Melissa McCarthy is thoughtfully perusing a menu at a restaurant in Los Angeles’s Silverlake neighborhood. She looks like a very chic art teacher this evening, wearing a black turtleneck and a Klimt-esque velvet robe. She pulls out a pair of dark pink Gucci reading glasses, which make her resemble the poster for Life of the Party if the party were … fashion.
It’s a good time to be McCarthy right now, even though she, of course, excels at creating good times for other people. She’s been nominated for both a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award as best actress for her performance as the late biographer Lee Israel (who infamously forged letters from quotables like Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward) in Can You Ever Forgive Me? It’s her first dramatic role, and it makes you wonder why it took so long. McCarthy’s humanity and pathos illuminate everything she does — her big-screen gags, highly physical or deliberately sly — and she is clearly proud that her exploration of a less rib-tickling story is paying off. After we order tequila gimlets (“Oh, I’m a Scotch girl, but I’m gonna try one,” she says), we talk badassery and beyond.
VIDEO: Melissa McCarthy's Tips On Being A Badass
LAURA BROWN: Can You Ever Forgive Me? received glorious reviews, and now you have all this awards talk. Have you felt any sort of palpable change?
MELISSA MCCARTHY: It just feels so nice to do something that you like so much and had such a good time making. I’ve been weirdly lucky with liking almost everything I’ve done, but I loved [director] Marielle Heller, and I love that damn Richard E. Grant. Also, it’s a story where there’s a friendship and you feel something, and your heart feels something, and you think about the world. Not in a preachy, bullshit way, just in a really nice way. People have responded so positively. It makes me very happy, but also it gives me a boost that people still care about people.
LB: Do you think there’s a tendency to underestimate the potency of a simple, emotional story?
MM: I think people go through their whole day not looking at another person. You know, you take a train or a bus and you could be sitting there naked and no one even looks up.
LB: There was the time you tried that.
MM: I tried it. It did not go well. You cannot unring that bell. [laughs] But I do think the power of this movie is that you can’t not click into the human condition.
LB: How important is it to you to represent that to people?
MM: Even if it’s a broad comedy, I think it’s important to see people who maybe we shouldn’t like, but we like them anyway. Let’s not judge people like, “Ugh, they’re obnoxious, they’re too much of a people pleaser, or they’re grating or harsh.” It’s like, “Yeah, but we all do that.” I still think it’s good to show people who aren’t so shined up and pretty and perfect.
LB: When did you realize what your currency was as a performer?
MM: I knew I loved performing when I started stand-up in New York [in the early ’90s], but I found the rooms to be very negative and aggressive. The only way to survive was to shred someone in the audience. That was not my thing. Not because I’m some Pollyanna who can’t take a swing at somebody, but there just wasn’t a point in it. Although for some reason, the guy who yells “Show me your boobs!” is everywhere. It’s amazing. I don’t think I ever did stand-up where someone didn’t yell “Take off your top!” as I’m walking onstage. I was like, “Are you the same guy? Do you think you’re original? Do you really, massively wanna see my boobs?” Then I would go home feeling so sad for him. He was lashing out at women but probably really lonely and wanted a nice woman to go out with, or whatever his deal was.
LB: You were compassionate to a heckler as opposed to the opposite, which is supposed to be demolishing them.
MM: Yeah, but it didn’t work. And then when I got to the Groundlings [the famed comedy troupe in Los Angeles, circa 2001 to 2009], I realized that to have a great show, it wasn’t a bad thing, if the audience had had a rough day or a terrible week, to let them laugh for an hour and a half. There’s a good feeling about that for me. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not a bad thing to put out into the world. And I take that seriously.
LB: It’s the most powerful thing, you’re exactly right. The idea of a story or an idea being minimized because it’s not extreme is so thoughtless.
MM: I think we keep getting so dark. I had a friend ask me to make her a list of 15 shows that everybody’s talking about that are really good and weren’t going to give her nightmares. I could not for the life of me come up with it. I was like, “Oh my god, I’m not coming up with five.”
LB: There’s so much to navigate on a daily basis. It’s like you’re in a rowboat in choppy seas trying to get back to port.
MM: Yeah, it is a choice. And it’s also what you keep feeding yourself all day. I’m obsessed with people and their behavior. I used to go and watch people. Like, weirdly. I just love people’s weirdness. And I do so many terrible things all the time, by the way, so I don’t think I’m above it at all. [laughs]
LB: When you’re as well-known as you are, it must be tempting to want to retreat. How do you manage that?
MM: I do miss when I could just wander around and de-stress. It’s a little different when someone’s watching you do it where you’re like, “No, I’m just here to be unseen.”
LB: When did it first start for you? Bridesmaids [the female-led hit comedy of 2011] was a genie in a bottle, wasn’t it?
