For a seasoned comic actor like Melissa McCarthy, getting a chance to play a sardonic, dark character like the late author Leonore Carol "Lee" Israel offers one of those rare opportunities to display your chops. Marielle Heller’s film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” provides the 48-year-old with serious but unexpectedly droll fodder for both her mind and personality. And as a result, she’s getting award season buzz like she hasn’t had before.
The movie, in turn, surprises if not quite delights, challenging audiences to look under the scruffy skin of the talented but curmudgeonly Israel whose emotional distance masks a deeply vulnerable woman, made all the more so as a lesbian in less enlightened times, who copes with the deep chasm she feels with most everyone let alone a lover. Only her cat offers her comfort as does her belief in his writing skills — both abruptly challenges when the animal becomes ill and the writer finds no one want to publish her after successful biographies of Katharine Hepburn, Talulah Bankhead, cosmetics executive Estée Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen.
Because Lee Israel falls out of step with the book industry's desire for warts-and-all biographies, she goes broke and finds herself at wits end. To survive, she turns to forging letters of legendary writers such as Noel Coward with an innate skill at accurately mimicking their styles. But once suspicion falls on her and her accomplice Jack Hock (Richard Grant), a homeless gay man she takes in, she turns to theft of collectibles from archives to further their survival.
In this case, McCarthy’s character doesn’t so much reveal who she was as she shows who she wasn’t. And in managing to illuminate that, the flat out comic McCarthy demonstrates that there’s as much a thought provoker in there as much as she been a societal provoker in such grungy/grotty films as “Bridesmaids” and “The Hangover Part III.”
Through such films and many others including the “Ghostbusters” reboot, She became a two-time Primetime Emmy Award winner and received nominations for a Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Awards, a BAFTA Award, and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, among other accolades.
With husband and fellow comic writer Ben Falcone, she founded production company “On the Day,” launched her clothing line, “Melissa McCarthy Seven7,” and was named the one of the top five highest-paid actresses in the world by Forbes with earnings of $33 million.
Though she transitioned from her Plainfield, Illinois roots having made it to both New York and Los Angeles, she still connects with her serious Irish roots having been raised on a farm in a large Catholic family with an Irish father, two cousins — actress and model Jenny McCarthy and professional basketball player Joanne McCarthy — and a mom of English, German, and Irish ancestry. Graduated from St. Francis Academy (now Joliet Catholic Academy) research into her past reveals much family from County Cork. As she said, “I am very proud of my Irishness. I was just doing an ancestry project with my daughter and I talked with my dad about when my grandparents came over and where they’re from— their real names are Carty. I discussed this with my father and want to learn more.”
Q:What part of this film tested you the most?
MM: The playing of a character with such stillness was a fun challenge. I’ve played so many strong women that have been energy forward and there’s more physicality and verbal sparring. I felt Lee was more turned inward and did a type of deflecting that was more like, “I will wait you out in hopes that you go away.” And it usually worked for her. So there’s a stillness to this type of character that I found very interesting.
Q: Were you familiar with Lee Israel prior to doing this project?
MM: I wasn’t and I felt like I should have been. That was my take-away when I first read the script. I didn’t know about her.
Q: Who lent you the insight in regards to her mannerisms because you gave her nuance and a rich personality.
MM: It was challenging in researching her. Initially, I thought I’ll do a ton of research, and watch things. True to her personality, she didn’t want people in her life and didn’t offer that up. No photos or videos. Also, it was a time before people felt the need to document every moment of their lives, so it’s just not out there.
One of the few photos I found was of the back of a [book] jacket. Luckily, David Yarnell, one of our producers, knew her very well, for about 20 years ,and he was the main person who poked, prodded and made her write her memoir — which she didn’t want to do. She was incredibly difficult about it and, I think, he might have called her “a pain in my ass,” but she did finally write it. And for 10 years, Anne Carey was taking her book around and trying to turn it into a film. She would meet with Lee for dinner. I find this weirdly endearing, Lee was always early. Anne would show up and Lee would be waiting there, drink in hand, and once dinner was finished, Lee would up and go before the bill would come. Anne realized Lee would get there early and order a few drinks to put on her bill.
