A version of this story appeared in the 2018 Fall Movie Preview issue of Entertainment Weekly, available for purchase here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
“It’s extraordinary that Melissa McCarthy is playing Lee Israel,” Richard E. Grant tells EW of his Can You Ever Forgive Me? costar, who leads the Marielle Heller-directed film (out Oct. 19) as the notoriously prickly real-life literary forger Lee Israel. “Because all these things about [Lee] being curmudgeonly, unfriendly, and unlovable… are who [Melissa] really is.”
The British performer (and soon-to-be Star Wars: Episode IX actor) is joking, of course, but the charming delivery of his playful insults perfectly captures the spirit of Heller’s prospective awards drama.
“They’re two people the rest of the world can’t handle,” Heller (helmer of the 2015 specialty hit The Diary of a Teenage Girl) says of the odd couple — Jack Hock, a bar-dwelling drifter who, after a booze-soaked chance introduction, helps the real-life biographer-turned-scammer sell forged letters from deceased celebrities in 1991 Manhattan — at the center of her second film. “She’s this incredibly book smart, very savvy woman who has absolutely no social abilities. And he‘s this very street smart, slightly dumb kind of guy looking for a way to con his way through the world with spectacular grace, but probably hasn’t picked up a book in years. They’re odd bedfellows, for sure.”
So, how do you make the unlikely pair appealing enough for audiences to spend two hours with?
“When you all see the same vision, it’s like summer camp times 1,000. You become so close,” McCarthy, who’s generating serious Oscar buzz for her uncharacteristically dark leading turn, explains of the cast and crew behind the story of the New York Times bestselling author, who was ultimately caught and convicted for her crimes before her death in 2014. “You always want people to see it and enjoy it. I feel weirdly very personally responsible to get Lee’s story out there and I feel so attached to her. That’s all I really concentrated on. I want people to come away thinking, ‘Why didn’t I know who Lee Israel was before?’ And I hope at the end they really like her.”
Grant, on the other hand, found their humanity — and the beauty of an offbeat friendship between two queer societal outcasts thrust together by circumstance, as Jack was a gay man teetering on the edge of loss amid the AIDS crisis while Lee lived as an out lesbian — through his nose.
“Smelling and touching everything is your way into a person’s life!” he says of getting into character via scents (he “walks into every room and smells everything around the room” just “wanting to soak up life,” Heller remembers) of the “clothes…. hamburger joints, diners, and bookstores” that Jack and Lee called home.
“He’s like a Labrador… She’s a prickly, unsympathetic, unattractive person, [but] Jack motors in there and doesn’t take no for an answer,” he says of their dynamic, which unfolds to the tune of light jazz on the streets of New York amid Heller’s playful ode to the joys one can find in the most unsightly corners of the human spirit. “He understands loneliness and recognizes it in her, and keeps bulldozing until she begrudgingly accepts him…. with terrible consequences.”
Those consequences include Lee’s scheme blowing up in her face, which may or may not threaten her budding relationship with Anna, a “naive, shy, and lonely woman” (per actress Dolly Wells) whose father owns a shop that purchases Lee’s concoctions en masse. “[She] meets Lee because Lee dupes her by bringing in these forged letters,” Wells continues. “They start this friendship that you’re also rooting for because they’re both lonely and you feel there might be this wonderful opportunity.”
But that’s the genius of Heller’s film: she rarely indulges the opportunity to “save” her subjects from their self-made, dingy beds, instead luxuriating in her stars’ mutually traded barbs sharpened by their status as outcasts rebelling against the social constructs that tossed them aside.
“One of the things I felt clued into with the relationship was this historical period of time, where the lesbian and gay community had come together — in some ways for the first time — around the AIDS crisis. As men were dying, a lot of lesbians were taking care of them and the communities, which had lived fairly separately, were merging,” explains Heller. “Although Lee was gay, she didn’t really hang out at the girl bars; she was the only woman hanging out at the bars she hung out in… She was an outcast in her life for being a gay woman within the literary world who didn’t feel accepted and didn’t feel like she fit in, and Jack felt like all of his friends had died and he found himself pretty alone in the world. The two of them finding each other felt poignant in terms of the historical point in time.”
Thus, she said, she learned to love the Nicole Holofcener-written “story being about two misfits who don’t really have their ‘people,’ who are pretty alone in the world and find each other,” she admits. “There was something so tender and sweet about that…. Both of their performances together break my heart.”
“Lee didn’t want to become a con artist and forger, Jack didn’t want to be a guy on the street doing nothing; they had bigger dreams,” Grant finishes. “But they fell through the cracks.”
Cheers to the film that discovered them.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens in theaters Friday, Oct. 19. Watch EW’s interview with McCarthy, Grant, Wells, and supporting actor Christian Navarro out of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival above.
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