Melissa McCarthy: The New Queen of Comedy

She stole the scenes in "Bridesmaids," leaped to the A-list with "Identity Thief" and teamed up with Sandra Bullock for this summer’s "The Heat." Here, Melissa McCarthy talks about lucky breaks, breaking barriers and finding the hidden humanity in her hilarious characters

by Leah Rozen
melissa mccarthy image
Rachel Pally modal jersey dress; rachelpally.com. Roberto Coin onyx and 18k gold ring; robertocoin.com
Photograph: Yu Tsai

Melissa McCarthy is having balance issues. Not the traditional work-family dilemma, but literal balance. As the host of Saturday Night Live, she enters teetering on comically high platform heels, ankles folding as she slips, skids and slides toward the band, all the while refusing assistance—“I’ve got it! I’ve got it!”—to the audience’s laughing delight.

When we meet at a New York restaurant, there’s a balance problem with our table. After the actress plants an elbow, the table lists badly, and both her latte and her fruit plate begin to slide toward the floor.

If this were a Melissa McCarthy movie, she’d probably scream a stream of inventive invective, flip the table over and heave it out the nearest plate glass window. But this is real life, and McCarthy is far more demure in person than the assaultive, audacious characters she so memorably portrays in Bridesmaids, Identity Thief and her latest comedy, The Heat (opening June 28). “The real Melissa will not yell at you like movie Melissa,” says Paul Feig, who directed her in Bridesmaids and The Heat. “The real Melissa is the sweetest person you’ll ever meet.”

She politely summons a waiter. When he fixes the table, McCarthy says, “Thank you,” flashing him a smile that reveals her deep dimples. The waiter beams.

High heels and sliding plates aside, there’s nothing shaky about McCarthy’s life. At age 42, she’s happily married to writer-actor Ben Falcone (he played the undercover federal air marshal she cozied up to in Bridesmaids and makes cameo appearances in Identity Thief and The Heat), and they live in Los Angeles with their two energetic young daughters. After more than a decade as a regular on such prime time series as Gilmore Girls (2000–07), Samantha Who? (2007–09) and her current sitcom, Mike & Molly, she’s suddenly Hollywood’s newest and most improbable “it” girl. And this is why: McCarthy is Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler and Jack Black rolled into a single, subversive female package.

The actress has been riding a rocket ever since her breakout role as a raunchy macho loudmouth who climbs onto a bathroom sink to relieve her food poisoning woes in 2011’s Bridesmaids. That same year, she won an Emmy for her role on Mike & Molly. In 2012 she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Bridesmaids, the female bonding hit that raked in $288 million worldwide. That her career will only get bigger became clear this past winter with Identity Thief, the first movie on which McCarthy got star billing. A slapstick-filled piffle in which she plays a con woman who rips off a mild-mannered businessman (costar Jason Bateman), Thief scored an eye-opening $35 million its initial weekend in theaters and went on to collect more than $170 million worldwide. And don’t forget her two acclaimed SNL gigs and her recent cameosin This Is 40 and The Hangover Part III.

Despite the newfound fame, her hats still fit. Mike & Molly creator Mark Roberts marvels that “the only reason I know she’s a movie star is that when I drive home at night, I see her face 50 times, really big, on billboards.” ­McCarthy’s own explanation? “I’ve gotten really lucky.”

Part of that good fortune, she suggests, is becoming a role model. “The letters I really love are from young actresses who were worried they had to fit a certain look. They say I’ve opened it up. And I don’t just mean plus-size girls,” she says. “You can push things now. With all the great performances in Bridesmaids, it changed how people see funny women.”

McCarthy’s weight has never been a major issue for her. “I’ve been every size in the world,” she says. “Parts of my twenties, I was in great shape, but I didn’t appreciate it. If I was a 6 or an 8, I thought, Why aren’t I a 2 or a 4? Now I feel like I have two great kids and the dreamiest husband on the planet, and everything else is just a work in progress.”

McCarthy answers questions easily and laughs frequently. “I’m a Midwest girl. I’m chatty. I’ll talk to anybody,” she says. “In L.A., that frightens people. You talk to somebody in a line in L.A., and it’s like you’ve asked them to remove their pants.”

