TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Melissa McCarthy is known for her comic roles in movies like "Bridesmaids" and "The Heat" and for her impersonation of President Trump's first press secretary, Sean Spicer, on "Saturday Night Live." Now she takes a different direction in the new film "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" which is based on the 2008 memoir of the same name by Lee Israel.
Israel, who died in 2014, had a moderately successful career writing biographies of people who had fallen out of the popular consciousness, like actress Tallulah Bankhead and gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. But after her biography of Estee Lauder flopped, she couldn't find a publisher for her next book about vaudeville star Fanny Brice. Finding herself broke, unable to pay her rent or her cat's vet bill, Israel deployed her writing skills to forge letters by literary luminaries like Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, Noel Coward and the actress Louise Brooks and sold the letters to collectors. Reviewing the film in The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote Lee Israel may be the single most interesting movie character you will encounter this year.
Let's start with a clip from the film in which Israel confides her secret to Jack Hock, a fellow alcoholic who scrapes by on charm, wit and numerous scams and hustles. Jack is played by Richard E. Grant. Each of these characters has an acerbic sense of humor.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?")
MELISSA MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) Can you keep a secret?
RICHARD GRANT: (As Jack Hock) I have no one to tell. All my friends are dead.
MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) Quite by accident, I find myself in a rather criminal position.
GRANT: (As Jack Hock) I can't fathom what criminal activity could possibly involve a - except a crime of fashion, of course.
MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) I'm in embellishing documents, if you will.
GRANT: (As Jack Hock) Are you forging checks?
MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) No, literary letters by prominent writers.
GRANT: (As Jack Hock) Not checks, not money, just letters?
MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) You're not understanding the world of elite collectable literary artifacts.
GRANT: (As Jack Hock) I suppose not. And how thrilling to be forging pieces of paper that go where, libraries?
MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) No, I am selling to collectors.
GRANT: (As Jack Hock) How much are you getting from them?
MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) I don't know why I told you. It's a waste of a secret. I should've gone out there and gotten a rock and told the rock 'cause I'd get a better response.
GRANT: (As Jack Hock) Who else have you told about this?
MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) You're not the only one without friends.
GROSS: Melissa McCarthy, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love you in this new movie, so congratulations on it. This is a really different role for you. You play somebody who is very funny in a caustic, sarcastic, bitter way. But I wouldn't call the movie...
GROSS: ...A comedy. And there isn't any physical comedy in it. And you're very known...
GROSS: ...For physical comedy. So I know you starred in "St. Vincent" in a dramatic role, but do you consider this movie a new direction for you?
MCCARTHY: I think it's a new direction for how, I think, most people are used to seeing me. I was in New York for many, many years doing dramatic plays, so I'm quite comfortable. And I always kind of think if you, you know, put all the things I've done together, I may have even done more drama than comedy in its totality. But as you realize, I - most people haven't seen a lot of that. It was incredibly far-off-Broadway plays. So, you know, the 13 people at each performance don't...
MCCARTHY: ...Have much impact.
GROSS: So I skimmed through the memoir 'cause, you know, the movie's based on a memoir by Lee Israel.
GROSS: And so I might've missed this. But you don't really get a sense of who she is physically, what she looks like. And I don't think there's a lot of insights into her personality. So where did you go for those insights, and did you have a sense of what she looked like?
MCCARTHY: No, there's - you know, true to Lee's personality, there is not a lot of her personal life to get to take a look at. And also it's before everyone felt the need to document, you know, every single moment of their lives. And I was lucky enough, though, that two of our producers - David Yarnell had known her for 20 years. He was - you know, had a very big part in kind of poking and prodding her to even write the memoir, which he, you know, says she was very difficult about.
Again, true to Lee's kind of caustic, prickly nature, she didn't want to write about herself. She didn't like the idea of it and finally did, which worked out well for her. But Anne Carey, another of our producers, knew her for 10 years. So I really just kind of sat and listened to their stories and listened to, you know, how difficult yet to me always so witty and kind of fascinating she was. So I got a lot of the - the character is from that. And then the rest, you know, I kind of conjured and created.
