Melissa McCarthy Discusses 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' True Story at New York Premiere
The actress plays the late Lee Israel, who famously went from being a celebrity biographer to a literary forger.
From red carpet talk of her unapologetic personality to the end titles flashing facts like "Nora Ephron once sent her a cease and desist," the real author Lee Israel's legacy loomed over the New York premiere of Can You Ever Forgive Me?
The cast and filmmakers alike discussed the complicated figure, who — after forging a total of 400 letters in the style of authors like Dorothy Parker — wrote a memoir on which the film is based.
"I love a very flawed, challenging character," said Melissa McCarthy, who plays the late Israel. "You still root for them because whatever they're doing on the surface is not really what's happening on the inside. We all play with different defense mechanisms, and Lee's was to be as prickly and difficult as possible. But I always thought, 'What is she hiding? What's going on the inside?'"
McCarthy's attempts to answer questions like these proved no easy feat. "She barely took any pictures. There's absolutely no video of her," said the actress, adding that after reading Israel's work, she realized that's how Israel wanted her life to be: private. "Luckily, we had two producers that knew her quite well," McCarthy said, referring to Anne Carey and Amy Nauiokas.
In addition to being co-produced by two women, Can You Ever Forgive Me? was directed by a woman (Marielle Heller) and co-written by a woman (Nicole Holofcener). Nauiokas told The Hollywood Reporter that this helped develop Israel's character for the film.
"Lee Isreal was a very nuanced, complicated woman," Nauiokas said. "And I think having so many different perspectives from women around the room helped us understand her a bit more. I think we all see a bit of ourselves in her in some ways."
McCarthy told THR that while Israel seemed to be "truly difficult," things might've been different if she were a man. "Somehow she would've been driven instead of 'a pain in the ass,'" McCarthy said.
Carey agreed, saying that it's "particularly hard" for a woman to be accused of being difficult or abrasive. "Things that are celebrated in a man aren't always celebrated in a woman, and maybe that was the case with some of those qualities," she told THR.
Regardless, McCarthy said she immediately liked Israel and her story. Though Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a departure from her usual comedic style, McCarthy said she "didn't think at all about the genre," because "it really doesn't change what I do or how I prepare — if it's comedy, drama or somewhere in between, it's really the same trajectory to me."
Nauiokas said that McCarthy's comedic skills helped her have fun with the role. Many of the film's lighter moments come in Israel's exchanges with her friend and fellow delinquent, Jack Hock, played by Richard E. Grant.
"Their chemistry was instantaneous," Nauiokas said of McCarthy and Grant. "Their friendship evolved probably in a very similar way to Lee and Jack's friendship."
According to Grant, the bond between himself and McCarthy was built over the course of numerous lunches. Even on the days he wasn't working, he'd join her on set. To him, a character like Israel is a breath of fresh air. "She's so authentically herself. She's unapologetic," the actor told THR. "The era we live in now with social media, everybody has the perfect life — perfect food, or the perfect look, everything — but you see on a daily basis that people are sharing their lives. Lee is the antithesis of that. She's completely authentic to her grumpy self, and somebody who doesn't give in at all, or doesn't give a nod to political correctness in any shape or fame. I think it's sort of liberating, and to be admired in a certain way."
The "invisibility" of Israel even changed the way McCarthy lives her life.
"It reminds me every day when I'm passing people to look up, and really see them," she said. "Even if it's for a second or a passing moment, I think it means something when you actually look up and remember that you need human contact."
Continued McCarthy, "I always wonder if I passed Lee on the street when I lived in New York. I was here when she was here, and I think she's probably one of the most fascinating people in the world and I just could've gone right by her."