Melissa McCarthy Does It for the Laughs
When you read this issue, Melissa McCarthy will have been living in Australia for nine months. She left the U.S. in July to film the Hulu series Nine Perfect Strangers alongside Nicole Kidman, Michael Shannon, Regina Hall, and Bobby Cannavale. She is staying on to film a Netflix series, God's Favorite Idiot, written by her husband, Ben Falcone. She and her family have been enjoying a bucolic existence in Byron Bay (in a country that has handled COVID-19 effectively enough to resume normalcy), far away, geographically at least, from the strife in the United States.
But this doesn't mean that McCarthy, 50, has divorced herself from the world. If anything, she is more invested, redoubling her commitment to understanding "how we got here" politically, psychologically, socially. This time has also affected her relationship to comedy. "I'm not smart enough to know how to purify the water, but I can throw myself down a flight of stairs and hope that it lets someone forget their troubles," she says. Even if it hurts her hips.
Laura Brown: Hold on. I'm going to pin you [on Zoom]. Don't feel violated.
Melissa McCarthy: I don't know. It's been a while.
LB: COVID is not a horny time. Let's just be clear.
MM: Yeah. The pandemic doesn't really, um, mix it up for me. I keep thinking about if someone said more than a year ago that this would be happening, we'd be like, "Hey, you seem kind of crazy." We'd be rallying a group of friends, like, "Diane's gone batshit."
LB: It's been particularly interesting for you, because you've been in Australia shooting. You're missed in this hemisphere, but you seem to be having a great time down there.
MM: I know. I feel weirdly guilty. But then part of my ploy is to try and get more people here, which is not really my place. I'm sure the government would be like, "You can't do that. Shut up." Ben says, "You can't just tell people to hop on a plane and go to Australia." I was like, "Well, I'm trying to create the world I want."
LB: While you've been in Oz, the New York Times named you one of the 25 greatest actors of the 21st century.
MM: I couldn't process it beyond they got to 19 and were like, "You know, let's call her dad, Mike McCarthy, and see if he wants to throw somebody's name into a hat." And he's like, "What about my daughter, Missy?" That's how it hit me. I was shocked by it for sure.
LB: What does it mean to you?
MM: I love what I do, but I don't think of myself in that way at all. Fifteen years ago, if you would've said, "Oh, by the way, you and Ben are going to be able to write and make movies like the dumb stories that we used to do on the stage of the Groundlings improv theater in L.A.," we would have been like, "Really? Is that possible?" The way we do things still feels very grassroots. I think of us as circus people in that we just kind of travel around and put on a show. It's like getting an invite to a party where you're like, "Oh, I didn't know they knew I existed."
LB: I always think of actors as having this duality — you're inside yourself as a person but outside of yourself in a role or in a public profile.
MM: It's interesting when people say, "Oh, well, of course you have a public life, you're an actor." Well, I've chosen to be an actor, and I'm quite happy with myself, but I wouldn't know how to play myself. I went into acting because I find other people more interesting. I love getting out of myself and into someone else, so when the light gets shone on me as opposed to a character, I just feel like I'm off.
LB: But it's awesome when you do you. A couple of years ago you and Ben showed up to the Vanity Fair Oscars party, spiritual home of the fishtail evening gown, in matching Adidas tracksuits.
MM: I'm sure it threw everybody into a tizzy because the idea came to me the day before the Oscars. I asked, "Can we wear matching tracksuits?" And someone was like, "For tomorrow?Like, that both fit?" It's not that easy. I just wanted to be in tennies and tracksuits. It just seemed so funny to me and so comfortable. I have never been flipped off or told to f— off as much as at that party [laughs], and it was all done, uh, jokingly, but also with something real behind it. [After the ceremony] everyone put on a different dress and different heels. They just totally were like, "You go f— yourself [for wearing a tracksuit]." My response was, "Oh, OK, I'm going to go dance pretty hard right now."
LB: I want to talk about the last year and your COVID experience. Where were you when lockdown began?
MM: In March I was rehearsing in London with Rob Marshall and the amazing team that's doing The Little Mermaid. I remember it went from "Is this thing going to be a thing?" to two days later I was like, "I need a flight home [to L.A.] today." So, I got there by the skin of my teeth.
LB: How was it being at home in the spring?
MM: My mom had come out for the winter and stayed with us, which was incredible. My dad had gone home a little early, so she got stuck. She stayed five months, which was amazing. I haven't lived with my mom every day since I was 18 years old. To have that time with her again was unbelievable.
