Melissa McCarthy Is Having Her Moment
It's been five days since Melissa McCarthy won her first Emmy on Sept. 18, and she is still visibly overwhelmed by emotion when she arrives at a photo shoot for The Hollywood Reporter at a Los Angeles studio.
Variations on "I can't believe all of this is happening to me" are uttered often by the Mike & Molly star, who greets a photographer, hairstylist and reporter without makeup or Hollywood pretense. If her career-making character in this past spring's surprise box-office smash Bridesmaids was forceful, masculine and raunchy (propositioning an air marshal midflight), then McCarthy, 41, in person is precisely the opposite: gentle, feminine and exceedingly polite.
Mention the statuette she has housed between family pictures on the mantel in her L.A. house, and you can see tears form. Push McCarthy on its significance, and you get the feeling she's doing all she can to keep them from streaming down her face.
Still, she's more than willing to share details of her win -- by all accounts an upset of The Big C's Laura Linney, Nurse Jackie's Edie Falco and Parks and Recreation's Amy Poehler, all considered stronger favorites -- but confesses her memory is spotty from shock and genuine disbelief.
"I remember my knees went first, and I thought, 'Oh God, please don't fall down,' " she says of her thought process in that moment. "Just keep it upright. You're in a dress. Your mom and dad are watching."
She was standing beside fellow nominees Tina Fey, Martha Plimpton, Linney, Falco and Poehler, having rushed the stage when their names were announced, part of an unrehearsed comedy routine conceived days earlier by Poehler. By the time presenters Rob Lowe and Sofia Vergara began placing a tiara on McCarthy's head and a bouquet of roses and Emmy in her arms, McCarthy recalls registering a second thought: "Is this still the bit? Oh, this is going to be so awkward if this is part of the bit."
But bear hugs followed from the women, and McCarthy was pushed toward the microphone. She let out a "Holy smokes," the broadcast-appropriate version of another phrase she'd mouthed seconds earlier. Then she apologized to a U.S. TV audience of 12.5 million for being a crier, with tears in her eyes as she uttered such lines as, "I'm from Plainfield, Ill., and I'm standing here, and it's kind of amazing."
For McCarthy, the leapfrog over better-known nominees marked the official Hollywood coronation of an actress so outside the realm of convention that it gave the broadcast one of its few genuine surprises. Indeed, it would seem McCarthy has plenty working against her, a plus-size fortysomething in an industry that traditionally favors sample-size females two decades younger. But what she lacks in dewy ingenue sex appeal, she makes up for with depth, comedic timing and sheer likability.
In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a working actress more successful than -- or certainly as busy as -- McCarthy right now. Not only does she have a starring role on CBS' hit sitcom Mike & Molly -- the second season bowed Sept. 26 to a series-high 4.8 rating in the adults 18-to-49 demographic and 13.9 million viewers -- and an Oct. 1 gig as Saturday Night Live host, but also she recently sold a road-trip comedy pitch to Paramount (with Bridesmaids writer Annie Mumolo) and a TV comedy project to CBS (with her actor-producer husband, Ben Falcone). All of it comes on the heels of McCarthy's scene-stealing turn as Megan, the unfiltered, unconventional and undeniable standout of the May release Bridesmaids, a role so well-received it has Universal positioning her as awards-season bait on the film side.
"It's truly her moment," says CBS Entertainment chief Nina Tassler. Adds Peter Roth, president of Mike & Molly studio Warner Bros. TV, "This is the year of the McCarthy." It's a label he claims is richly deserved, adding: "Everything about her is relatable. You root for her; you want her to win."
So what's it like to be at the white-hot center of Hollywood's attention, after nearly two decades working on the fringes? Overwhelming, exhilarating and utterly surreal are among the descriptors McCarthy uses. Earlier this summer, she was out rug shopping with Mumolo -- the longtime friends shop often for their homes, with Mumolo insisting McCarthy could be an interior designer if she weren't an actress -- when McCarthy's "team" called to see if she was up to do episode two of SNL's 37th season.