MM: I remember thinking, “I don’t know if this will work at all, but it seems like the funniest thing I’ve ever been a part of.” My husband [actor and producer Ben Falcone] and I were over at [Bridesmaids director] Paul Feig’s house the night it opened, and everyone kept telling us that it was not going to open well. And then we were watching the numbers come in, and we jumped up, got in the car, and ran in and out of two different movie theaters. They were both packed, and the audiences were enjoying it. I felt like that was a whole change, like, maybe our sensibility works and we’re not alone. Maybe I can write stuff.
LB: How have you adjusted to your power in Hollywood as it has grown?
MM: It’s still just me. I’ve fully embraced it in terms of it can all go away as fast as it came. I know that, and I’ve seen it happen. I do feel like I work 500 percent on everything. I’m a complete obsessive. I’m in on every department. I want to talk about wigs, costumes, makeup, and construction because I love every part of it. If this all goes away and I didn’t try, I’d be, like, the dumbest idiot on earth.
LB: It’s OK to show people you’re trying. What’s your opinion of the opposite, playing it cool?
MM: If you’re too cool to do the job, it pisses me off. Even if it’s a dumb joke, your job as an actor is to make it better. So [if you don’t], you suck more than the person who wrote it. I spent 20 years trying to get a job, so when someone doesn’t really put in the effort, it just makes me mad. “How easy did it come for you that you don’t feel like you’re grateful, or that you don’t have to try?” Nothing is more unflattering than someone who doesn’t try. Lack of effort is such a douchey, poseur thing to do. I’d rather watch someone try hard and fail.
LB: How sensitive are you to negative reviews?
MM: It kind of breaks my heart. I always feel like those characters become so real and personal. I really get protective. Years ago I was at a press conference for either The Heat or Tammy, and somebody from a very big organization kept asking me, “Why do you always feel the need to be so grotesque?” It was a huge interview with maybe 100 people in the room, and he was sneering. I said, “What are we talking about? I can’t answer your question because I don’t understand it.” He goes, “You look sloppy, you’re not wearing any makeup, your hair is not done, you’re yelling at people.” I was like, “OK, so have you ever asked this of a guy? I’m playing a character. You need to get out more if you don’t think there are real women like that.” He goes, “Oh, fine, I’m aggressive, call it whatever you want. If you don’t want to answer the questions, you shouldn’t come to the panel.” I was like, “I really want to answer your questions. I’m sorry I didn’t wear makeup in a part. I’m sorry I didn’t look pleasant for you. But I also don’t think you should be here writing about movies.”
LB: When did you feel like you developed that backbone?
MM: I thought if I tell him to eff off, he will win on every possible level. I do remember another interview I did for Bridesmaids with somebody who later lost his job for a conversation he had on a bus with someone else. I won’t mention names, but just think about it. He kept asking, “Are you shocked that you actually work in this business at your tremendous size?”
MM: He was like, “Oh, your tremendous size, you can actually work?” I just remember all the blood drained out of me. I thought, “With my tremendous size, I could tackle you so quickly.” There were two cameras on him, and one was on me, and he went back to that question three or four times, and I just kept talking about the script or how fun Paul Feig was. He was looking around like, “She’s crazy.” When we left, their producer was horrified and said, “We’ll never play what he said. I’m so sorry.” But it happens all the time, to the point where it’s fascinating because they don’t do it to men. Not to be a jerk or single him out, but when John Goodman was heavier, did anybody ever talk about his girth?
LB: Men get a pass.
MM: Having two daughters [Vivian, 11, and Georgette, 8], I think there is a weird layer in the world [for women] where it’s not just about looks but it’s also, “Are you pleasant? Do you not make trouble?” I don’t want to be around someone who’s a pain in the ass and confrontational, but I also don’t think that you always have to be Stepford Wife-y and can’t have opinions.
LB: How have you been able to impact women, or people’s careers in general, with the success you’ve had?
MM: I think once you’re a producer, you can’t take that hat off. But whatever it is, you want to show the world that you want to live it. It can’t be an all-white world. That’s not the world we live in. It’s not realistic. It’s the same thing with the guy who works in advertising and the woman is at home making a martini. I don’t know that person, but I would like to meet her. [laughs] I’d love to come home to that lady. I think Ben would too.
LB: In terms of women you have met in the business, who have you been the most impressed by?
MM: I love that Jennifer Aniston, that little nugget. That’s a person to the soles of her feet. Just solid, good. I think Nicole Kidman is a smart, non-bullshit puppy. She isn’t going to mince words, isn’t going to try to play a game. She’s got a hell of a picker. She picks things that are really interesting, and she’s not concerned about how they may be seen. Amy Adams is the same. I love that she is starting to produce. I would like Amy Adams to run for president. I think the world would be better in general. I’d like Viola Davis to wake me up every morning and be like, “Here’s your thought for the day,” and I’d literally write it down. I’ve known Octavia Spencer for 20 years, and she is the same person she has always been. Same with Allison Janney. They didn’t change. They’re not adapting for their jobs or their careers. They are exactly, unapologetically as they were.
