, and she didn’t 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. The few photos I found were like of the back of a jacket—so, I was like, no, that’s one of few photoshoots, that’s not really Lee. It was different. Luckily, David Yarnell, one of our producers, and Anne Carey [another producer], both knew her very well. David knew her for 20 years, and he was actually the main person who poked and prodded and made her write her memoir, which she didn’t want to do. Didn’t want to write about herself, and he said, true to Lee, she was incredibly difficult about it. I believe he might have said “pain in my ass.” But she did finally write it, and Anne Carey for 10 years was trying to take her book and turn it into a film. She’d often meet with Lee, and—I find this weirdly endearing—Lee would always be there early. Said you’d show up for dinner and Lee was already there, drink in hand, dinner would finish, up Lee would go, out. Then out the bill would come, and she’d realize that Lee would have a couple of drinks before Anne got there and put it on her bill! Which I just kind of thought, yeah, that sounds like Lee.
What was it like working with Marielle Heller?
It was fantastic. Mari is one of the few people—and she would never do this—if she said, “I have something I want you to do, but you can’t read it,” I’d be like, “Okay.” Which isn’t something I’ve ever said before. It was comforting to know she was in charge. She knew the tone. With the crew, with everyone, we really looked to her to lead us in the greatest way. But she did it with such a light touch. It was never as if there’s a way we’re going to do things today, and it will not change. Something comes up, something happens in a scene, when it organically changes, she was always right with it. Or this little part feels odd, there was always just absolute certainty that we would work through it, and it was never a big deal. When someone is there to guide you and listen to you, I feel like everyone—us as actors, every department—rises up and does their best work. Because you’re just all there to contribute and make this little thing, as opposed to someone judge you or say it’s my way or the highway.
After she was arrested, Lee mentioned the forgeries were her best work. Did she not take her work at Esquire as an accomplishment?
I think she was very proud of all her work. What I found interesting was as she was being convicted—remarkable timing to say what she said—I love that she was like, “I see there’s a crime, I’m admitting that, but I will not take down the work.” All the more she was proud of it. She’s like, “I will not say that the work wasn’t good. The work was great.” And I loved her for that. She took the punishment, she was on house arrest, but I loved that she had to get that last little thing in that it was good. She wouldn’t let that be diminished.
There’s something a little perverse about the way that, in embracing these fabrications, Lee does her best work. Do you feel any connection to her as an actor, in the sense that you have to play pretend in order to provide something truthful and authentic about reality?
I feel like we were on very, very similar paths in terms of what we do. I don’t want to play someone like myself. I would be very uncomfortable. I don’t know what to do as myself. I don’t know where to put my hands in a picture! As a character, strangely, I have no hesitation on how and when I do something. It gives me a lot more courage than I do in my normal life. I thought, I don’t know how far into it, but Lee and I do the exact same thing, which is why she didn’t want to write about herself and was so difficult about it. She lived through other people. She was a great writer when she could write through someone else’s voice. Turns out, she was a great writer either way, but the safety net of standing behind someone. I really relate to that. We picked different ways to do it, but we did a very similar thing.
Did you find the character through certain things like the hair and attire?
It’s all of those little things. I certainly connect to a character first from reading it, and then looking into who she really was; this is the first time I’m playing a real person. That was mostly through her writing, but then I feel like I have to take care of the exterior or I can’t do the first thing to quite an extreme. It’s a bit of a game of Tetris. I do so much work with hair, makeup, and wardrobe, and we had such amazing people at the helm of all those. “I thought she should dress like an Italian” was my weird initial thought. It should be a small closet but very well-made quality pieces, and she probably hasn’t shopped for anything new in 15-to-18 years. So, at one point, she probably had a tailor and her pants/jackets made. She had three cashmere sweaters, but they needed a lot of wear because she’s been re-wearing these things for a while. Once we got all of that—I said utilitarian, comfortable—and then when things didn’t fit right, because we wore some vintage pieces, I was like, “We can’t tailor it, we can’t fix it for me.” Because, I don’t know about everybody, but if you’re wearing pants from 15 years ago, they might not fit great. And I love that when things didn’t fit right, we let it ride. The whole palette of the film could easily have been the costume shop and hair, wigs and makeup, but it just all seemed to sit down in it.