GROSS: So something I thought was a very telling detail about Lee Israel's personality is that she had a 21-year-old cat who was, like, infirm and addled and living under the bed. And her apartment was infested with flies.
GROSS: And she writes, (reading) I found no connection between the flies and my cat's litter box, although it should've been clearer that she was doing what my grandma Lena (ph) used to call her business under my bed. And her business was attracting flies. I did not smell anything, rather like those serial killers who garnish their flats with hacked-off human parts but never seem bothered by or even aware of the stench.
And I can't help but wonder, like, how - you see in the film that the hole underneath her bed is just covered...
GROSS: ...With cat poo. And she's totally unaware of it. But when someone else walks in the apartment, they have to leave 'cause it smells so much. So you had to ask yourself - right? - when you were playing her, like, how could she not have noticed?
MCCARTHY: Well, how far into denial and - there was such an inner - I thought, you know, there was such an inner spiral for Lee in terms of just shutting down and pushing people away and going inward. And so much played - I kind of - there was - there seemed to be such a struggle, an interior struggle, for her and so much kind of anger and frustration. And it was at a point in her life where the one thing she could do, which was write - and she was a great writer. She was being told she was obsolete. And I think she was just no longer - you know, just as though - in the same way that she was not flexible or capable enough of simply starting a new career or even getting a job and just dealing with people, she did not have that ability. She could only do the one thing.
And I think the more her life spiraled out, the less she could, you know, see what was literally right there in front of her. It's like, you know, I think there's a thing when people kind of just start to barricade on the interior of themselves, that there - you know, you do truly become in denial of what's right in front of your face.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Melissa McCarthy. And she stars in the new movie "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" So I want to ask you about something you did so well, which is playing Sean Spicer on "Saturday Night Live"...
GROSS: ...President Trump's first press secretary who had a very oppositional relationship with the press. So here's...
MCCARTHY: Yes, to say the least.
GROSS: To say the least. Here's your first outing as Sean Spicer on "Saturday Night Live."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) So I'd like to begin today by apologizing on behalf of you to me...
MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) ...For how you have treated me these last two weeks. And that apology is not accepted...
MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) ...'Cause I'm not here to be your buddy. I'm here to swallow gum, and I'm here to take names.
MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) OK, now let me wave something shiny in front of you monkeys.
MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) As you know, President Trump announced his Supreme Court pick on the national TV today. When he entered the room, the crowd greeted him with a standing ovation...
MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) ...Which lasted a full 15 minutes.
MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) And you can check the tape on that. Everyone was smiling.
MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) Everyone was happy.
MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) The men all had erections.
MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) And every single one of the women was ovulating left and right.
MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) And no one - no one was sad. OK, those are the facts forever, and there's something else. Now, under the president's schedule for today, at 3:45, the president will host an encore screening of "Finding Dory"...
MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) ...OK, the story of a forgetful fish, OK? Everybody likes that. Then at 6 p.m., he's going to abolish the National Park System. But Dory...
MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) Good stuff.
GROSS: That's so great.
MCCARTHY: Oh, my God, I have not heard that in quite awhile.
GROSS: That's Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer. What do you think listening back to it?
MCCARTHY: I - it's strange to hear back. I forgot just kind of how truly absurd it was and yet kind of true to form...
GROSS: So I...
MCCARTHY: ...Which is also rattling.
GROSS: I always wanted to know whose idea was it for you to play Spicer. Did they call you and say - did "Saturday Night Live" folks call you and ask you to do it, or did you suggest the idea to them?
MCCARTHY: No. My - no, I did not suggest it. I would never ever have thought of that in a million years. My friend Kent Sublette - that's one of the head writers at "SNL" that I know, you know, going back to the Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles. He called and said, would you ever come in and do Spicer? I wrote something that I think you can play. And I was like, what? The - what? I can't play him. I don't do impersonations. I'm not a man. I don't - no, I have no interest. It's not in my wheelhouse. And he just kept saying, you know, I think you could do it. I think, you know, just come in. Can I send it to you to read? And I think I said, oh, I don't think it's quite my thing. And then I believe the next day I saw another rather, you know, insane press conference where I thought, oh, this is weirder than anything I could actually do.
