Melissa McCarthy: ‘I spend a lot of my work shredding people’
The worst thing about being famous for Melissa McCarthy is how hard it’s become to follow strangers around a discount store called Big Lots. This is a shop where you can find, for example, patio furniture, a large rack of lamb, sparkly nail varnish and also an Oscar-nominated actress, twice a week, in sunglasses and facemask, staring at strangers. “It’s my therapy, I just find it wonderful.” she says, lightly.
Not just anyone. She doesn’t want to follow just anyone, she likes to follow, for example, the guy wearing all purple, or with his beard tucked into his belt, or the woman in headphones, singing. “I guess it’s because,” she thinks, “everything we’re sold is about perfection – are you making your own organic baby food? Are you milling your own gluten-free flour? So, I have a true love and obsession for someone who’s just like – this is me.” She grins. “Yes, I get a true rush of joy when I can tell someone’s living just as they want. Somebody who’s, like, really rocking their life, I want to be in their glow for a few minutes. It recharges my batteries.” In another life, would McCarthy be one of those people, roller-skating around a discount store, singing? Would she be beard guy? “I think…” she leans in, “I am one of those people. I am beard guy.”
And – yeah, I think she might be right. Sure, at 52 she is a star, one of the highest-paid actors in the world, a pillar of mainstream Hollywood comedy, but in our brief but glorious hour together on Zoom it was clear she is also: eccentric, earnest and fabulously camp, an outsider who has somehow been invited in. I sat, recharging, in her glow. McCarthy’s story is one of unexpected diversions from the classic comedian’s path, and abrupt corners turned, seemingly, just for the fun of it.
She grew up on a corn-and-soybean farm in small town Illinois, where her main feeling as a teenage cheerleader was boredom. This was a place where that “milling your own flour” perfection was valued, so when she discovered a goth bar in Chicago, “it broke my brain”. She immediately dyed her hair blue and black and fashioned a pair of trousers from a polo-neck top. “I remember being like, ‘This is the single greatest thing I’ve ever done’.” She loved “seeing who else I could be, and how that changed how people perceived me. But,” she chuckles darkly, “the second I opened my mouth, the jig was up because they were like, ‘Ah, it’s only Missy McCarthy.’”
That was the first time she played with characters, and the first time too that she found a little club of outsiders – she loved it, and she felt very protective of it. “This is back in the 80s where it wasn’t easy for my friends who were gay to be out. And there they could be exactly who they wanted to be.” Being a goth for McCarthy “was such an expression of joy. I found it incredibly funny. When you have a foot-and-a-half mess of hair going straight up, like, how is that not fun?” She felt the same way when she found the Groundlings theatre in Los Angeles, an improv company that launched people like Maya Rudolph and Will Ferrell, as well as her husband and collaborator Ben Falcone. “A bunch of funny people trying to play the most unattractive person in the room, instead of trying to be perfect. That was amazing to me.”
She’d found her way there via New York, where, studying fashion, she started performing stand up as a drag queen named Miss Y, in a gold lamé coat and huge wig doing sets about “living extravagantly”. When, recently, following the rise of anti-drag legislation across the US, she posted pictures on Instagram of films like Some Like it Hot with the message, “You’ve been entertained by drag all your life. Don’t pretend it’s a problem now,” the comments from followers ranged from anger to abuse. “Which is absolute lunacy,” she sighs. “I mean, of all the scary and dangerous things going on in the world, they want to concentrate on this? To anybody who has a real problem with drag I need to ask, have you been to a drag brunch? It’s delightful.” This is how McCarthy does politics, with matronly sweetness, appealing to a person’s glee. Making them laugh, first at something uncomplicated and universal, like diarrhoea or calling someone a dick, and then at themselves. In 2017 she won an Emmy for her portrayal of former White House press secretary Sean Spicer as a pugnacious, bullyish baby on Saturday Night Live – Trump was displeased and later, Spicer, grinning tightly, admitted her impression “cost me a lot of money in therapy”, but conceded yeah, fine, it was quite funny.
