Melissa McCarthy on Portraying a Fearless Writer, Honoring the Underdogs in 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

Photographed By Austin Hargrave
McCarthy stars as Lee Israel in 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

The two-time Academy Award nominee also opens up about departing comedy for the dramatic role and advice she has for surviving award season.

Known for making audiences howl with her comedic roles — she earned her first Oscar nomination for 2011's Bridesmaids — Melissa McCarthy took on a very different, and much darker, persona for the first time in 2018: the acerbic writer turned forger Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? McCarthy, 48, who earned her second Oscar nomination for the role, spoke to THR about portraying the fearless writer — and telling a story that everyone needs to hear.

In this film, you had to capture the spirit of a complex character. What would you say you learned the most from portraying Lee?

Well I think for me personally, it’s a good reminder of why we love who we love. All the people I really love in my life, there are so many contradictions and they have weird quirks and we all do weird things. If you don’t have all those things, then what are we? It made me also think about — and I still think about it — I think of all the people that you pass on the street that you don’t notice or underestimate that they could be amazing. I was in New York when Lee was during this time period time and I thought, ‘Did I pass her and never give her a second look?’ It really makes me try to look up more and notice people and be aware that sometimes people just need someone else to see them. I think we all need this. Jack and Lee were just two characters but somehow became invisible to the world. I think that’s a good thing to put back in your brain, to be like: Everybody should be visible. I love the fact that she just said, "Why can’t I just be a good writer?" Why does she have to be a show pony? Why can’t we just present the work? Especially in a time when writers had to play the celebrity and becoming known. That’s a pretty amazing thing to be. She was exactly who she was and she made things harder for her, for sure, but I do respect that she wouldn’t change. She stood in her own shoes and she wouldn’t change.

Had you heard Lee Israel's story prior to portraying her? 

I hadn’t, and I was kind of disappointed in myself that about it. I just thought, "How did I not hear this?" If I heard it, I didn’t remember it. Because when I read the script I was like, "Oh my God!" This just doesn’t seem like something that could float by me; it’s pretty remarkable. 

What do you hope that people take away from this film and from Lee?

Stories like that always remind you that we're all kind of in this together. Everybody feels vulnerable. Everybody feels lonely sometimes. We're all in this together, and if you can remember that and lead with compassion, it really can make a difference.

Were you nervous how the audience would react to this departure from comedy for you?

I never thought about that. A good story and a great character, that's the only thing I look for. As an audience member and as an actor, I look for the story and if there's something I just love about the character; I thought Can You Ever Forgive Me? had all of that. To me, there's no difference between doing comedy or drama. It's the same preparation.

What other nominated films did you enjoy this year?

The Favourite! BlacKkKlansman I just absolutely loved. Roma, Green Book. I have to say it was a hell of a year for movies. I just enjoyed the hell out of all of them. I love how different they were; Very different stores, very different portrayals. I mean Vice was incredible. I think when people make such good things, it inspires all of us to do better, to dig deeper. It’s exciting to be around. It's a good time for movies and so many complicated, challenging women, and seeing those parts, it was just exciting to see.

What is your advice to enduring the hectic nature of awards season?

Sleep when you can get it. If you can't get it, sleep in the car. And keep finding the fun with it. I've gone to quite a few awards shows this year, and I'm just a kid in a candy store. I get in that room and my head is like a bobblehead because I'm like, 'Oh, my God, look who's there!' I'm a kid from Plainfield, Illinois, so getting to talk with Glenn Close or Nicole Kidman — I'm like, "This is all I need." I talked to Gary Oldman the other day, and I just thought that I can now just lay down and get hit by a bus. Like, I'm good. If it ends tomorrow, it's OK! 

A version of this story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.