Melissa McCarthy: The new queen of comedy
''Bridesmaids,'' ''Mike & Molly,'' and a winning ''SNL'' gig have turned the funny lady into a red-hot star, as well as the cover girl for our 2011 Comedy issue -- and that is no joke
”I think a drink is needed,” says Melissa McCarthy as she settles into a booth at her local steak house in Los Angeles. After a long and fabulous day at an EW photo shoot, the actress calls her husband, Ben Falcone — who plays the ultimately game air marshal to her lascivious Megan in Bridesmaids — to ask after their daughters, Vivian (4 years old) and Georgette (19 months). Falcone assures her that the girls are tucked into bed and he’ll wake up with them in the morning if she wants to enjoy a rare late night out. ”Okay, it’s on!” the 41-year-old McCarthy laughs, stray sparkles from her scrubbed-clean drag-queen makeup glittering in her dimples. And so, over the next three hours, there are martinis and wine and rib eyes, much laughter and some tears as she talks about not just the recent breakthrough that made her a star but also the decades of frustration and diligence leading up to it.
How to pick the most glorious moment from such a bravura year? Maybe it was when her Bridesmaids character declares of a gentleman at an engagement party, ”I’m gonna climb that like a tree.” (Buoyed in part by raves over her performance, the movie grossed more than $169 million.) Or when she cried out ”Holy smokes!” after winning the best-actress-in-a-comedy Emmy for her quieter but equally endearing work on CBS’ Mike & Molly. Or perhaps when a bottle of salad dressing exploded in her face while she hosted the Oct. 1 episode of Saturday Night Live. After the show Judd Apatow tweeted, ”I think Melissa McCarthy in the office with the balloons on SNL” — a bit she first came up with several years ago while a part of the L.A. improv comedy troupe the Groundlings — ”made me laugh harder than anything this year or decade.”
Paul Feig, who directed Bridesmaids, can’t talk about his friend on SNL without melting into a soggy lump. ”Right before they said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Melissa McCarthy…”’ He pauses to collect himself. ”God, I get emotional when I talk about this. That was the moment of ‘Holy s—, she’s getting everything she deserves right now.”’ Feig is almost through the first draft of a script for McCarthy and hopefully Jon Hamm called Dumb Jock, and unlike in Bridesmaids, this time she won’t be the eccentric friend, but rather the star. ”Obviously Melissa is gorgeous and appealing, but she’s not the usual Hollywood romantic lead,” says Feig. ”Which is why this is so important. It just gives you faith in the industry.”
What makes this sudden rush of recognition even more moving for McCarthy is the sense that hers are shared triumphs. The success of Bridesmaids put a shine on six gleefully funny actresses. And when her name was called at the Emmys, McCarthy was up on stage in a most righteous display of wit and solidarity alongside five other talented comedians. ”Smart, funny women making smart, funny work,” she says. ”We have female characters who aren’t just saying ‘Oh, Jim! Oh, Larry! Oh, Curly!”’
Raise a glass to that.
Here’s something you may find funny: When McCarthy was a teenager at an all-girls Catholic school in Plainfield, Ill., she stunned her mild-mannered parents by diving deep into a wickedly surly goth phase. ”There was a three-year chunk as a teen where I should have been tranquilized and put in a cage,” she says. If her daughters ever try to pull some of the crap she did in high school, she has a plan. ”I will embarrass my kids to their core. I will threaten to show up in hot pants and a tube top. Their dad will drive me. And he’ll let me and my friend Lisa get pretty drunk in the backseat and we will come into that party and just rip it up.”
Despite the grief she put her parents through, they, along with her older sister, Margie, gave her tremendous emotional and financial support after she dropped out of college and then moved to New York City when she was 20 years old. She tried stand-up for six months but grew tired of the hecklers, and so spent much of her 20s producing and starring in dark, dramatic material Off Off Broadway. ”Usually I was trying to get a Geraldine Page play in, always [playing] someone who was 65 and crying.” However, she was working multiple jobs at a time and still struggling to stay afloat. ”I told myself I have to be able to not call my parents and my sister about the phone bill before I’m 30.”
And so in 1996, with $190 in the bank, she moved to L.A. without ever having been there. Her friend José let her move into his Santa Monica studio apartment. ”We both slept in his bed and I thought, ‘We should put the bed in the kitchen because then we’d have a proper living room.’ Because that’s not trashy at all.” She worked at a Starbucks, and a YMCA, and nannied, all within walking distance of José’s studio because she didn’t have a car. She took a bus to her first Groundlings audition.
There followed a tremendous decade of steady work, including seven years playing the adorably off-kilter chef Sookie on Gilmore Girls. But it wasn’t until McCarthy read the part of Megan in her friends Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s Bridesmaids script that she discovered a character as refreshingly odd and fully realized as those she perfected during her Groundlings days. ”The second I read it I thought, ‘I may very well never get a character like that again to play,”’ she says. ”I don’t know of anyone else who’s that eccentric and that confident without being too crazy or too creepy or the joke. She’s a person.”
