For star Melissa McCarthy, director Marielle Heller, and producer Amy Nauiokas, their film Can You Ever Forgive Me? — about the life of of author turned literary forger Lee Israel — provided an all-too-rare an opportunity to tell a story about a “complicated and challenging” woman.
At AFI Fest in Hollywood on Tuesday, the three discussed the making of the film, which is generating awards season buzz for McCarthy’s performance as Israel, as well as Richard E. Grant’s turn as her best friend and accomplice, Jack Hock. Read on for highlights from the discussion.
Heller on what drew her to the script and the character of Lee Israel
“I was immediately intrigued when I read the script. I loved Lee,” Heller told the audience. “We have male characters who are a—holes all the time and we find them to be the most interesting characters, and with women, we never get to see women like that. And so there was something about her, I just immediately went, ‘Yeah, we need more women like Lee.’ Also middle-aged women who don’t fit into society’s norms: [She was a] childless lesbian, she didn’t fit into the model of what we make movies about. And so there was just something nice and radical to me about that. It shouldn’t be radical, but it felt really radical. I loved her and I immediately said yes.”
Heller on McCarthy channeling Israel
“Part of why Lee got away with what she did was almost like she channeled these writers,” the director said. “She was such a good writer she could almost channel Dorothy Parker. She could channel Noel Coward. Writers no one can write like. For her it was almost like she was channeling these people.”
Addressing McCarthy, she continued: “And I feel kind of that way about you with Lee, too. Something would change in Melissa’s entire body that was almost like you were channeling something so different [from yourself]. Your energy is so different from Lee. Melissa walks into a room she’s like bright, shiny, luminescent. She has this light, joyful energy. And Lee is, like, rooted to the ground, the opposite. Like she has a rain cloud over her head. I would see you on the weekend and almost not recognize you, because you’d be you. And the energy was so different from Lee. It really was amazing to see.”
Heller on the film’s final scene and deciding to emphasize the AIDS crisis
“[Lee and Jack’s] friendship is these two people who, for very different reasons, have no one,” Heller said. “Lee has pushed everyone away. And Jack is in the midst of the AIDS crisis and he has nobody, because everybody has died. For whatever reason, that was the heart of the story to me.… The script did have many incarnations. But weirdly the true story [that Jack Hock contracted AIDS] was not [initially] in the movie.”
She added, “The context of it being in the AIDS crisis, even though it was 1991 in New York and both characters were gay, that wasn’t in the script originally. It [originally] ended where [Lee and Jack] saw each other and they didn’t speak and he wasn’t sick and there was just a look. I went back to the book [the film is based on], and Lee had this story where the last time she saw Jack Hock, he was in a doctor’s office and he was on crutches and they didn’t speak, but she had an urge to trip him. And I took that tidbit and wrote this last scene between the two of them. I just needed an emotional ending for his character, and for the two of them together. I was so invested in their friendship I needed to feel some sense of an ending, and I felt it was dishonest to not have the AIDS crisis be as present as it was.”
Nauiokas on the female-centric crew
“There were more women around this production behind the scenes than a lot of typical productions,” Nauiokas told the audience. “Our development execs, our producers, our line producers, our editor. That’s one of the reason why Lee’s character, as it was developed and written and performed, it was no nuanced. There were so many different women that put a little piece of themselves in every turn of this production, that by the time it got to a finished film she just felt more complicated and a little bit more nuanced and layered than a lot of female characters.”
McCarthy on what drives her to play complicated women
“I have a fascination with what drives us all, what our quirks are,” McCarthy said of characters she plays. “I don’t know any perfect women. I don’t know how to play pleasant or blonde. But give me a real character like Lee, [who’s] complicated and irritating and smart and all these things that when I look at someone, makes you kind of fall in love with them. All my friends are nuts. They always need a qualifier like, ‘They’re actually great, just get to know them.’ But that’s why you love people. We don’t love people because they’re pleasant. We love them because they’ll talk too much or they’ll say the wrong thing but they’ll show up at 3 [in the morning] when you don’t feel well and help you. It’s rare you get to play a woman like that. Those are the women I know, they’re complicated and challenging. So to get to sink your teeth into that [role] you just kind of like grab on and hopefully hold on.”
McCarthy and Heller on the difference between playing Israel and playing Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live
“I liked one of them a lot more,” McCarthy said.
Heller chimed in, “She was doing them at the same time. So I take a little bit of credit for the Sean Spicer thing because she had to be in New York [for our movie].… We filmed our movie during the week, and on the weekend she’d go and play Sean Spicer. I remember our first week filming, Melissa was like, ‘They asked me to play Sean Spicer. Should I do this?’ And it was like, ‘Heck yeah.’ And it was so fun because we would show up to work every Monday morning and everybody would be rejuvenated, so stoked to talk about what happened on Saturday night.”
When McCarthy was asked if Israel would’ve liked Spicer, she answered, “She would devour him.”
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