MCCARTHY: Like, we can't even - we can't even match it on "SNL." It's so absurd. And I just thought, OK, I'm going to come in and read it and talk to you guys about it. And, you know, I think - and then the real humbling blow is I thought, well, how long is it going to take? Like, can we even get me to look like him? And the really lovely special effects guy there just said, oh, yeah, that's not going to be hard at all. That'll take, like, a half an hour, which I thought, oh, I thought it might be harder to switch over to a balding man.
MCCARTHY: But it really wasn't. And they got it down to like - you know, at one point we were doing it in like, you know, 15 minutes. But I just thought - I think I got the feel - I started to think maybe it's time to kind of hold the mirror up and see if anyone realizes how kind of ridiculous they're being.
GROSS: So one of the things that you became famous for within that sketch is the moving podium, which you'd kind of drive aggressively at reporters.
GROSS: And then there was, like, one sketch where you actually drove it down - was it 5th Avenue in Manhattan?
MCCARTHY: We were all over Manhattan in that podium, which was very surreal shooting it. I think I pitched it at one point of, you know, do we go - do we kind of sail into the sunset? And I think I just actually thought it would be fun to drive kind of a Segway podium around Manhattan. I didn't think they would ever let me do it.
GROSS: Oh, a Segway. Is that what it was on?
MCCARTHY: Well, it was kind of based on that. Some - you know, these incredible people built this whole rig. So it was kind of a podium sitting on a Segway-type of contraption. But they built this whole thing and rigged it. But - and it was weird. There were just - you know, all up and down the streets, there were all these people watching. And then you could - I'd look up into the building and just see, you know, hundreds of people kind of pressed against the glass...
MCCARTHY: ...And I thought, this is the most surreal moment I'll probably ever have.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Melissa McCarthy, and she's now starring in the new movie "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" So we'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GRANELLI, ROBBEN FORD, BILL FRISELL AND J. ANTHONY GRANELLI'S "AIN'T THAT A SHAME")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Melissa McCarthy. She's starring in the new movie "Can You Ever Forgive Me?," which is based on a memoir by Lee Israel who, when she started being unable to sell new book ideas, decided to forge letters by literary greats and make money selling those forged letters as if they were originals.
So something else you're very famous for is your role in "Bridesmaids." And the most famous - or maybe I should say infamous - scene (laughter) is when the bride and the bridesmaids get food poisoning as they're trying on, like, really expensive, fancy bridal dresses...
GROSS: ...And, you know, bridesmaids' dresses. And they get, like, super sick. And of course there aren't enough bathrooms, so you end up sitting on the bathroom sink in your expensive gown that you're trying on. And the whole scene is very intentionally gross. And I'm wondering how you felt about that scene because part of the scene - part of the point of the movie, is that, you know, women could do gross-out comedy just as men can, and...
MCCARTHY: It really wasn't the point of it.
GROSS: Oh, OK, because...
MCCARTHY: And none of us felt that way about it. And that scene was actually kind of injected into the film kind of late into the process. And I think at first everyone bristled at it and thought, we don't want to do this gross scene for the sake of gross. It really isn't any of our humor. We didn't find it funny because it did feel like, for lack of a better way to term it, more like a guy move. I do remember us talking about it. And I said, the only thing that appeals to me does seem funny and kind of the type of thing you watch and go, thank God it's not me - I said, if we just play the horror and the embarrassment of it because weird things like this do happen.
And I said, if it's less about gross for gross and more about, oh, my God, I can't make the earth swallow me up. And if you play I think how maybe more women would do it in terms of it was horrifying. Not - we weren't going like, yeah, look at this. We were all desperately, even though we were friends within the movie, saying, like, oh, my God, just look somewhere else. Like, we couldn't escape it. And then I think we started to reconcile with the fact that, like, it could be funny for the sheer sake of being like, what is the worst thing that could happen to you, and how do you kind of like - just like a horror movie get through it?