On the last day of filming Bridesmaids, McCarthy broke down into a messy fit of sobbing. ”I felt like school had ended and I was saying goodbye to all my best friends and it would never be this perfect again.” Tonight at the steak house — one martini, two glasses of red wine, and half a Cajun rib eye into the evening — she starts crying again and calls herself, not unkindly, a total idiot. The tears keep coming as she describes the pure joy of meeting back up with Wiig on Saturday Night Live. When McCarthy talks about that experience, which she calls the encapsulation of everything she ever dared hope for in a career, she does so with the fever and delight of a child describing her first unassisted ride on a bicycle. She had less than a minute to change between the opening sketch and the monologue. ”People were coming off of ladders doing s— to my ears,” she says. ”There was a hand in my bra and a foot in my mouth. And somebody is counting the whole time. Nine! Eight! Seven! Three seconds left, somebody pushed my head forward, ruffled my hair, and then I got punched in the back and went through the door. As I was walking down the stairs I thought, ‘I don’t know if they got pants on me. Oh, God, am I going out in this black sparkly minidress? I know I can’t stop, the train has left the station, but will I cover more if I lie down?”’
At home, a towering pile of movie scripts waits for McCarthy. ”I’ve never gotten a script with a cover before,” she says with a laugh. ”I’ve gotten them off the Internet. And now I’ve got a stack, and you think, yes, this is the magic time. But you go through them and one after the next, I’m not able to follow anything.” And so she and her husband decided to develop their own material, recently launching a production company they’re thinking of calling On the Day. The name is inspired by her Mike & Molly costar Billy Gardell, who pointed out that when she gets nervous about over-rehearsing she bleats out ”On the day! On the day!”
”Comedy to me is all about the bumps and bruises and weird tics,” says McCarthy. ”It’s everything you find out about somebody when you fall in love with them that on paper is really creepy but you find adorable. Like, Ben — maybe I shouldn’t say this — he always thinks he’s being poisoned. He’s gotten better, but somebody put something in his drink in college and so now he’s always paranoid. It’s that kind of weirdness — not an eye patch and a mid-Atlantic accent — that makes you love a character.” As for her own particular breed of peculiarity, Falcone says that his wife insists she has to jam her finger in his armpits or tap her fingernails hard on his front teeth before she falls asleep. ”It becomes a long argument where I’m just like, ‘You do not need that to go to sleep.’ ‘No, I really do. For me, this is important.”’ They recently sold a sitcom to CBS about a woman in the throes of a midlife crisis. (No actress has been attached yet, but McCarthy and Falcone both say they are passionate fans of Allison Janney.) And they just sold their script Tammy, about a Midwestern woman who, desperate for a break from her life, goes on a road trip with her grandma to Mount Rushmore.
Success, as well as the grounding of age and family, has helped McCarthy shed some of her own anxiety over her appearance. So much so that last year when a blogger famously whined about the nauseating idea of watching Mike & Molly‘s overweight couple make out, McCarthy was flooded with disgust rather than insecurity. ”My first thought was ‘Gosh, I hope she doesn’t have a daughter.’ And then after a second I thought, ‘What a sad, troubled person. You’re making such a s—ty judgment on people.”’
”Do I sometimes hope I wake up in the morning and people are like, ‘What’s wrong with her? She looks emaciated,”’ she says. ”Of course I would love that. I’m such a clothes whore I would love the opportunity to be a hanger. But I think I’m more confident than I’ve ever felt in my life.” She grimaces at herself for starting to cry again. ”I’m so weird. This is crazy, sorry,” she says, holding a napkin over her face. ”Because I met with Judd Apatow this morning. He told me his idea for me and was like, ‘What do you think?’ It’s an awfully great, weird thing to have people that you’re like, ‘Oh, God, if I could just get a one-line part!’ and then you’re sitting with them and they’re like, ‘What do you think?”’
She pauses to wipe at her leaky eyes with the lapels of her jacket and allows herself a quick, happy shudder of disbelief. ”Chances like this just always seem to happen to other people or to a different type,” she says. She sits there mystified for a second before her face relaxes into the year’s most winning smile. ”I always thought it was worth the fight. Now I know it is.”
Melissa McCarthy’s Must List
My Favorite Comedy
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
To me, it’s the holy grail. It’s hysterically funny and heartbreaking, heartbreaking, heartbreaking.
My Favorite Classic Romantic Comedy
When Harry Met Sally…
You rooted for those characters. I love when people are given time enough to actually fall in love with each other.
My Favorite Recent Romantic Comedy
I cried like a baby! I kind of love me some Sandra Bullock. She’s never afraid to be the total ass of the joke.
My Comedy Crush
When I met her I thought I needed to knock myself out. I’m in love.