"I went into such an embarrassing, weird, inappropriately loud cry," says McCarthy of her response, laughing about a story she shares often. "Annie was running in circles. She thinks something horrible is happening because I'm bent over, literally, in the rug section of Living Spaces wailing." Mumolo cracks up at the story's retelling, adding, "I thought someone had died."
If you believe the actress, the crying stopped only recently. On this day, McCarthy -- set to leave for SNL rehearsals in two days -- is focused on preparing for the gig and calming her nerves for the show she calls the Holy Grail of comedy. She claims she'll fly to Manhattan with a trunk filled with sketches and characters from her decade-plus tenure with L.A. improv group the Groundlings. Among them: Marbles, a cross-eyed, eccentric genius she'd love to work into a skit on SNL. "If I get Marbles on SNL, you can hit me with a bus right after that and I'll be OK," jokes McCarthy.
It was this Groundlings character that won over Mike & Molly creator Mark Roberts during the series' casting process in early 2010. "When I saw Marbles [on McCarthy's reel], all I could think was this woman was an absolute genius," he says. "There's an off-handedness and unpredictability to her comedy that just makes it engaging." (It's worth noting that Marbles is also among the characters that won over Falcone, a fellow Groundlings alum. "She'll do anything for a laugh," he says, recalling his wife falling into splits onstage without stretching.)
To hear McCarthy tell it, Marbles is precisely the type of character she's drawn to: those who are notably different but still confident and comfortable in their skin. Bridesmaids' Megan, in particular, fits into that category, though only after McCarthy got to put her stamp on the hard-to-cast character. What was initially conceived as a nervous oddball McCarthy reimagined as an uber-confident misfit.
McCarthy went into her audition for Bridesmaids with Dockers, no makeup and a force-of-nature attitude. In her mind, she was channeling past Groundlings characters with the physical appearance of the Food Network's Guy Fieri, from one of her favorite shows Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (other favorites include Top Chef and Chopped). She remembers leaving the audition horrified by her performance: "The whole ride home, I was like, 'God, you get one shot, and you go in and you act weird,' " she says. "I was like, 'You idiot, you idiot.' "
Fortunately, producer Judd Apatow and director Paul Feig, along with writers and former Groundlings members Kristen Wiig and Mumolo, appreciated her take on weird. "My jaw hit the ground," recalls Feig of McCarthy's audition. "I remember watching the first time, and we almost couldn't laugh because we were like: 'Oh my God. What is she doing? This is amazing.' "
That her improv skills were similarly top-notch -- Feig is fond of telling the story of a scene that didn't make the cut where McCarthy's Megan starts ad-libbing about a squirrel infestation in her house, revealing there's "a squirrel burrowing its way into her vagina and living inside her" -- made her casting a no-brainer.
For Mumolo and Wiig, who had recommended her for the role, Bridesmaids was an opportunity to share the side of McCarthy that fans of her TV work did not know. "She'd just get on the stage [at Groundlings] and grab the crowd by the balls," says Mumolo, who acknowledges she was initially thrown when McCarthy was cast as the "nice little chef" on Gilmore Girls. Her husband, who played Air Marshal Jon in Bridesmaids, agrees, arguing, "Bridesmaids was really the first chance for Melissa to show what exactly she can do."
So where does McCarthy's gut-busting humor come from? As noted in her Emmy speech, she was raised in Plainfield, some 45 minutes southwest of Chicago, on a working corn and soybean farm. (Her parents remain there, though they've since moved off the farm.) Without neighborhood kids to play with, she and her older sister spent much of their childhood creating characters and an imaginary world -- a skill that would clearly serve her well later in life.
By the time she hit her teens, a social McCarthy had joined the cheerleading squad and student council. But by her sophomore year, boredom had set in. "I turned intensely gothic," she laughs, reflecting on her attention-grabbing uniform of kabuki makeup, combat boots and shaved patches of her head. "I think I just loved all of the pageantry of it."