GROSS: It's interesting to hear you say that 'cause the second half of my question (laughter) was going to be, OK, some women found it liberating that, you know, women could do gross-out humor like men. But then there's the question, do women want to establish their equality by doing gross-out scenes? And so your response is really interesting 'cause you're saying that's not really what was intended, but...
MCCARTHY: It wasn't intended. And it was really talked about because I'm not one for bathroom humor or stuff like that. I think sometimes there's that horrible and wonderful feeling you get where you're so embarrassed for the character. And I think that's showing the character kind of going through such a vulnerable humiliation that we can all laugh at it because in some way, we've all done it. We've all fallen, said the wrong thing, had some shaming thing done. And I think at least for myself, that was the connection to that's a real human experience, even if that particular action hasn't happened to most people.
GROSS: Melissa McCarthy, something else that you're famous for is insults (laughter), insulting people.
MCCARTHY: (Laughter) Oh, no.
GROSS: Not in real life. Maybe in real life. I wouldn't know.
GROSS: I don't know you in that way.
MCCARTHY: I can assure you not.
GROSS: But the most famous example of that is in "This Is 40." And there's a feud between your teenage kid and Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann's teenage kid. And this becomes a feud between the three parents. And they're all called in to meet with the principal. And the other couple, the Leslie Mann-Paul Rudd couple, have threatened you. So you're all just kind of going at each other in the office. So...
GROSS: ...Let's hear that scene. It starts with you.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THIS IS 40")
MCCARTHY: (As Catherine) These people are liars. He said that my son was an animal and that if I didn't keep him on a leash, then he would hit him with his car.
JOANNE BARON: (As Vice Principal Laviati) Did you say that?
PAUL RUDD: (As Pete) That's ridiculous. Who talks like that?
MCCARTHY: (As Catherine) You do.
LESLIE MANN: (As Debbie) He didn't say that.
MCCARTHY: (As Catherine) He said it to me.
RUDD: (As Pete) All right, you know, no, what I said was that we need to keep an extra eye on our kids because with all the technological advances, they need to learn to use them responsibly.
MCCARTHY: (As Catherine) No, no, what he said to me was he called me a [expletive].
RUDD: (As Pete) A what?
BARON: (As Vice Principal Laviati) Language, Catherine, language.
MCCARTHY: (As Catherine) I'm quoting. How am I going to relay what these two nutballs said to me unless I say it?
BARON: (As Vice Principal Laviati) Can you please not talk like that, Catherine? Music Man is rehearsing next door.
MCCARTHY: (As Catherine) Sorry [expletive] Music Man. Maybe if I looked more like this fake couple. It looks like they're in a bank commercial. That's what you look like, like you're a bank commercial couple.
BARON: (As Vice Principal Laviati) None of this talk is productive.
MCCARTHY: (As Catherine) I would like to rear up and jackknife my legs and kick you both in the jaw with my foot bone.
MANN: (As Debbie) You're just really scaring me.
MCCARTHY: (As Catherine) This is what happens when you corner a rat. You corner me, I will chew through you. I'll chew through you.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. And then as the credits roll at the end of "This Is 40," it's just you kind of improv-ing (ph) insults in that scene. And it just goes, like, on and on with more over-the-top insults. Is that something that you're famous for outside, like in the real world, being able to do really funny insults?
MCCARTHY: No. No, I do not go around insulting people I hope ever. I don't know if it's a cathartic part of the work that, you know, you do something so kind of unlike yourself. And maybe it's why I don't do it in life. I get it all out on screen. But, yeah, the first time I watched that back, I kept saying, I didn't say that. Oh, god, I would never say that. And the person I was sitting with said, we're watching you say it. You said all of it. And I didn't remember saying most of it, which made me feel slightly crazy. And I was just trying to say anything that came off the very top of my head. I hadn't planned anything. So, you know, maybe it was just that so much kind of free word association that I didn't kind of log it into my memory.