It was nice to see your husband in the film.
I took it from him! I don’t know if I mentioned that he had the part first? He had the film first, it was getting put together a few years earlier, and for any million reasons that films don’t work out, this one didn’t. He had it first, which is where I read it—because we read each other’s things. He brought it home, and I was like, “Oh, I love Nicole Holofcener, I can’t wait to read it!” But then I came back out with probably an inappropriate amount of, “This is amazing!” It really was. There’s an economy to her writing—she wrote it with Jeff [Whitty]—there’s not a line that’s not necessary, not a moment where you think maybe that will get cut out. These two people I’m so enamored with I should not be rooting for, and I thought, what a peculiar balance to hit to be rooting for these two characters that are grifting people and are not typical heroes.
Then the movie didn’t work out, it wasn’t happening, and I couldn’t let it go. And it was not my project to be so strangely obsessed with! But three weeks would go by, and Ben [Falcone, McCarthy’s husband] is talking about something else, and I was like, “You know, somebody should make it!” He’s like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I was like, “I’m talking about the movie, sorry.” He’s like, “Not on topic, we were talking about a completely different thing.” Another week or two would go by, I was like, “I want to see that movie.” He’s like, “We don’t have the rights to this movie! I can’t do anything about that.” I could not get off that topic, and then I started saying, “Could I play Lee? I feel strangely connected to her, I really think I have a gut for her.” And then we started putting that together, Mari and I met, and it just all seemed to be lovely. I wormed my way into Ben’s movie!
How important was it for you to get the queer aspect of Lee’s identity right?
It’s very much a part of her personality and a bit of a heartbreak in watching it that she couldn’t just connect, that it was so difficult for her. The fact that she went to Julius [New York’s oldest gay bar] in the early ‘90s, I thought, was very telling of maybe how uncomfortable she was. Early ‘90s, gay men and lesbians did not intermingle. I was at Julius in those days, because I went with all my friends, and I think Lee went there to not be seen. She was not going to be bothered. She could still go somewhere where there was a bit of safety in the company. It was another way for her to shield herself.
Toward 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 about the invisibility of people. And I don’t think we’re there yet by any stretch, but the fact that people now don’t have to shield and cloak themselves so much is a very good thing to be reminded of. Not that long ago, you did. Many places have to now. I loved that it was just a part of who they were without being a topic of the story. We need to see more of that.
Lee is someone on the opposite side of the fence as you, a celebrity chaser. Did an antagonistic relationship come into play at all in your portrayal?
Not so much the celebrity, though I found it interesting, her valid and true point about “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 that too. Why can’t everyone do their jobs and not be a show pony? I think there’s an element [of that that] I totally identify with. She didn’t want to play the game, which I respected so much. I wish that was a little more fashionable now.
You shot the film around the same time that you were playing Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live. Did that help you get into the mindset of someone who can justify all the lies they tell?
Oh, Lord! I would shoot that on some weekends, so I felt like I was living in slightly opposing worlds. No, because Lee is someone I found engaging, and I wanted to look at the heart of why she did troubling things. I think my job with [Spicer] was just to hold the mirror up. I wasn’t examining him. Even when I did him, I said we must always use his words. I don’t want to make fun, I don’t want to make things up, I just want to hold the mirror and let his own words reflect back—because they’re crazy enough. It was very different worlds.
What do you want people to take away from the movie?
I hope people will think about seeing the invisible people that are all around them all the time. Lee and Jack were just people that no one looked at. No one passed Lee and thought, “I wonder if she’s remarkable, I wonder if she’s a better writer and smarter and funnier than anyone I know in my life.” She just became invisible. Jack was homeless when they met, and how many people do we pass a day that we don’t even look at? Especially now, we’re all so busy staring at what other people are doing. I hope people look up and see people.