LB: How ambitious are you?
MM: Very. I love my work, and I want to do better every time. I’m super self-conflicted. We rewrite and rewrite until we’re done making the movie and I’m still like, “Can I get three other lines in?” Not because I want to win but because I love what we get to do. We always joke that I’m a shark. Ben likes to sit down, but I’m better in motion. I want to make. I want to do.
LB: How important is money to you?
MM: I love it. I don’t worry about it. I spent a lot of years calling my sister, Margie, and my mom and dad [asking to borrow money]. I had multiple jobs, but shit happens. It was hard to keep it together when you’re not making a living wage, to state the incredibly obvious. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that stuff now. I’m not in a dream state, but I like not having to worry about my phone bill or insurance. I’m glad we make a steady living. I used to keep all the money, all the accounts, all the things to pay. Now I’m just like, “La, la, la.” I just want to take care of my kids.
LB: You and Ben are one of the industry’s most solid couples. That must be a relief.
MM: We’ve been together for 20 years and, I think, married for 13. We met at the Groundlings, really. But we had first met at a party at Southern Illinois University 10 years prior. I was in college, and he was in high school. He’s three years younger. I was very punk rock in those days. It was as if Robert Smith and Siouxsie Sioux had a baby. People called me Sugar Cube, and I had blue-black hair. I wore very avant-garde-theater clothes.
LB: You had no element of surprise because your clothes were so noisy.
MM: It was always something where I was like, “These are trash bags, but I’ve made them into pants.” Anyway, when we met at the Groundlings, we went around the room, and people said where they went to school. I said, “I sorta, kinda went to SIU. It’s Southern Illinois University. No one’s heard of it. It’s in Carbondale, Ill. Didn’t really finish. Went to New York.” Got around to him, and he said, “I’m from Carbondale.”
LB: Well, you know what they say about Carbondale couples. [laughs]
MM: Ben truly sees things differently and is like, “I’ll do what I’m thinking of, and I’m OK if it doesn’t work out.” He’s very disciplined. I mean, he wrote a book [Being a Dad Is Weird: Lessons in Fatherhood from My Family to Yours, 2017], but I didn’t even know he was writing it.
LB: It didn’t come up?
MM: There is no showiness to him. He didn’t want to start forgetting stories about his family. And it’s so lovely. It’s about how much he loves his dad and how much he loves being a dad. I cried and laughed when I read it, like, “You son of a bitch. Did you quietly write a book?” If I were writing a book, I would have gotten so much mileage out of, “Man, sorry, I can’t come to the phone right now, I’m writing a book … I can’t possibly get myself out of bed, because I’m writing a book.” And he never mentioned it. He’s a much better human than I am. When people say, “Real relationships are so hard,” I’m like, “No.”
LB: Your face lights up when you’re talking about him. Isn’t that great after 20 years?
MM: We’ve done four movies now, and the first questions are always, “How awful was it to work with your spouse?” “How much do you fight?” “Who’s really in charge?” When we did The Boss, it was, “Who’s really the boss?” We responded, “It’s fun. We met doing this. We know we’ve been hit by a lucky stick.” They were like, “Come on, just how difficult is it?” And I’m like, “No, it’s, like, the best thing I’ve ever had in my life.” And people would get aggressive and finally say things like, “You know what, if you don’t want to answer the question, fine.” [laughs]
LB: That’s so wacko. “My life is well-adjusted, and I love my family and just want to do good work. Is that dull to you?” How are your daughters?
MM: They’re so sweet and good and weird. We put so much care [into our family]. We’re not, like, clubbing or going to fancy restaurants. I go to bed at 8:30 every night. I’m up at 4. I’m like an old man. [My girls] aren’t a part of an L.A. scene, and I say that with no hatred for L.A. I love L.A., but they’re in bed at 8. They go to a tiny school. We drop them off. We pick them up. We’ve made the [San Fernando] Valley into a very small town. We go to the same four places.
LB: OK, what does badass mean to you?
MM: Badass, to me, means doing what should be done in a situation because it’s what’s needed and maybe you’re the person to do it, and if not, how do you get to the person who needs to do it? And not needing to be liked or think you need to be liked so much. I was likable, and [now] I don’t really give a shit about that.
LB: That’s quite something to come to. It takes a long time.
MM: It’s a big thing. It happened when I turned 48. Why do I care if you like me? If that’s the case, we probably shouldn’t like each other.
LB: You don’t need to be a pleaser all the time.
MM: [smiles] Nope.
Photographed by Robbie Fimmano. Styling: Julia von Boehm. Hair: Richard Marin. Makeup: Pati Dubroff. Manicure: Alex Jachno. Set design: Daniel Horowitz. Production: Kelsey Stevens Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Jan. 18.