GROSS: Had you improv-ed (ph) insults before?
MCCARTHY: Yes. I've had - coincidentally, I've played a lot of kind of very assertive characters that, you know, I think in the heat - especially part of the character's DNA was just to literally say anything just to kind of tear people down and I think kind of try to stand her - in her own authority. So it was a big part of that character.
GROSS: Yeah. You're a very aggressive detective in that.
MCCARTHY: Very aggressive detective. There is a fun to it. I mean, I would never want to do it in real life. But it's part of the fun of getting to act. You do these things that you would never do. You're bolder. You're harsher. You know, you're just ripping insults at someone. And there is a fun to it because hopefully, you know, you don't do it in your real life.
GROSS: My guest is Melissa McCarthy. She stars in the new film "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" We'll talk about growing up on a farm after a break. And John Powers will review a new BBC series that drops on Netflix Wednesday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air. And here's a song from the soundtrack of "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" It's sung by Blossom Dearie.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANHATTAN")
BLOSSOM DEARIE: (Singing) I'll take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too. It's lovely going through the zoo. It's very fancy on old Delancey...
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Melissa McCarthy. She co-starred in "Bridesmaids," has starred in several films including "The Heat" and now stars in the new film "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" as a biographer-turned-literary forger. It's based on a memoir by Lee Israel.
You grew up on a farm in Illinois. It's hard for me to think of you as a farm kid. Would you describe the farm?
MCCARTHY: It was in Plainfield, Ill. It was about 3 miles out of town. It was a corn and soybean farm. At any given time, we would have between, you know, 20 and 30 cats just on the outside.
GROSS: Wait; was that because you were, you know, cat people, or is that because of mice?
MCCARTHY: Well, probably both. But really the main reason was that, you know, anytime someone had a litter of cats or couldn't get a cat adopted or a litter adopted and they had nowhere else to go, we would - you know, my mom would take them in. And she thought, well, what's the difference? We're on a big farm. It does help to keep mice from ever getting into the house. And she's a - you know, a softy. And we all liked cats. So they would say outside. They weren't - you know, it wasn't like a horror movie where there's 55 cats in our living room.
MCCARTHY: But - you know, and people would put boxes of cats, like, in our driveway. I always thought it was kind of sad and terrible. But we'd take them in. And as kids, we'd love it. I think it did definitely frighten parents of my friends. The first time - you know, the first time I got taken home, there was always a bit of a catch in my chest of, like, when they finally get down the gravel road and they pull into the driveway...
MCCARTHY: There are going to be 25 cats that rush out to the car in a very friendly way. But it does seem like, oh, and this is how we'll all be killed. And I just remember the first time, parents were always like, oh, my God; oh my God. And I'm like, it's fine; I'll get out here; I'll just get out here. And they're like, why do you have so many cats? And, you know, it's, like, an 8-year-old kid. You're like, well, you know, we just take them in, and it's not as weird as it looks. Meanwhile, you know, they were just like, get out; get out of the car.
GROSS: What did you feed them? You must have had a lot of cat food.
MCCARTHY: There was a lot of cat food. There - we'd make, like, big pitchers of food. I remember using - I have not thought about this. We - I believe we used, like, Carnation powdered milk, and we'd, like, rip up bread and then lots of cat food and make this kind of stew concoction and then go out on the back porch and, you know - and call all the cats. And...
MCCARTHY: That's a lot of cats to come running. At one point - you know, especially if some of the cats were newer and a little more slightly feral, my mom was very aware of making sure all the cats got pet so they got used to people and used to being around. And she's really sweet. So Sandy would always pet each cat while they were eating and make sure they got used to, like, people touching them. And at one point, she was out there doing that, and when she stood up, she realized that one of the cats was a skunk.
MCCARTHY: So she had been chatting and petting this skunk, being like, oh, you like that? Is that a good dinner? Oh - and then she stood up, and the light that she had been blocking with her body - the light hit the skunk. So yeah, it was - all were welcome, I guess, is the takeaway there.