But I think we were all just upside down. It was the panic of "What do you have to wash?" We had washing stations in our garage, and we would leave things there. We were in hazmat suits. I just remember scrubbing the outside of grapefruits with soap and water and then [dipping them] into a vinegar bath. We didn't know what was safe enough. The amount of scrubbing and cleaning was crazy. Ben was like, "Are you Cloroxing the outsides of the apple? Should we be eating it?" It was just nuts.
LB: Then you left to shoot Nine Perfect Strangers in Australia with all of this going on.
MM: We were supposed to shoot in L.A., and, obviously, that wasn't going to happen. And in between cleaning grapefruits and laundry I got a call asking what I thought about going to Byron Bay to shoot it. I said, "I can't pick up a family during a pandemic. I can't even go down the street to a store." And then Vivian, my 13-year-old, came out so glazed over from sitting on a Zoom class. I was like, "I just had the weirdest call. Someone asked if we want to move to Australia to do Nine Perfect Strangers." And she didn't even take a beat. She went, "We should leave today. We can't see friends. And isn't Australia one of the safest places on the planet?" And then I looked up Byron Bay, and I was like,"What an idiot. It's heaven."
LB: It works.
MM: Totally. We're staying at least until August. Ben wrote a show called God's Favorite Idiot for Netflix, and we're going to shoot it here.
LB: How has COVID affected the way you think about your own mobility and where you live?
MM: It has changed my entire concept of being. Everything can feel like home. I am connected to Australia in a way that I didn't anticipate. I could very easily live here for the rest of my life. I'm in love with it. Everyone is so chatty. I'm a Midwestern gal who lives in L.A., where no one wants to talk to you. And here I'll be in the grocery store, and I can't go down a single aisle without talking to somebody. It's wonderful. I come home, and I will have had 15 conversations.
LB: Are you recognized often or you can go out and about freely?
MM: I'd say 60/40. There's a funny thing here of I think I'm recognized, but that has nothing to do with why they're talking to me. I'm out buying grapes, and they're like, "What do you think of these?" Then there are other times when someone asks, "Oh, what are you, American? Are you working here [on a movie]? Good for you. Do you get lines?" [laughs]
LB: What's it been like observing what's happening in the U.S. from afar?
MM: It's been going from complete isolation, fear of being sick, to fear of your own country turning on itself. I know COVID-19 is the virus, but the real virus is the violence and the hatred. If anything's going to extinguish us as a species, it's that.
If somebody said, "All you have to do is wear this head-wrap and you can cure cancer," people would be like, "Oh my god, that's amazing. We would do anything for that." And we're saying, "There's up to an 80 percent chance for this disease to decrease if you just wear this little 3-by-5-inch piece of fabric until we figure it out." Somehow that's become an infringement on someone's rights.
I think the scariest thing about all of this more so than even COVID is that I truly didn't think people hated each other that much or hated the idea of people who they don't even know. I always wonder, "Do racists know anyone of a different color?" People who are homophobic: "Do you know anyone gay or bi or trans? Do you know these people, or is it the great unknown?" I think the next 10 years of our lives have to be spent figuring out why people are so angry and also checking on mental illness. I mean, because the whole QAnon thing, that pizzas are eating babies and then they're going to Mars and coming back. It might as well be that.
LB: Don't forget the space lasers.
MM: I want to get mad, and I do get incredulous about how insane it is. But who's going to help people? If you've lost any sense of reality, we can't get mad. People aren't just wrong. They need help.
LB: It pushes your limits of empathy and understanding. How did you feel watching the inauguration and seeing some semblance of civility?
MM: It was the first time in a while that I felt like I could be proud. I kept thinking that the First Lady, Jill [Biden], every time somebody passed by her, she was chatting and laughing. We watched it with the kids. I cried. I mean, I cried at everything. I cried at J.Lo. I cried at Lady Gaga. Everybody made me cry because it just all felt so important. I can't tell you how many Aussies I talked to the day of the inauguration, and they're like, "Oh god, you know, it's such a relief."
LB: It's a trauma for everybody on very different levels. I don't think people were necessarily dancing in the streets on Inauguration Day.
MM: It's very polarizing, but, I mean, I'm on the left for sure, though I'm not an extremist. And I think just saying like, "Can't we all just be kind to each other?" and that gets a "F— you, lady," I don't know what to do.
LB: How has it seeped into your mind as a performer?
MM: The world's tough on comedy right now. Not to be like, "Critics don't like us," but critics are so hard on comedy. You don't have to like what I do, or you don't have to like comedy. But you need to be able to laugh at something. Ben and I talk about it a lot from the perspective of "Will this make somebody happy? Can somebody at the end of an 18-hour ER shift just check out and laugh for, you know, an hour?" It's the one thing we can try to do, and we try to do our best. I'm not smart enough to know how to purify the water, but I can throw myself down a flight of stairs and hope that it lets someone forget their troubles.