At that time, McCarthy had her heart set on a career in fashion. She and close friend and fellow goth Brian Atwood, now a well-known women's shoe designer, would tear out pages of Vogue and fantasize about their own lines. Her parents beat down the idea of her attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, so she settled on Southern Illinois University, where she briefly studied clothing and textiles before dropping out.
With boredom having seeped in again, McCarthy decided to follow her sister Margie to Boulder, Colo., where she found a gig making costumes for a dance company. But a visit from Atwood, who had already moved to New York, convinced a then 20-year-old McCarthy to pack her bags and join him in Manhattan. Once there, it was he who suggested she try her hand at stand-up, a genre with which she'd had no previous experience.
"It was terrible," she says, describing the wig and gold leather jacket Atwood squeezed her into for her first open-mic night at Stand Up New York. She hadn't realized most comics come with material and that the light that blinks after an allotted period is a signal to wrap it up. "I just told these long, bizarre stories," she chuckles. "I had no idea what the light meant, so I was winking and nodding at it like: 'Thanks, guys. I appreciate the help.' I kept going and going." Perhaps surprisingly, she was invited back.
At first, a young McCarthy loved it. "This idea of really being able to pace an audience and make strangers laugh, I just thought it was the greatest thing," she says. But she grew tired of the hecklers fairly quickly and turned her attention to theater, studying and performing in off-off-Broadway productions for several years.
The inability to make a living finally caught up to her, and she packed her bags again and moved to Los Angeles, where she moved into a friend's kitchen to save money. Her sister had sent her a newspaper clip about The Groundlings, so she boarded a city bus, auditioned and got in. "It changed my life," she insists. "It taught me to write and how to do a character rather than just play crazy." (McCarthy is set to return to the Groundlings with a special performance in October.)
After a string of lower-level production gigs (the first on her cousin Jenny McCarthy's eponymous MTV sketch-comedy show) and small roles in film (Go, Charlie's Angels), she landed a supporting role on Gilmore Girls, a coming-of-age drama on the now-defunct WB (and later on spinoff the CW). The series, starring Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel as mother and daughter, ran from 2000 to 2007. Within months of wrapping, McCarthy was hitched to another friend role in ABC's short-lived Christina Applegate vehicle Samantha Who?
Then came Mike & Molly, in which executive producer Chuck Lorre decided the longtime supporting actress "was more than ready to step into the lead role." The first time McCarthy read with co-star Billy Gardell, says Lorre, "was one of those moments you dream about. They were perfect together. I like to imagine that Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows were smiling down on us." (She was eight months pregnant with her second child at the time.)
When Mike & Molly premiered in fall 2010, critics were struck by its premise. Rather than feature impossibly thin characters living upper-class existences, as many primetime offerings do, the CBS series centered on a blue-collar cop and schoolteacher couple who meet at Overeaters Anonymous. The plotline stirred early controversy when a Marie Claire writer claimed on the magazine's website that she would be "grossed out if [she] had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kiss each other."
But Roberts believes the realness of the series' characters -- and their waistlines -- has helped make Mike & Molly a success, regularly garnering 10 million viewers during its first season. "I had gotten very tired of watching people on television that were just sort of improbable," says Roberts of his thought process while penning the pilot. "They were too perfect, they made too much money, and their apartments were way outside of their economic abilities."
For Gardell, a long-time stand-up comic, that authenticity was part of the characters' appeal. "We're not the norm on TV, and I think we take great pride in representing down-to-earth people who are just trying to get better," says McCarthy's co-star. "I think you have to have a deep soul to do that, and Melissa definitely has one."
McCarthy agrees, claiming she was drawn to the idea that the show features real people with real jobs. "I don't know any neighborhoods where everyone's walking around in seven-inch heels and perfect makeup," she says, arguing she has been less bothered by criticism of her physical appearance since becoming a mother to daughters Vivian, 4 -- who has been parading around for days with her mother's Emmy tiara -- and Georgette, 1 ½.