Q: Well, given all that, you seem to have gotten her right.
MM: That’s good to hear, thank you. I asked if I was on the right trajectory and they said, “stay the course,” so I did.
Q: What was it like working with [director] Marielle Heller — what was her process like?
MM: It was fantastic. Mari is one of the few people, who, if she said she had something for me but I couldn’t read it ahead of time, I’d still say okay, which is not something I have ever said before. There was a great comforting sense that you knew who was in charge. She had a great tone with the crew and everyone involved; they looked to her to lead us in the [best] way. She did it with such a, I don’t know, light touch. She never said, “This is the way we’re going to do things today and it will not change.”
Something comes up, something happens in a scene or organically changes, she’s okay with it. Or, if something felt a little bit odd, there was this absolute certainty we would work through it. When someone is there to guide you, but also listen to you, it’s very collaborative. Everyone, us actors, every department, rises up to do their best work because we all contribute to making this thing as opposed to having someone say, “It’s my way or the highway”.
Q: By embracing falsehoods, Lee makes her best work. Did you feel a connection to that because, as an actor, you’re playing pretend to find truths in reality?
MM: I feel like we were on very similar paths in terms of what we do. I don't want to play someone exactly like myself. I would be very uncomfortable. I don’t know what to do as myself, I don’t know where to put my hands in a picture. As a character, strangely, I have no hesitation on how I do something. It gives me a lot more courage than I have in my normal life. Lee and I would do the exact same things. She lived through other people. She was a great writer when she could write through someone else’s voice. Turns out she was a great writer either way, but the safety net of standing behind someone, I really relate to that. We picked different ways to do it, but we do similar things.
Q: Did you find your way to the character through her mannerisms, the way she dressed, or did certain things?
MM: It’s all of those little things. I certainly connect to a character first from reading it, and if it’s a real person, trying to look into who she really was, and that was through her writing. Then I feel like I have to take care of the exterior or I can’t do the first thing to quite of an extreme. It’s a bit of a game of Tetris, I do so much work with hair and makeup and wardrobe. We had such amazing people at the helm of all those things. I thought she should dress like an Italian, was my weird initial thought. It should be a small closet, but with well made, quality pieces, and that she probably hasn’t shopped for anything new in 15 or 18 years. So at one point she probably had a tailor and had her pants and jackets made and three cashmere sweaters, but they needed a lot of wear.
I said utilitarian and comfortable, and when vintage pieces didn’t fit right I said we can’t tailor it or fix it for me because if you’re wearing pants from 15 years ago they may not fit great. When things didn’t fit great we let it ride. I think all of the costumes and the hair, the whole pallet of the film could have easily been the costume shop, and a wig and makeup.
Q: What do you want audiences to take from this film — that crime does pay — after Lee got off easy once she was caught and admitted her guilt?
MM: I’m hoping that’s not the takeaway, although it [does] makes me giggle. For me, I hope people will think about seeing the invisible people that are around them all the time. Lee and Jack were just people that no one looked at. No one passed by Lee and thought, “I wonder if she’s remarkable? I wonder if she’s smarter or funnier than anyone in my life?”
They were just invisible. Jack was homeless when they met; how many people do we pass each day that we don’t even look at? Especially today, we’re all so busy staring at what other people are doing, I hope that people look up and actually see people.
Q: This film is a love story between two queer people in New York. How did you portray that and what do you hope a modern queer audience will take away from it.
MM: It was very much a part of her personality, and a heartbreak [for someone] watching it — that she just couldn’t connect. The fact that she went to Julius’s in the early ‘90s was very telling [as to] how uncomfortable she was. In the early ‘90s, gay men and lesbians didn’t intermingle. In those days, I was at Julius’s with my friends and it was not a place to be seen. I think Lee went there because she wouldn’t be bothered; she could still go somewhere where there was a bit of safety in the company. She would not only be bothered, but it was another way for her to shield herself.