GROSS: I hope she didn't get sprayed by the skunk.
MCCARTHY: She didn't. It just kept eating. She...
MCCARTHY: You know, it's probably the only time for sure it got pet by a human.
GROSS: Melissa McCarthy, at what point did you start thinking about either acting or comedy? Which came first - like, acting or comedy? By comedy, I mean stand-up.
MCCARTHY: Stand-up came first and kind of suddenly, and I moved to New York when I was 20 kind of out of the blue. I'd been living in Boulder, Colo., not sure exactly what I was doing or why I was even there. I'd moved there with my sister and then just was still kind of lingering and had a friend come and see me and say, why are you in Boulder? Like - and I said, I don't know; I only want to be in New York.
So three days later, I moved to New York City. That night, he found a place to do stand-up the next - an open mic night the next day because - not because I had necessarily talked about stand-up, but I think I kind of did a lot of telling stories and like to - you know, I found it fun to make people laugh. And our first night, he said, you should do - you're going to do an open mic night tomorrow night. And I said, all right. And I think because I was 20 and you just kind of think everything's not a big deal - I think, you know, now I would be terrified, but at 20, I just went, OK, that seems fine; we're not doing anything else.
And I went up onstage the second night I was in New York, and I kind of thought, oh, I think this is what I'm going to do. And I remember calling my parents, saying, I'm not going to go back to school. I had planned on finishing up at FIT. I hadn't finished school. And I wanted to...
GROSS: That's the fashion institute.
MCCARTHY: Yes, and I wanted to do women's clothing. It's kind of all I had kind of ever thought about from - you know, my grandmother was a seamstress. Maybe that was embedded in me. But it was really my - it's what I did on - you know, I really loved it. I loved making clothes. I loved watching other designers, studying what they did. I loved the whole process. I was always sketching. And then I did stand-up one night, and I just thought, I think I'm going to go this direction.
GROSS: Do you remember any of the material you did that first night?
MCCARTHY: I do. Strange - I'm sure it was terrible. I was at Stand Up NY for an open mic, and I remember I - first of all, I hadn't written anything. I just kind of got up on - I didn't know that you were supposed to write - I mean, just oblivious.
MCCARTHY: ...Oblivious to any preparation or - and I went up onstage, and I know I had a big wig on and kind of a very eccentric - you know, I think it was, like, a silver, metallic kind of trench coat dress. And I remember just starting to talk about being in New York and being so tall and wealthy and having everyone love you so - and I think at first, it really threw people as, you know, it seemed so egotistical and narcissistic. And I thought, oh, they're not liking this.
And I went harder, and I kept complimenting myself more and more but in ways that - these were not factual compliments. I was saying everything I wasn't. I had, you know, 13 cents. I was not tall. I was not fabulous and sought-after in New York. So I do remember that feeling of them realizing that I'm making fun of myself; I'm not complimenting myself. And then when they started to laugh, I just thought, oh, this is really fun; this is really strange and fun and such a tightrope act of, well, they didn't like me a minute ago, and now I think it's OK. And then I could say anything because they knew it wasn't serious. And I think I pulled somebody up onstage and talked about us being engaged. And he was clearly there with a date.
MCCARTHY: And I didn't really know how to do jokes, so I just kind of - again, I went on as a character. I went on as Miss Y. I never would've gone on as myself, but through a character, I could be more ridiculous and more bold and brazen. And I would not go and just plop down on someone's lap and talk about how much they love me, but as this character, I could. And I just felt a great freedom in that.
GROSS: Would you always dress the way you described the...
GROSS: ...You did that first night?
MCCARTHY: I was always completely - completely in a different - I was always in a huge wig, some very elaborate costume, but almost club kid-y (ph), but not as alternative at that point. I was living with one of my still-best friends, Brian Atwood, who now is a shoe designer, but at the time, he was at FIT, so he was making all these different clothes. So I would wear - you know, I would grab things that he was making for class, and we would go out and go do stand-up that night, and I would throw on one of his, like, you know - a weird lame swing cape or some kind of scuba suit thing. And it just seemed so fun. It was all so much more ridiculous and fun. And I just thought, well, why not? When else do you get to wear, like, a scuba dress out?
