“When a woman asks for something that she deserves, she’s a bitch, and when a man does it, wow—he really spoke up for himself,” says Melissa McCarthy.
The actress, 47, knows a thing or two about boldly going after what she wants. She’s become a queen of comedy, with hits like Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters, and her Saturday Night Live portrayal of former White House Secretary Sean Spicer, at this point more recognizable than Spicer himself. (Who would McCarthy bulldoze with a lectern? “So many people. That’s a list I can’t even get into,” she says.) She also writes, produces, and designs an inclusive-sizing fashion line, Melissa McCarthy 7, consistently earning herself a spot on Forbes’s annual list of highest-paid actresses. Yet she’s keenly aware that the highest-paid actors are all bringing in fatter checks—and that, across industries, women still make 20 percent less than men.
“As a woman, I think after so many years of things just not changing, the culture starts to affect the actual actions of people,” she says, shutting down the often-cited wage gap excuse that women are less likely to come to the negotiating table with big demands. Yes, that is true, but the important question, she says, is why: “If every time something is not equivalent, why would suddenly someone think, ‘Oh, I should just ask for it and I’ll get it?’ You’re torn down for speaking up, you’re already anticipating getting rejected, so you come at it from a softer way. Women not being paid the same is completely bananas.”
Equal pay is an issue that women have battled for since they started working, one that has seen startlingly slow progress. But it’s taken on new sense of urgency in the wake of the Time’s Up movement, the Hollywood-led effort to end gender discrimination across the workforce. McCarthy’s own negotiating philosophy (offered with the caveat “Boy, am I not the one to give out tips and lessons”), is to come to the boardroom armed with evidence. “The only thing I’ve ever thought was if I worked hard enough, I’m going to ask for it—and back it up with, ‘Here’s why.’” And, however hard it is, she knows she needs to be willing to walk away. “The scariest thing of all is changing when you don’t get what you want. Change where you are, which is easier said than done. But you have to be able to think you’re worthy enough to leave when you’ve done everything you can to stay and when it still doesn’t work.”
McCarthy is also zealous about the importance of instilling girls with confidence from a young age. Her latest project, an ad she directed for Walmart that will air during the Oscars, follows a down-on-her-luck woman (Keala Settle) who gets the chance to go back in time and give her 10-year-old self some confidence-boosting advice. “If you give young kids—young girls—the self-esteem, it can change the outcome of their lives,” she says of the project, which will fund up-and-coming filmmakers through the organization Women in Film, and also features shorts by Mudbound director Dee Rees and writer and director Nancy Meyers. (View the preview video below.)
VIDEO: Melissa McCarthy's Message to Her 10-Year-Old Self Will Make You Cry
What would she have told 10-year-old Melissa? “Don’t worry about what other people think,” she says. “I would really love to say, ‘You don’t all have to be the same. If you like something or want to do something different, go do it.’ To be able to really tell your 10-year-old self and have them really get it would be rather amazing.”
Instead, she’s trying to teach that to her two daughters, Vivian, 10, and Georgette, 7—and of course the comedian has the most down-to-earth way of doing that. “I try to show it to them, and I fail a million times a day. A big thing is, when I do fail, which as parents we all do, I try to always fess up to it right away,” she says. “I think that’s a biggie for young kids to see that you can say, ‘Oh, I really did that terrible—I didn’t handle that well. I’m sorry.’ And to know that you can own up to not being perfect, like, ‘OK, I’m gonna try again, and maybe I’ll do a little better next time.’ We see so many things that are so cleaned up and polished that I want them to know there’s many drafts and editing and Photoshopping that go into it.”
Looking ahead to the Oscars, McCarthy thinks that movements like Time’s Up can also help arm women with the confidence, through the power of allies, whether at the negotiating table, in their everyday lives, or when faced with discrimination and harassment. But while turning up the volume on the conversation helps, there’s a necessary next step. “We can’t confuse discussing things with actual, concrete change,” she says. “Changing the conversation is a good way to start to change the actual climate. Now, what are the repercussions? If people do the wrong thing, we have to make sure there’s real repercussions for it.”