Melissa Rivers on Playing Her Mother, Joan, in 'Joy': "I Didn't Want It to Be a Caricature"

Melissa Rivers as Joan Rivers - H 2015

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

David O. Russell brings back his actor A-team in Joy, but for the biopic about Miracle Mop creator Joy Mangano, he added a face sure to elicit double takes when the film opens Christmas Day.

Melissa Rivers plays her mother, the late Joan Rivers, opposite Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in scenes depicting her QVC days. In her first interview about the role, Melissa tells THR she was "terrified" her first day on the Boston set, stepping into an "emotionally risky" role six months after her mother's death from a throat procedure at Manhattan's Yorkville Endoscopy Center.

"Honestly, once the wig was on, I stopped looking in a mirror — it was too bizarre," says Melissa, who also worked with a dialect coach to nail Joan's speech patterns. "I didn't want it to be a caricature. Like, I didn't want anyone to say, 'Oh look, it's a drag queen.' That was my biggest fear."

Melissa now has a perspective that could have come from Joan's mouth: "I can say that I'm in a David O. Russell movie! How f—ing cool is that? I might even give myself the moniker of his 'new muse.'"

Muse or not, Melissa says she could hear her mother's voice telling her she would "be crazy to pass up" the opportunity to work for the director alongside his A-team. Here she tells THR how it all came together.

When did you first get the call about Joy?

It literally wasn't even on my radar and I got a call that David Russell wanted to meet me. That's not something that you hear every day. I believe that it was in December or January. We set up the meeting, and it turned out that John Davis, who I've known forever, was producing it. I went over and met with David and it was kind of unclear of what they wanted from me. I wasn't sure if they were picking my brain or if they wanted just talk about QVC and my mom's involvement. I just said, "Look, whatever I can do to help you guys, I will do." But then it kind of dawned on me on the way home that he was asking me to play my mom. I wasn't 100 percent sure. And then it took a lot of time and a lot of thought. I have a really good relationship with John Davis, and John assured me that it would be a great experience and that he would be there with me. So I committed to doing it, and next thing I know, it's February and I'm in a hair and makeup test. I shot at the very end of March, beginning of April in Boston.

How was it?

Let me tell you how terrified I was my first day. Terrified. It was so surreal and suddenly there is Bradley [Cooper] and there is Jen [Lawrence] and there is David and there is John. And every time I look in the mirror, it's my mother. And I wanted to do a good job. I didn't want it to be a caricature. Like I didn't want anyone to say, "Oh look, it's a drag queen." That was my biggest fear.

Trying to overcome that fear, how did you prepare?

I worked with a dialect coach before I left. I didn't want to sound like her, but I knew I had to get the inflections right. Her speech pattern was so unique that I felt like it really needed to be in the spirit of her rather than trying to mimic. Honestly, John gave me so much confidence leading up to it, and David gave me so much confidence there on set that what potentially could've been a scary, sad, frightening experience turned into such an amazingly positive experience for me.

People say that David O. Russell can be tough, what was your experience like?

Everybody was aware that I was in a very fragile place and that it was really asking a lot of me to take that kind of deep dive emotionally. You know, Bradley and Jen helped keep me light. I walked away just adoring Jen. Actually, I was just texting with her. They were all incredibly supportive. It took a minute. The way David works is nontraditional but it worked for me. Once I figured it out, it worked for me.

You mentioned a deep dive emotionally. What was that like, putting on an outfit and becoming a character, who is your mother. How did it feel once it was done?

QVC was such an important part of her chapter two, so to speak, and I wanted to do it justice. I wanted to make sure it looked right. I wanted to make sure that it was respectful. And honestly, once the wig was on I stopped looking in a mirror — it was too bizarre.

The time period is so specific. Did you go back and watch those clips?

We had very specific clips that David liked, and I watched those. And with the costume I was very specific in working with costume designer and wardrobe in making sure that it felt like her. Like, once we had three necklaces, and I suggested, "Let's put on a fourth."

It's been predicted that Jennifer Lawrence could be nominated for an Oscar. What did you think of her performance from what you saw?

There is such an ease in the way she works. I never saw her going in and out (of character) and that's what makes her so good. There is a seamlessness to the way she works. And two seconds later, we are sitting there joking around and she's quoting back some of my mom's lines to me from Fashion Police.

Speaking of Fashion Police, you've taken over for your mother this year on the show. You've said that it felt like "home." Are you set for awards season?

We're all set for awards season. We have 12 episodes next year. It feels good, and it feels fun — the fun is back. The excitement of going to tape days was back. It didn't feel heavy — there's a lightness back on set now.

For the next 12 episodes, what are you most looking forward to?

I always love the Golden Globes. To have that coming out of the gate every year is always a joy, no pun intended. (Laughs.)

What is the latest with the lawsuit over your mother's death?

The wheels turn slowly. There is a relief in knowing that it's in process. Honestly, it's not something I think about every day, because again it's a very long process. It's more about tempering my patience because you want answers now and you're simply not going to get them.

Back to the film. How does it feel now that the word is out?

When I was studying with Sandy Meisner — I later pivoted and went into hosting and producing — I certainly never in my wildest dreams could've imagined two days on set with that group. Now of course I'm like, "I want to act more again!" I'm not expecting the offers to come flooding in. One hopes but … (Laughs.)