Can You Ever Forgive Me? Melissa McCarthy on Inhabiting Her Most Dramatic Role to Date

Melissa McCarthy was in New York last week promoting her new movie, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Marielle Heller’s first feature since 2015’s Sundance hit Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Based on celebrity biographer Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? follows Israel’s turn as a forger of dead writers’ letters when her own writing career tanked. The film recreates, lovingly and accurately, the world of ’90s New York—full of dusty bookstores and smoky saloons.

Dowdy, cranky, usually half-soused and a complete misanthrope, Israel, who died in 2014, was a literary fixture on the Upper West Side where she lived. But as portrayed by McCarthy, in her most dramatic role to date, Israel is alternately endearing, witty and someone for whom audiences will feel great empathy.

At a press junket, over the weekend at the Whitby Hotel, Richard E. Grant, who co-stars as Jack Hock, Israel’s partner in crime, said of McCarthy, “Melissa gains friends on every job she does, which, of course, is very annoying because she’s as friendly with Jude Law as she is with me and everybody else. In my experience on movies, you have this incredibly intense emotion, intimate relationship with people for two, three, four, five months but sustaining a friendship beyond that, that is the test of it because usually you meet somebody a year later and you go, ‘Hi.’ And then all you really got in common is, oh we sat next to each other at that hotel and beyond that, you realize that there’s nothing more, so I haven’t seen Melissa for a year but it’s as though I saw her last night and she’s pregnant with my twins so it’s worked out.”

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (PS): Is Lee Israel the character most unlike you in real life you’ve ever played?

Melissa McCarthy (MM): Energy-wise and social-wise, Lee’s very different from me. But I also think Michelle Darnell’s (The Boss) harshness was also so abrupt and a different energy. It’s fist forward for her, and I see similarities between them of: shove first before you’re shoved. But certainly the inward quality of Lee was fascinating to play.

Instead of always verbally responding, Lee would probably just sit and watch and wait, probably hopefully for the person to leave. But just to wait someone out… I thought so many times about how I would love to have just heard her roll out a fictional story. It would have been so funny, and [had] a bite to it, for sure. I run a parallel to Lee in that I love what I do, because I do it via someone else. Maybe it’s the coward’s way. I don’t want to play a person that’s similar to myself. I don’t know how to do it. I don’t feel like I have the skills to, in a scene, figure out what I would do.

Melissa McCarthy in her armor of heavy ill-fitting clothes that assisted in getting her into Lee Israel’s headspace. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

MM: How did you feel once you adopted her appearance, the dowdy clothes and grey wig? And how did you come up with the look for Israel?

MM: There’s a lot of trial and error that went into that. I have a feeling on the inside of what it should be, but I don’t know what that is. It stays very murky. And we just keep trying things. It really is like one thing will click in, and then everything else seems wrong. And then two things click in, and the first one’s wrong. It’s almost like Tetris. One of my favorite things was when things didn’t fit right. I told them to leave it. It shouldn’t fit—it’s 15 years old. She’s probably not the exact same shape, size, from age, from whatever it is. I did love that. Because you don’t get that in a movie very often, where you let the bad fit ride.

It always helps me, because then when it all clicks in, I feel like, now I know the gait. Because all that stuff, I just kept thinking of it as her armor. So once it finally hit… It was like a cashmere and tweed armor. But once it got on, I felt the weight of her. And things were heavy, and we had things of a certain weight on me at all times. She literally feels weighted.

MM: Did you know anything about Lee before you got involved in the movie? And what was it about her life that attracted you to the story?

MM: I didn’t know her story, and it bothered me that I didn’t. It’s a fascinating story, because it’s not the area you’d expect a crime to happen. You don’t expect that type of person to end up with the FBI. She’s not smuggling drugs—these are literary forgeries. It is a crime—she’s grifting people for sure.

I love how she did not require anyone to tell her what she was. We’re in a current state where people really need to have other people validate who they are. They need the reflection of others to see themselves. I don’t think like that, and I love that Lee didn’t need it. She was going to be who she was going to be, even when it made it much more difficult for herself. I find that a really attractive quality. Even when it’s slightly unpleasant, I still admire it.

Melissa McCarthy in New York for the Can You Ever Forgive Me? press junket. Photograph by Hosoki Nobuhiro.

MM: As an actor, I was wondering how you viewed Lee’s story regarding talent, and maybe the limitations of talent, versus the business side of her profession, which she was woefully bad at?

MM: Lee was an incredible writer. It was the only thing she did and her writing was still good, but suddenly she’s told that she’s no longer valid, that she’ve come to a certain age and become obsolete. She wasn’t adaptable—she had no flexibility to go out and get a different job. That was not going to happen. I kept thinking, what would any of us do, if you’ve lost your only means to survive?

She was on welfare at one point and was going to lose her apartment—she was going to be homeless. It’s not like she had a bunch of friends that were going to take her in. What would any of us do? And the thought that, at a certain age, instead of people being revered for their 30 years of experience, now it’s like, “What about that 20-year-old that’s more fun at the party?” Certainly it doesn’t make them a better writer or artist, or whatever profession you may be. It’s a strange thing that the more experienced has become outdated. I find that very odd.

MM: What did you discover about that period of New York in the 1990’s? The movie is especially good at showing the bleakness of New York in that time.

MM: That dark era of New York is my era. I moved here at 20, and was here from 1990 to 1997. To me it’s the most magical time. I came from a little farm town, so the grit and people working four jobs because they wanted something is familiar. We lived three in a studio in a Manhattan apartment. And we did it, and it all seemed magical. And now it’s like $2 million studios. I don’t understand the current New York. I like it very much, but it’s not mine. So I take maybe unreasonable ownership of those ’90s, because it was everything to me. It’s not the shiny walk through Central Park New York that you so often see in movies. This film is a really great glimpse into what it is really like to live in New York and be part of the city that you’re tethered to in a different way. MM

Can You Ever Forgive Me? opened in theaters October 19, 2018, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. All images courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

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