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Melissa McCarthy, and she stars in a new movie called "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "H.S. (LIVE)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Melissa McCarthy. She stars in the new movie "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" When we left off we were talking about her early standup comedy career.
So did you perform at gay clubs?
MCCARTHY: I - the Duplex was one of my favorite places to perform. I just loved it - also because, you know, the heckling wasn't there, which is really why I stopped standup. I didn't do it that long. I think people think I did it longer and probably better than I did. I didn't. When you went into a regular comedy club, something that I really didn't like was there was this element - there was always one guy that always really did literally seem like, do you just go club to club? Like, are you actually the same guy? 'Cause it was always the kind of - you know, you weren't even fully up on stage yet. And there's always somebody like, take your top off.
MCCARTHY: And you're just like, what? Like, what are you - like, does that ever work for you? Has any woman ever been like, oh, my God, I wasn't thinking of it, but you know what? I'm going to take my top off.
MCCARTHY: Like, it just - but every time or something in that vein - and especially when you're starting out, you have, you know, you have 4 1/2 minutes. And the only way to stop someone from yelling and heckling is you have to really shut him down, like truly shut him down. Not just like, OK, buddy, you know, got it. They're going to keep doing it, and they're going to keep doing it. So in order to actually make them be quiet, you would have to kind of truly humiliate them, not in a joking way because, strangely, just trying to indicate to them that, like, I don't want to do this. I don't want to have this back-and-forth with you, and I'm not going to take my shirt off because I'm not insane. So I felt I had to get so mean and so cutting and actually really make the person so embarrassed that they stopped talking.
GROSS: What was one of your favorite insults that you gave onstage in response to a heckler?
MCCARTHY: Oh, God. I don't think it was my favorite. I think the more it worked, the more I hated it. It usually would dissolve into some kind of thing about, are you here with your girlfriend? Oh, you're not? How's your mom's basement?
MCCARTHY: You know, I would always kind of go down that road of like, this so surprising. Like, can I get a show of hands from women - who isn't crazy about this guy that just asked me to take his shirt off?
MCCARTHY: Like, and I would do votes and then talk about like, wow, you have no takers. And it would dissolve from there. But afterwards - and then on a selfish note, I also thought out of four minutes, I've taken two minutes doing something that makes me feel bad about myself. Now you feel terrible because you'd watch the person finally be truly embarrassed enough to stop talking. And then you're looking at this guy who - even though I think he's a jerk and should have been quiet to begin with, now he actually feels bad, like, to his core. And then I'm supposed to somehow transition to, like, so I was walking down Madison Avenue.
MCCARTHY: And you're just like, how? What? First of all, there's no real good transition there. And then now I've got two minutes left.
GROSS: At the Oscars, if you go over time, they're going to play you offstage.
GROSS: Is there somebody - was the comedy club owner, like, tapping his watch and saying time's up, Melissa?
MCCARTHY: Oh, my God. Oh, there's the light.
GROSS: Oh, oh, oh.
MCCARTHY: There is the ever-present, not to ever not be heated light - that the first time I went up, I didn't know what the light meant. I'd never been in a...
GROSS: What? It flashes, like time's up?
MCCARTHY: Yes. And when that light flashes, it is literally like, finish your sentence and get off stage. You have ten seconds before, you know, the stage explodes. It is really a big deal. It's a big deal to the owner or manager, who's ever running the night. It's also a huge deal to the other comics because you don't get to suddenly do eight minutes if we all get four. That's like - oh, my God, it's a really big deal.
GROSS: Yeah. You're stealing other people's time.
MCCARTHY: You're stealing it. Yeah, you're taking it out - they're going to get less. But the first time I did standup right - there was - people actually laughed at something, much to my surprise. And as they laughed, he flashed the light from the booth. And I thought it was kind of a nonverbal applause from the manager. So I took it as...
