She was a small-town girl who grew up on a soybean farm in Illinois. At 19, she moved to New York with a half-baked plan to act and less than $100 in her pocket.
Is it another remake of “A Star Is Born”? Nope, it’s the Melissa McCarthy story. “I was 19, had never been on a plane before and showed up in New York. I had $35 in my pocket when I landed at LaGuardia,” McCarthy recalled. “Cut to a month later where if you shared a bagel with someone that day, then you were actually eating,” she said.
Life has changed for the comedic actress, whose work takes a dramatic turn in “Can You Ever Forgive Me,” about real-life author Lee Israel, whose career hits the skids. On the verge of homelessness, Israel begins to forge letters of famous people, which catches the attention of the FBI. The film is tentatively set to open next month.
These days, McCarthy has a little more than $35 on her. Forbes just listed her as one of the highest-paid actresses in 2018.
Review-Journal: What is the ideal Sunday for you?
Melissa McCarthy: First of all, I’m home with my husband and kids. I’m in PJs for a long, long time. My goal on a Sunday is to stay in those PJs for as long as possible. It’s a good day if I hit the past-noon part. The rest of the day involves drinking much too much coffee and chasing my kids and dogs around.
There is a lot of Oscar buzz about your new movie.
It’s just all bananas. All I can say is I certainly loved every minute of doing the movie.
How did this film come about?
My husband, Ben, was originally doing the film, but it fell apart before they started filming, as movies often do. One day I read his script and said, “This is unbelievable. I love this woman. She shouldn’t be so endearing, but she is.” I wasn’t even thinking about being in this movie. I just wanted to see this movie. Ben kept saying, “Honey, let it go. We don’t own this material.” Three weeks would go by and I would say out of the blue, “Someone should do that movie.”
Did you know Lee’s story before filming?
I didn’t know her story. What I just loved about her was how she didn’t require anyone to tell her who she was. We’re in a current state where people need other people to validate who we are. “What do you think of my vacation? My house? My kids?” Lee didn’t need the opinions of others. She was who she was going to be. That’s a really attractive quality.
Lee comes to a crisis point as a writer. Did you ever have that moment as an actress?
After I moved to New York City, I met with a manager in her studio apartment. She took one look at me and said, “You’re never going to work. You have to lose weight.” At the time I was a size 6 — just this little thing! This was before I dealt with real weight issues. When that manager said that to me, I said, “You’re working out of your studio. Maybe you’re not the savviest. I’m not going to come back, sit in your bedroom and talk about why I’m not going to work.”
You grew up on a soybean farm in Illinois. What made you think you could become an actress?
I just wanted something different. My dad is from the South Side of Chicago and he moved us out to the farm to keep us out of the big city. But then one weekend, we went to a Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of Chicago. As we hit the city limits, I heard theme music in my mind. It was the most exotic thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. I was literally a magnet to the city. As a teenager, my fascination with Chicago became almost unreasonable. After I graduated from high school, I moved to New York with this idea to act.
Do you like playing characters unlike yourself?
I don’t want to play someone similar to myself. I don’t have the skills to figure out what I would do on screen as me. I like to trip and fall through someone else. I’m much more powerful when I wear the cloak of someone else. I channel through people.
Do you care about things like box office returns or that this film has to top the last one, money-wise?
That part of the whole machine is not what I’m about. Anytime I take something on, it’s because I just love the story. I’ve been very lucky to love the people I play. What’s important to me is really locking on and telling the story. That’s my only purpose.
What’s something few people know about you?
I’ve had up to 30 cats at one time. It sounds jarring, but we have a farm. I’d have 25 cats rushing at my car when I step out … all at the same time. It’s like a horror movie. But people have these litters of cats and dump them. That’s how you get 30 cats.
What’s next for you?
I did a film called “In the Kitchen,” shot in New York City. It’s set in the 1970s in Hell’s Kitchen. There are two wives and one girlfriend. Our Irish mobster men end up in jail and we can’t sustain ourselves. No one is giving us our cut, so we take over the mob. It’s a straight-up gangster movie.
Have your kids ever seen your work?
I recently let them watch “The Gilmore Girls.” They said, “Mom, what’s the matter with your face?” I said, “Kids, it’s called youth.”