Working as a nanny in New York in the 90s, McCarthy watched The Little Mermaid with the kids and she was drawn to Ursula, the evil sea witch, partly because she knew a fellow drag queen when she saw one. Every night she’d watch it before bedtime and every night she’d think, “My God, I’d like to have a drink with Ursula.” When Disney’s live action remake was announced, she fought hard for the part. She plays Ursula as vaudevillian villain, dishy and evil. “Having just gone through Covid, I was like, aha, this is a character who has been in isolation for long enough that she is not in the healthiest mental state. I started to love her in a whole new way. And she’s also been alone for years with two eels? She’s not solid on her tentacles, so to speak.”
The movie was the subject of its own culture war – the backlash was transparently racist, the film’s trailer flooded with over 1.5m “dislikes” from people angered by the casting of Black actress Halle Bailey as Ariel. McCarthy’s 2016 remake of Ghostbusters met similar racism, with an added glug of misogyny, too. And while McCarthy is known for her charm and good-natured jollity, it’s this kind of thing that brings out the rage in her. “I hate any kind of injustice. And people attacking someone for just trying to be who they truly are. What does it matter to them? Do no harm, be kind – if everyone just followed those two rules, we’d be fine. Not,” as she’s seeing in America right now, “‘you can’t read this book’, ‘You can’t talk about certain histories.’ I don’t have any patience for all that.” When she touches on her angers, she gives a glimpse of the tenacity and grit that doesn’t so much lurk behind her cheery optimism as prop it up and push it forward. “Can you imagine if everybody was just kind for one week? The difference would be so unbelievable I don’t even know how it would feel. And the weird thing is, it’s just… not that hard to do?” For McCarthy, maybe.
In 2011, she was cast in Bridesmaids – the director, Paul Feig, said her audition was like “a religious moment” for him. “It actually took me 30 seconds to realise it was even funny.” The film, in which one memorable scene saw her seduce an air steward (played by Falcone) and another saw her shitting in a sink, went on to change her life, leading to her first Oscar nomination and fame in her 40s. “I love strong, flawed characters that are who they are – you don’t have to like me, I’m not changing for you. I love that in humans, and I love that in a character, because it’s so fun to play that sticky grey middle.” The stickiest, perhaps, was biographer-turned-forger Lee Israel in 2018’s black comedy Can You Ever Forgive Me? which won her another Oscar nomination. “I have fallen in love with all of these women. And I like to think every time I play one it makes me one centimetre better, a little bit more empathetic. Because I get to try on different people’s armour and also their insecurities.” These are characters, she says, “that do not enter a room softly.”
Or, as one journalist once put it, “He said, ‘Why are you always so grotesque in movies?’” She pressed him on it, “grotesque”, and he explained, “abrasive”, “aggressive”, “sometimes you don’t even wear makeup.” “Because I’m playing real people,” she told him. “Perfect people don’t exist and I wouldn’t know how to play one.” She pauses. “I felt bad for him.” Honestly? She’s offered similar sympathy to the multiple critics who’ve dismissed her blockbusting movies as “bland” and “disgusting”. “Honestly!”
McCarthy lives with her family between homes in Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles, where she and Falcone run a production company and bring up their daughters (Vivian, 16, and Georgette, 13) with the same improv sensibility that brought them together – a reliance on “Yes, and…” and asking “Why not?” “My aim is to make my kids laugh. They’re like, ‘This old hack again?’ But Ben and I equate a really good laugh with a certain amount more time granted on earth. So, a really crazy laugh where you’re like, ‘I’m gonna black out’, he’ll say, you just got four months!” A good chuckle adds, on average, a week and a half to the end of one’s life in the McCarthy-Falcone household – their work, then, is a kind of surreal healthcare. “Yeah we take our comedy very seriously.” And that rare black-out laughter – she goes into a similar kind of coma when she’s improvising. Filming This is 40 in 2012, director Judd Apatow showed her a scene set in a school meeting, opposite a corpsing Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd – it ended up running as a blooper at the end of the film, “And I remember being, like, ‘But, I didn’t say that, Judd?’” It wasn’t just what McCarthy was saying that was funny (“I would like to rear up and jackknife my legs and kick you both in the fucking jaw with my foot bone…I’ll fucking chew through you,” and on and on, “I will chew off your eyelids”, until the sounds of snickering behind the camera can’t be ignored, “I’m going to slit somebody open like a fish and drink their blood”) but the macabre intensity with which she says it, and how she carries on even when all the other actors are laughing, just for the joy of it.