Right now she wants to chat about The Heat, the female buddy comedy in which she plays a foulmouthed ­Boston police detective who teams up with Sandra Bullock’s uptight FBI agent to nab a drug kingpin. “I love that it’s two women, that they’re good at what they’re doing and they’re better together,” says McCarthy. “I did not want to play two dingbats who suck at their jobs. I’d rather watch a character be good at something and be challenged—there’s more to play in that.”

Play she does in The Heat, punching out bad guys, climbing through car windows and telling off bosses and would-be swains. “Working with Melissa is like working with a rabid cat,” says Bullock. “You have no idea where she is going to go, so you need to let go and just enjoy the ride.”

Both stars say the film’s most difficult scene was one in which they’re drunk in a bar and McCarthy tries to dislodge with a straw a peanut that’s stuck up Bullock’s nose. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll get it, I’ll get it,’ ” says McCarthy, slurring her words as if soused. “But the peanut was so far up. I was nervous for Sandy that something was going to go terribly wrong and we’re gonna end up in a hospital. I was literally up her sinus cavity. It was a very bonding moment. After that, you’re friends for life.”

Bullock survived, barely. “It was a dark bar, and the straw was not helping,” she recalls with amusement. “But Melissa was patient and kind—everything you want your surgeon to be.”

The two are now a mutual admiration society, hanging out together with their kids at Disneyland. “We enjoy and obsess over the same things: how we work, how we play and how much we love our family,” says Bullock. Then again, “give us a bottle of wine and a dance floor, and there is no telling what will happen.”

McCarthy grew up in a close-knit family in Plainfield, Illinois, a small town southwest of Chicago. Her father, Mike, was an arbitrator for a railroad company, and her mother, Sandy, was an executive secretary for World Book Encyclopedia and later for First Midwest Bank. (Both are now retired.) McCarthy has an older sister, Marjorie, and aunts, uncles and cousins galore, including VH1 talk show host and actress Jenny McCarthy. “Melissa’s the funniest woman I’ve ever known,” says Jenny. “Every one of her 75,000 Irish Catholic relatives in Chicago is very proud.”

She remains close to her parents, who often visit her in L.A. “Some of the most soothing nights I’ve had over the years are playing cards with Melissa, her husband and parents,” says Octavia Spencer, a longtime friend who was nominated for The Help in the same 2012 Oscar category as ­McCarthy—and won. “In this business, with all its worries and pettiness, it’s calming when you’re around people who are comfortable [with themselves].” McCarthy attended all-girls Catholic schools—“It was 12 years of plaid and nuns,” she says—and then enrolled at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Her classes in her fashion major, clothing and textiles, left her uninspired: “I wanted to make this weird skirt that’s also a turtleneck and also harem pants. And they’re like, ‘You’re going to make a pot holder.’ ” She quit college during her sophomore year and moved to New York at the urging of Brian Atwood, a friend she met during high school who was hoping to make his way in the fashion world. “She was wasting her time,” says Atwood, now a leading shoe and accessories designer (he created those SNL platforms). “I knew she could be a star. I knew how funny she was.”

McCarthy flew to New York with $70 in her pocket. “It’s what you do at 20. You just jump in,” she says. She moved in with Atwood, who immediately signed her up to appear at a comedy club’s open mic night. McCarthy dressed in a costume that she says “made me look like a drag queen,” went onstage and told stories rather than jokes.

It worked, and she was hooked: “I thought, If this is in any way an occupation, I’m in.” She soon graduated from stand-up to acting, taking classes and performing in Off-Off-Broadway plays. To pay the rent, she juggled three jobs, working mostly as a waitress and a nanny.

In 1996 she headed for L.A., where she joined the Groundlings, the acclaimed improvisational comedy theater and school that launched Will Ferrell, Kathy Griffin, Maya Rudolph and many others. There, she found not only inspiration but also Falcone. In her very first class, McCarthy introduced herself by saying she’d attended college in Carbondale, Illinois, declaring, “No one on earth knows where that is.” Fellow student Falcone volunteered that, ahem, he hailed from Carbondale. The two teamed up as writing partners and soon were lingering over drinks at weekly Groundlings gatherings at a bar. After a year of platonic imbibing, “we decided if we don’t start dating, we’re going to become alcoholics,” recalls Falcone. They wed in 2005; daughter Vivian was born in 2007, and Georgette followed in 2010.