Towards the end, at that point in New York City, when Jack is clearly losing his battle with AIDS, epidemic wasn’t even a big enough word. It plays back into what I was saying before about the invisibility of people. I don’t think we’re there yet by any stretch, but I think that people now don’t have to shield themselves or cloak themselves — [and that] is a very good thing to be reminded of. Not that long ago you did [have to do that]. You still do in many places now. I love that it was part of who they were without that being “on topic” to the story.
Q: And what was it like working with actor Richard Grant who played Jack?
MM: Very difficult. Awful. It’s all a sham [laughs]. No, he’s constantly as charming as he seems [to be]. It was just fun [working with him]. He’s an attentive and remarkable actor. We shot this film in 28 days, which seems fairly insane. We both worked similarly; we showed up, and we knew what we were going to do. And he’s a tremendous listener. Just the most receptive. He’s like that as a person [as well as an actor].
When you talk to him about anything, he’s all in. He’s one of the most present [people] I ever met. Each scene, it was like the lights went out around us and we were just singular. What a dreamy situation to have with someone you’re working with. We met on Friday and were shooting on Monday and if it didn’t work it was gonna be tricky, but in seven seconds I knew it would be great.
Q: Did it help that you played Sean Spicer on SNL also a person constantly trying to justify lies.
MM: I was doing that on weekends. Oh lord. I’d come back and feel like I was in opposing worlds. So, no, because Lee is someone I found engaging and wanted to look at the heart of why she did troubling things. Whereas with the other one I was just holding the mirror up, I wasn’t examining him. I said we must always use his words, I don’t want to make things up, I just want to hold up the mirror and have his own words reflect back because they’re crazy enough. It was a very different world.
Q: What was it like to work with former SNL star Jane Curtin who played Marjorie, Lee’s agent; was it hard to yell at a comedy legend?
MM: [laughs] No, not at all, because she’s so game for anything. Getting to do those scenes with Jane, I felt like if I could run back to my younger self, watching SNL through the door crack to my parent’s room, I don’t know if that ever would have processed at that age. She seems like she’s 35, she’s so game for anything that to do less than that, to not hand it to her, she’s just like “come on!” She’s all in, she’s an amazing woman.
Q: Her gayness was portrayed in a very matter of factly way, not as a cornerstone of who she was. It was played so brilliantly. How was it to make that aspect of her so casual?
MM: It made nothing but sense to me. It’s a part of who you are and it’s integrated into your being from the beginning. So it shouldn’t be like this separate entity that’s added on, like you picked it up along the way. I love the history in that scene with Anna [Deavere Smith as Elaine, Lee’s ex-lover], because there was this lovely possibility between them — you almost see Lee at her best.
Every time I see that scene with Lee outside the restaurant, I think it could work out. And when you see her with Anna in that park, you see someone that knows her well and isn’t so charmed by her. I think the reality of both those situations of who you are and who you have been, and seeing past loves that truly know you and aren’t so taken by you, it feels real rather than “presented.”
Q: Why was she always so pissed off and angry?
MM: For me, it was just about when someone loses focus and loses who you are. Lee lived with her outward abrasiveness and stopped seeing what it was. She was so inside and struggling with “why am I losing my career? Why is my talent undervalued?” She was so at odds with herself inside that she stopped realizing when she offended someone. She stopped ever looking at herself and saying, “am I doing this?” It was just, “The world is against me.”
Jane [Curtin] met her, which none of us knew. When we were shooting the scene that was in Jane’s apartment at the book party. She said that 25 years ago, her and her husband were at a party for a book launch. It wasn’t so much [a matter of] volume as [it was] someone who just came in and was disruptive, who walked through conversations; she was like a groundhog going through the party. She took some food, pounded [down] a couple drinks, and took off. And Jane turned to someone and said, “who the hell was that?” It was Lee. They didn’t even write that scene based on Jane’s experience [directly into the film] but she lived through that scene.