Melissa McCarthy Went to "Really Dark Places" for 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
"I always found her to be a very smart comedian, somebody who brings an incredible amount of humanity to all of her characters," says helmer Marielle Heller (left) of the decision to cast Melissa McCarthy in her first dramatic role.

"We get scared when women characters are idiosyncratic," says Marielle Heller, who cast the comedic actress in her first dramatic leading part in the film, which will make its world premiere at Toronto on Sept. 8.

Melissa McCarthy's career was built on her comedy chops, from a memorably unfiltered turn in the 2011 blockbuster Bridesmaids (which landed her a best supporting actress Oscar nom) to a foul-mouthed cop opposite Sandra Bullock in 2013's The Heat and, most recently, in the dirty-puppets caper The Happytime Murders. But in her latest outing, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy, 48, is stepping out of her comfort zone to tackle a dramatic lead role for the first time.

Helmed by Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl), the film, which will have its world premiere at TIFF on Sept. 8 ahead of its Oct. 19 release, is based on the true story of Lee Israel, a washed-up, alcoholic writer who, desperate for money, forges letters by deceased famous authors and playwrights to sell for profit.

Heller says she felt from the beginning that McCarthy had the range to capture the spirit of such a challenging character. "I think some comedians who have access to it can be incredibly good at drama," says Heller, 38, who signed on to the Fox Searchlight project at the same time as McCarthy after a previous director (Nicole Holofcener) and star (Julianne Moore) dropped out. "I always found her to be a very smart comedian, somebody who brings an incredible amount of humanity to her characters."

It was McCarthy's performance in the 2014 dramedy St. Vincent opposite Bill Murray that convinced Heller the star could handle weighty material. "I just had a feeling that she was going to be able to go to the really dark, interesting places with this character," says Heller.

McCarthy's portrayal of Israel, who forged around 400 documents before she was arrested and convicted of conspiracy to transport stolen property (she served six months under house arrest and five years of probation), brings to life a lonely woman (her most significant relationship is with her cat) who is proud of the forgeries because they seem to validate her abilities as a writer.

"She's a bit of an asshole, but she's the smartest person in every room," says Heller of Israel. "If she was a male character nobody would even blink an eye — they would think she was fascinating. But we get scared when women characters are that idiosyncratic."

She adds: "It’s not like when we talk about wonderful characters like Tony Soprano everybody was worrying if he’s likeable."

Heller says McCarthy focused on capturing the essence of the openly gay Israel (who died at 75 in 2014, and whose 2008 memoir is the movie's source material), rather than imitating her exactly. McCarthy's brash comedy persona is nowhere to be found thanks to a wig, thick glasses and plenty of tweed jackets.

"We used the inspiration of a lot of real literary writers, especially lesbian writers from the '80s and '90s," says Heller. "We looked at book jackets and photographs of New York writers to try and figure out what her look was."

The transformation seems to have been a success. David Yarnell, a producer on the film and a friend of the real Israel, was struck by the similarities when he was around McCarthy on set. "He just went, 'Yeah, this is her. I want to sit down next to her on the barstool and have a drink with her,' " says Heller. "So even though it wasn't this impersonation of her, I think we got the essence right."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.