“There’s a rhythm or a flow, where my mouth precedes my brain in some form?” It’s not only joyful, she says, “It’s really cathartic. Like, when I’m just eviscerating Sandy Bullock,” in The Heat, 2013, “I can be much better off in life. I spend a lot of my work day just… shredding people, so I’m not screaming at someone at a stoplight because they didn’t go the second it turned green. I can wait a minute. I’m fine. Maybe that’s something that everyone should be able to do,” eviscerate a colleague for fun, “as easy as taking a spin class.” Utopia is a place where everyone has the opportunity to tell Sandra Bullock we’ll chew off her eyelids, then breathe, laugh and move on.
Before hiring anybody new for a film, she and Falcone perform what they call a “crazy check”, to see if they’re nice. They don’t just expect kindness on their sets, “We demand it.” She marvels, suddenly, leaning backwards on a cream sofa the size of a swimming pool, “You know, we were so astounded and grateful at getting to build our own little worlds, we were like, ‘We have to build the one we’ve always talked about, where everybody gets to have an opinion and everyone is really nice. It’s going to run a lot better with no screamers or crazy egos bumbling around. Why would we risk destroying that?’”
Has she had experience then, of screamers and egos? She pauses. Yes. “I did work for someone once who ran such a volatile, hostile set that it made me physically ill. My eyes were swelling up, I was absorbing all of this nuttiness.” What did it look like? “There were people weeping, visibly so upset by this one person. And I think that’s why the manipulation worked, because to get to me, this person would fire people I loved, which kept me quiet. It was very effective. Then one day, I was like, ‘It stops today!’ I just kept saying to them, it stops, it stops. And I know now I’ll never keep quiet again.” That’s the thing about being nice – it’s harder than it looks.
McCarthy has always had 60 in her head, as the age at which she’ll start wearing exclusively kaftans and turbans, and embrace her true beard-guy self. “But now I’m like, I don’t want to wait until 60, actually.” Which doesn’t mean she wants to retire. No, she wants to work even harder, but with that kaftan kind of freedom. “It’s a fist fight to try to get comedies made right now. And I don’t know why, because we’ve never needed to laugh more.” Comedy, she says, brings people together by allowing us to laugh at ourselves. “Comedy allows you to sit next to somebody whose ideas don’t match up. And maybe you come out a little closer. I think that’s what I’m supposed to be doing, in this world.” She thinks. “I can’t do a lot of useful things. I don’t know how to clean up the oceans, or stop our violent tendencies. But I can hopefully give someone who’s had a bad day an hour and a half to go into a different world where bills or illness isn’t the top thing on their brain. That’s the only skill set I really have. So I have to keep trying.”
She has this theory, she says. If two people are standing on opposite street corners, “and one person is screaming hate, just terrible things, while the other person is saying, ‘You’re doing a great job. Keep it up! You’re a good parent!’ everyone’s going to look at the hate screamer, right?” She sighs, it’s what we do, human heads are easily turned. “Partly because, it’s hard to scream compliments. Niceness – it’s not as noticeable. So when I see people out there with microphones literally screaming terrible things, I always want to get like, a slightly bigger microphone.”
This impulse is a trait that she shares with the characters she plays, a compulsion to question the modern world and a bawdy confidence, which inevitably makes everything better. “Actually,” she adds, quite serious now, “I would not mind spending a day on the street corner just randomly complimenting people, really loudly. ‘You have terrific pants on,’ or ‘I love your fringe!’” She thinks for a second. “I’m going to have to do it, aren’t I?” I’m pretty sure, I tell her, she already is.
The Little Mermaid is released on 26 May