'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Melissa McCarthy ('Can You Ever Forgive Me?')

The star opens up about how she ventured into stand-up and improv; why she planned to quit showbiz before landing 'Gilmore Girls'; how the success of 'Bridesmaids' and her Emmy win for 'Mike & Molly' changed her career and the new film for which she's garnering career-best reviews.
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"I don't know when we became obsessed with, 'Is it a comedy or is it a drama?'" says Melissa McCarthy as we sit down at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast and begin discussing the latest film in which she stars, Marielle Heller's Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which straddles the line between the two genres. Continues the 48-year-old, who could land her second Oscar nomination (after being nominated for one for 2015's Bridesmaids) for the new film, in which she plays the troubled New York writer turned criminal Lee Israel: "It's a story. Some stories start high and go low, and vice-versa."

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 28:20], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Ivana Kirkbride, an expert and thought leader in the over-the-top video space, who joins Scott to discuss her time at YouTube and Verizon's go90 and speculate about the future of "premium mid-form content" and "micro-windowing."

Check out our past episodes featuring the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Trevor Noah, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen and Carol Burnett.

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McCarthy was born and raised in Plainfield, Illinois, the daughter of an arbitrator and a secretary. "I was a bit of a delinquent, but a lame one," she admits, attributing her misbehavior to boredom. "I was in a little town, I lived on a farm and all I dreamed of was going to New York City." She did just that at the age of 20, leaving college in pursuit of the dream that she would be able to "do something with women's clothing." Instead, on her first night in the Big Apple, at the urging of her new roommate, she donned "a wig, kabuki makeup and platforms" and showed up at an open-mic night to perform stand-up under the name "Miss Y," a play on her childhood nickname "Missy."

That initial stand-up experience went over well enough — and was enjoyable enough for McCarthy — that she continued to perform for the next few months. She then began taking dramatic acting classes with Michael Harney — and says of the Orange Is the New Black actor, "I'm quite positive he's the reason I'm an actor" — before landing parts in theatrical productions that she describes as "way" Off Broadway. McCarthy came to see herself as an actor, but couldn't land an agent in New York and knew that most professional opportunities were in Los Angeles, so, at 27, she headed out west. There, she quickly joined the improvisational group The Groundlings, with which she spent the next decade-plus performing alongside the likes of Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig. "I really consider The Groundlings my college," she says. "That's where I learned to write, that's where I learned to develop characters and how far can you push it before you break it — everything was there. That's where I met my husband [the actor/writer/director Ben Falcone] and all of my closest friends."

While many Groundlings performers wound up on SNL, which McCarthy says "was always kind of the holy grail," she was never seen for the show when its talent scouts came looking for potential new cast members. Instead, her opportunities to shine came slowly — her first TV appearance was in a part on cousin Jenny McCarthy's show; her first film role came, thanks to ex-Groundling Jennifer Coolidge, in the 1999 movie Go — and she grew financially frustrated enough to consider walking away from acting entirely shortly before turning 30. "I was starting to work production jobs, and I was working more steadily in that," she says. "And then a week or two before my 30th birthday, I got Gilmore Girls." She played Sookie, the chef who was the best friend of Lauren Graham's character on The WB network's show, from 2000 through 2007. Following "a good decade of struggling," she says, "That was the first time I ever said, 'I'm an actor!'"

There was only a short gap between the end of Gilmore Girls and McCarthy landing the role of Molly, a teacher who meets her husband at a meeting of Overeaters Anonymous, on Mike & Molly, a Chuck Lorre-produced CBS multicam sitcom. "I had no idea how to do that," she says of the format, but she quickly learned, and for the first of her six seasons on the show, she was awarded the best actress in a comedy series Emmy. That happened on Sept. 18, 2011, just a few months after she became an overnight movie star with her scene-stealing turn in Bridesmaids, a film written by Groundlings pals Wiig and Annie Mumolo and directed by Paul Feig for producer Judd Apatow, and just a few months before that performance was recognized with a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, something McCarthy says she "not in a million years" imagined possible. Amazingly, McCarthy almost skipped the audition for the role of Megan, a super-confident idiot. "It was just such a crazy big deal that [Mumolo and Wiig] were doing something for Judd Apatow," she recalls. "I was like, 'I don't want to blow this for them.'" Even after McCarthy mustered the courage to go in for a reading opposite Wiig, she felt sure she had "completely blown it," only to learn soon after that she had gotten the part.

Bridesmaids directly led to a host of other filmmaking opportunities — with McCarthy now in leading roles. The first film released after Bridesmaids was Identity Thief (2013), for which her character was changed from a male to a female so that McCarthy could enjoy her first star-vehicle — a test she passed with flying colors, as the film opened atop the box-office. Then came The Heat (2013), which reunited her with Feig, this time opposite Sandra Bullock. That was followed by Tammy (2014), a film that she co-wrote with Falcone and he directed; St. Vincent (2014), opposite her hero Bill Murray; Spy (2015), for which she reteamed with Feig, this time to great critical acclaim; Ghostbusters (2016), in which she played a comedic straight-woman for the first time; The Boss (2016), which she and Falcone co-wrote back in their Groundling days and he directed; and Life of the Party (2018), another directed by Falcone. "If I wasn't married to him, we'd probably still be business partners," she says of him. "It's always been easy and really fun with him."

The year 2017 brought about the most unexpected role of McCarthy's career: Trump press secretary Sean Spicer, who — with the help of considerable makeup, hairstyling and prosthetics — she played hilariously and recurrently on SNL, helping to propel it to its most-watched season in 23 years and its first variety series Emmy in 25. The pairing of actress and part was conceived of by Groundlings friend turned SNL writer Kent Sublette. When he first suggested the idea, McCarthy says, "I was like, 'That's crazy! I don't do impersonations, I don't know how to do that, that's not how my brain works.'" She adds, "I was terrified because I was doing something I'd never done before — I was doing a real person. I did not expect the response to be what it was."

Then came Can You Ever Forgive Me?, to which Falcone was attached before McCarthy, back when another actress was slated to play Israel. "I had read it because he was in it and I couldn't get over how much I loved the script," McCarthy explains. "I kind of couldn't get Lee out of my head." McCarthy monitored the project's development carefully — "I was like a dog with a bone," she cracks — and when the lead role opened up, she was on the case. Some may have assumed that McCarthy wasn't interested in a part that is not only based on a real person (the only one she has ever played apart from Spicer), but involves as much drama as comedy, but she insists that she makes no such prejudgments. "I love both," she emphasizes. "The mix is what I always wanted ... I don't prepare or even fully ever think about, 'Is something a comedy or drama?' I just think about the story and character."

Since September's Toronto International Film Festival world premiere of Can You Ever Forgive Me? — which McCarthy calls "a movie I care so much about" — both the film and McCarthy's performance itself have accumulated rave reviews and nominations. "This is a little story of these invisible people," McCarthy says. "You don't see them. You walk by them a million times a day and they don't register. They somehow have lost their value." She adds, "It's nice to know people still want to see a story about the human condition."