LB: You are really good at throwing yourself around. Are you still as keen to do that as you were?
MM: I'm a little more hesitant than I used to be. My initial thought to anything is like, "Oh, I'll do it." Ben and everyone will be like, "Just walk through it. Don't actually fall down." I'll be like, "Absolutely!" And then when I do the rehearsal, I will always throw myself down, and everybody goes, "We just talked about this." Now I've hurt myself in enough places where I have to spend all week like, "I really have to work on my hips."
LB: You sometimes join Ben in an Instagram bit with a beer. When did you realize that beer o'clock was his Insta jam?
MM: Feel confident I'm always close by with a beer. [laughs] Ben started that. I didn't even know he was doing it. All of a sudden he just does strange stuff and will never mention it. He'll write a whole script and be like, "Can you read this?" He was doing all these weird beer o'clocks, and then we both started doing it. As COVID and the quarantine kept going, it kept getting progressively earlier.
LB: One of the last times I saw you, we had dinner and you had come from a full-body scan for a superhero costume for Thunder Force. I remember you just loved that. [laughs]
MM: I mean, anytime you can stand in a nude Capezio and have people scan your body, that's when you know you're living. It's not see through, but it's not opaque. It's like, "Hi, nice to meet you, Carl." Usually, you walk into this huge machine and in 15 seconds it takes 3,500 pictures of your body. But I always say I'm technology poison, and as soon as I crossed the threshold, I heard somebody go, "Oh my god! Oh my god! What's happened?" And I heard this, like, "hubba, hubba, hubba," and everybody's running around this machine. It breaks down, and so instead of doing this thing for 15 seconds, it required two people coming in with cameras to take pictures of every square inch of my body. So that took about 45 minutes. It's just me standing in a nude Capezio being like, "Yeah, OK, cool, cool, cool."
LB: One of the New York Times' 25 greatest actors of the 21st century, everyone.
MM: "But have you seen her Capezio work?" We did get the coolest superhero suits in the world. Octavia [Spencer, her co-star in the upcoming Thunder Force] and I were like, "Oh my god." I kept walking around with my fists on my hips.
LB: You and Octavia have known each other for 20-something years. How have you both changed over that time?
MM: She is one of the most incredibly gifted actresses on the planet. She always knows the most thoughtful thing to say. It's not like, "Oh, she can really turn a phrase." She speaks right from her soft, chewy heart. And she's also the funniest person on earth.
LB: If you were to assemble your own Thunder Force in 2021, who would be on it?
MM: I would say [Dr. Anthony] Fauci. Michelle Obama. Bill Gates. But then also James Corden for fun. Kristen Wiig. She'll make the world better. I think that list would keep going to include, like, my children, my family — uh, yes, all the people I'm going to be murdered by if I don't mention them.
LB: Mike McCarthy.
MM: Mike McCarthy for sure. [laughs]
LB: By the way, it's been 10 years since Bridesmaids.
MM: I don't think I realized that. That film instilled the best lesson of you just have to let things be what they are, because it wasn't supposed to work like that. Annie [Mumolo] and Kristen wrote it, and they had never written anything before. And it was like, "We're going to let your weirdness ride." And people on set were laughing and crying full-out in almost every scene because everybody felt so free and there wasn't a lot of pressure. Certainly, nobody thought it was going to be a game changer. The fit was just perfect.
LB: It's aged like a fine wine. Have you watched it lately?
MM: I haven't, but I'd actually love to see it. There are so many scenes to revisit. Like Kristen in that little cupcake moment that breaks my heart. And then at the same time, the plane scene. She must have done it 20 different ways. It was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in my life. Ben and I were sitting next to each other on set, and I said, "I don't think I will ever forget this moment."
LB: "Colonial woman churning butter on the wing!"
MM: I mean, that just comes out of someone's mouth.
LB: Speaking of that magical flight, have you kicked your foot up on an airplane doorframe lately?
MM: I have not. Next time I'm on a plane, I will send you that picture. God help me.
LB: Please! Before your insurance people say you can no longer move anymore, put your hip out one last time.
MM: I'll be like, "This is for Brown!"
Lead Image: Romance Was Born blanket jacket. Ten Pieces dress. Hermès sandals. Cartier bracelet (right hand). All other bracelets and rings, her own.
Photography by Charles Dennington/M.A.P. Styling by Vanessa Coyle/The Artist Group. Hair by Richard Kavanagh/DLMAU. Makeup by Amanda Reardon/Vivien's Creative. Manicure by Georgia Whitaker/The Uncommon Agency. Set design by Annika Fischer. Production by Kellie Tissear/M.A.P. Location: The Range Byron Bay.
For more stories like this, pick up the April 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Mar. 19th.