"The stupid stuff like what I wear or how I look I can't control, so I just try not to give too much energy to it," she continues, noting later that after having her second child, her body is a work in progress. "At 20, I would have been like: 'Don't they like me? Was it my hair?' At 41, I think the things that define me, I hope, are a lot more than those kinds of petty things."
With her raised profile, McCarthy is getting ready to launch a retail line for other plus-size women. "Trying to find stuff that's still fashion-forward in my size is damn near impossible. It's either for like a 98-year-old woman or a 14-year-old hooker, and there is nothing in the middle," she laughs, recalling her recent struggles to find a dress for the Emmys. After combing through "9 million dresses with taffeta or shiny bows," she opted to channel that teenage passion and design her own (with couture dressmaker Daniella Pearl).
She could need more of her own creations as the awards circuit heats up. McCarthy is likely to garner attention for her role in Bridesmaids, a rare female-lead comedy hit with both critics and viewers. The movie earned nearly $170 million at the domestic box office, making it the No. 2-grossing comedy of the year behind The Hangover Part II. (By comparison, Apatow's earlier hits The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad banked $109 million, $149 million and $121 million, respectively.)
What's more, it solidified something so rare it's almost unheard of in Hollywood circles: a posse of female comedians, including Groundlings alumna McCarthy, Wiig, Mumolo, Maya Rudolph and Wendi McLendon-Covey. For the genre's males, there has been the Adam Sandler crew, the Will Ferrell clan and even the Jason Segel-Seth Rogen gang. But outside of Fey and Poehler's East Coast tribe, there has never been a network of female comedians as powerful as this one. "We all keep texting and calling each other, going: 'Are you freaking out right now? I don't know what's happening,' " says Mumolo of the troupe. "I think we're all still spinning from the summer. And Melissa, Melissa is in outer space."
Now, McCarthy and Falcone, currently in Atlanta filming What to Expect When You're Expecting, are busy prepping a production company. The pair is leaning toward naming it On the Day, a phrase McCarthy utters often. "Whenever someone wants to really rehearse a part, I always say, 'Oh, on the day, on the day it will be fine," she says, referencing her distaste for over-rehearsing.
It's a fitting next step given how many projects McCarthy has in the works, a byproduct of her recent success. "To have the opportunity to start developing and being on the creating side of stuff, for me, is one of the most amazing and exciting things that's happened," she says, back in gush mode. "I've been writing for 15 years, and now, suddenly, people are like, 'Oh, what's in that drawer?' It's like, 'Well, I'll show what's in the drawer.' "
In addition to being in negotiations to star opposite Jason Bateman in Identity Thief, McCarthy and Mumolo are co-writing another McCarthy star vehicle. The project, set up at Paramount, will feature McCarthy as the mastermind of a plan to hijack the Stanley Cup in order to cheer up her sick husband.
Then there's the multicamera comedy concept about a woman having a midlife crisis that was recently sold to CBS, which she and Falcone will co-write and co-executive produce. "When you hear a pitch and the writer knows every aspect of that character's life, you feel the reality," says CBS' Tassler of McCarthy's animated sell. "There was crying in the pitch, and then there was laughter and outrage. She painted the full picture."
McCarthy's drawer also houses a dark comedy feature script that's about halfway complete from McCarthy and The Help writer-director Tate Taylor, another fellow Groundlings alum. But it's a project titled Tammy that McCarthy claims has her heart.
"It's so funny, and it also kind of breaks my heart," she says of a film script of hers centering on a woman who is leading an exceptionally unfulfilled life. The character wakes up one morning as things are crumbling around her and decides she has to get out of town -- and the only way to do so is in her grandmother's car. When her heavy-drinking grandmother insists on going along, they end up on a wild road trip to Mount Rushmore. "It's these two women who are not where they thought they'd be, and they kind of band together," she says, her excitement on display.
The Bridesmaids team is not through with her, either. Apatow already has locked her into his still-untitled Knocked Up spinoff, and Feig says his Dumb Jock project at Universal has been set up for her to star in. "She's really one of my new heroes," says Feig of McCarthy. "I'll do anything to keep working with her. When you find someone like her, you don't let them go."