GROSS: Kind of like a rim shot.
MCCARTHY: Yeah. I thought I thought he was saying, like, atta girl. You know, like, keep it up. Because I didn't know why he was - it was the first time that I'd seen him flash a light. And it happened right on a laugh. So then he continued flashing it, which I thought he meant, keep it up. It's going great. So I kept talking. And the light kept flashing and I thought, boy, this guy really likes me. He's really encouraging me.
And then I got off the - I finally did get off the stage. I can't remember if he came out and was like - his arms were flailing, or, finally, I was just like, I don't know what else to say. I've been up here for, like, nine minutes. And I came off. And I just remembered him screaming at me in a hallway, asking me, what's the matter with me? How dumb can I be? And I was like, I thought you were encouraging me, which I think blew his mind that I was, like, so naive that I truly didn't know.
GROSS: So you're one of the women who has taken on, like, producing and writing films. And has that been an attempt to make sure that you can act in material that means something to you, that you care about and give yourself good roles? Because...
GROSS: ...You know, I think it's often hard for women to get good roles.
MCCARTHY: I think it is. And I think - you know, I don't think a day goes by where I don't realize how lucky I am. And I've never minded how much extra work. I always thought, I want to be a part of making these three-dimensional, flawed, you know, often challenging but, to me, really real women. I just thought so many things I read were kind of, I don't even know what, in the breakdown, you would describe them as. Pleasant? I was like, I don't know how to play pleasant. Like, what - who cares? There's nothing to sink your teeth into. It's, like, the perfect clothes, and they look really nice, and they have a nice relationship. And their house is - I just thought, oh, my God. Like, who wants to watch that? I didn't want to play it. I also thought all the people I love and like are filled with quirks and eccentricities. And isn't that why we always love or even dislike people? It's like we're a bundle of all these different weirdnesses.
MCCARTHY: And so often, I've felt that everything I read for a female character was really bland and often a bummer - just kind of everyone's having fun, and then in would come the woman to go like, Carl...
MCCARTHY: ...Or Sam. Bill. I thought, oh, my God. How many times can I just randomly walk into a room and say the guy's name? I'm like, why doesn't she ever walk in and go like, what's going on? This is fun. It's like, why is she always a bummer? I just could - I didn't know how to play it. I felt like, I don't have the skill set to play this because I don't know why she's doing it.
GROSS: I'm wondering if you feel that you've been affected by the #MeToo movement, which - you know, I mean, like, Harvey Weinstein fell. Several actors - their careers are, at least temporarily, ended because they were outed for assaulting or harassing...
MCCARTHY: Criminal behavior.
GROSS: Yeah - to women. So like, as somebody, who is both, you know - an actor, a writer, a producer - has the kind of change in climate been meaningful for you? Can you feel the difference? Do you feel that women are being more empowered in Hollywood now?
MCCARTHY: Every little inch I will take. Every centimeter forward I'll take. I think the more we talk about it and the fact that it is becoming less acceptable - you know, I think the treatment of women just can't be dismissed. You can't treat half the population so poorly and have it be like, you know boys. There has to be repercussions. And it's happening in all fields, which is what I think is so important about #MeToo. It's branching out to everyone. It's all women that need help, that need money for representation. It's saying that we're all in it together. And I think the more we link up and realize there's strength in numbers, it can't be for the worse.
GROSS: Well, Melissa McCarthy, I want to thank you so much for coming on our show. I've greatly enjoyed it. I love you in your new role in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" And let's continue the conversation some other time (laughter).
MCCARTHY: I would love to. This has been just a dream. I love this show, so thanks so much for having me on.
GROSS: Melissa McCarthy stars in the new film, "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" as a writer turned literary forger. After a break, John Powers will review a new BBC series about a police bodyguard assigned to protect a woman politician who may be a terrorist target. It drops on Netflix Wednesday. This is FRESH AIR.
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