Melissa McCarthy’s move away from comedy has paid off with an Oscar nomination for her role as a real-life fraudster, writes Laura Harding.
Think of law-skirting, anti-social antiheroes in film and it is unlikely you would think of a woman. Perhaps even less likely you would think of Melissa McCarthy, who first charmed audiences as the sweet Sookie St James in Gilmore Girls and then shot to global fame as the breakout star of the comedy Bridesmaids, followed by lead roles in The Heat, Spy and The Boss.
But McCarthy, 48, could change all that with her new film Can You Ever Forgive Me?.
The movie is a biopic of the celebrity biographer Lee Israel, who turned her hand to forging letters purporting to be from the famous people she admired when her own books fell out of favour.
“I think people love to categorise and say, ‘You did this, you did that’,” she reflects, “but for me there is absolutely no difference in how I read a script, why I read it, what I feel about it.
“I just look to the story and I look to the character, and what kind of tone the movie takes on is really secondary.
“I’ve done so much drama — not that many people have seen it, it was mostly on stage — but I think it somehow makes it more digestible to people to know what box you’re in. I am never a big fan of putting people in boxes.”
And taking a turn for the dramatic is already paying off for McCarthy. The part has landed her a best actress Oscar nomination, seven years after her supporting nod for Bridesmaids, as well as nods at the Baftas, Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards.
Indeed, McCarthy fell in love with Israel straight away, captivated by her fall from a best-selling author of biographies of screen stars Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen to persona non grata in the age of celebrity authors.
Desperate for money and furious her gifts were being overlooked, she started forging correspondence from the likes of Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Noel Coward and Louise Brooks and selling the letters to dealers.
McCarthy said: “I loved the fact that I found myself so rooting for her although she wasn’t doing anything that was necessarily admirable.
“I didn’t know why I liked her so much, it was a very confusing, wonderful spot to find yourself in when you’re reading a script, to be like, ‘I’m completely enamoured with her and yet I don’t know why’.
“It reminded me of that thing in life, where you’re like, ‘They are kind of a handful but I love them’.”
McCarthy says she sees aspects of Israel that you don’t often see in female characters.
“She’s not all shined up and floating through life making everything wonderful. She kind of storms in and leaves a path of destruction.”
McCarthy particularly revelled in Israel’s razor-sharp tongue and caustic turn of phrase.
One line she relished was Israel lamenting: “Oh to be a white male who doesn’t know he’s full of crap.”
“I had to make sure I went easy with it because sometimes there are certain lines that are just so juicy and you need to make sure you don’t just rush into them, and that is one of them.”
McCarthy, who is married to the actor Ben Falcone, with whom she has two daughters, admired Israel’s capacity to be true to herself, even when she was committing crimes.
“She has been told she’s obsolete essentially. She’s an incredible writer, a great writer, and yet still they were saying, ‘We are done with you, you won’t play the game and sparkle and shine and all of these other things’.
“And she was right with saying, ‘Why can’t I just write? If the writing is good, why can’t I be a writer?’
“She did not want, and did not need, other people’s approval and, especially today, that is a very remarkable thing to see.”
McCarthy believes there is a “strange obsession” at the moment, where people look to others to tell them their own self-worth and right or wrong.
“You can question how Lee did it a million ways but in terms of someone saying, ‘This is what it is, I don’t care to change for you’, that is pretty admirable.”
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is released on Friday