The couple clearly adore each other. “I got hit with the lucky stick with Ben,” says McCarthy. “We got hit with the same lucky stick,” says Falcone. “From the very first time we spoke, we were on the same page. We love each other, respect each other and try not to sweat the small stuff. And we really make each other laugh.”

“They are a perfect match,” says Spencer, who has known the couple since they were courting. “I’m like, ‘When will I find my Ben?’ And Melissa always tells me, ‘He will find you. The right one will come along.’ ”

McCarthy gave herself a deadline of age 30 to make it as an actress and squeaked in just under the wire when she nabbed the role of accident-prone chef Sookie St. James on Gilmore Girls. “The minute Melissa walked in the door, the casting director and I were, boom, that’s it,” says Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore and ABC Family’s Bunheads. “Melissa is such a great comic and she’s uniquely funny, but like Lisa Kudrow, she can do very, very real moments. Underneath all the insanity that she brings, there’s a reality. You can feel for her.”

Gilmore is revered to this day for featuring strong female friendships, smart cultural references and fast-paced witty dialogue, a Sherman-Palladino hallmark. “I learned how to memorize 10 pages in 10 minutes,” says McCarthy. “You had to be letter-perfect on the dialogue. It taught me how to focus.”

Just as she had done on Gilmore, ­McCarthy played the heroine’s gal pal on her next show, Samantha Who?, a critically acclaimed ABC comedy starring Christina Applegate that, hampered by the 2007 writers’ strike, barely limped through a second season. “I loved that show! I was with really funny, nice people,” says McCarthy, who remains friendly with castmates Applegate, Jennifer Esposito and Jean Smart. And she fondly relates an aha! moment during an early meeting with Samantha cocreator Donald Todd: “He said, ‘Well, you’re a writer, so if you come up with a funnier line, funniest wins.’ It’s the first time I remember someone in power saying, ‘You’re a writer.’ ”

In early 2010, less than a year after Samantha’s cancellation, McCarthy was approached for Mike & Molly, a sitcom about a Chicago teacher and a cop who meet at Overeaters Anonymous, fall in love and marry. The enticement? She was being cast as the lead (opposite stand-up comic Billy Gardell), another first. “I thought, Wow, that’s something,” she says. She still hesitated, fearful that the show was going to be a never-ending string of jokes focusing on their weight, but says that once she read the script, she realized it was a heartfelt romantic comedy. “It’s about a marriage and romance and a new relationship,” she says.

The show went on the air that fall and was successful from the start, though it took McCarthy a while to warm up to her character, Molly: “I had to get used to her harshness. She’s harder on Mike than I would ever be. But everyone says, ‘No, it’s funny.’ I wanted to make sure that the character never sounded like she was doing stand-up. I wanted to keep her character real, human.”

Roberts, the show’s creator and former executive producer, praises McCarthy for “protecting her character and understanding [Molly’s] humor and humanity. I’ve worked with actors who just say, ‘I want a better joke.’ She wants the whole scene to be better. She likes to watch the other actors score. She wants the show to be good.”

McCarthy squeezed in filming on Bridesmaids between the M&M pilot and the rollout of the show. She’d landed the part of Megan at the last minute, after cowriter and star Kristen Wiig, another Groundlings friend, pitched her to Feig. McCarthy feared that her take on the character—she envisioned Megan as simultaneously butch and man hungry—“was probably too weird,” but Feig loved her audition. “It was hilarious. I like unexpected stuff,” he says. “She did it in the most nonstandard way; it gave us so much fuel to write more for her part.”

When Bridesmaids opened, critics hailed the film and singled out McCarthy for special praise. The New Yorker’s David Denby called her “the funniest,” Slate’s Dana Stevens said she brought “an unexpected sweetness,” and Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman dubbed her a scene-stealer. The cherry on top of that sundae of acclaim was her Oscar shout-out. On the morning the nominations were announced, Falcone was watching on TV and called her over. “My name came up, and it just didn’t register,” she says. “I literally couldn’t process it. Then Octavia’s name came up, and I burst out crying and said, ‘Oh my God, Octavia just got nominated for an Oscar.’ And Ben goes, ‘And? And?’ ”

She and Spencer enjoyed going through awards season together. “We texted, ‘Can you effing believe it? OMG!’ ” says Spencer of their nominations. “We were just so happy to be at the grownups’ table.” When the big night arrived, McCarthy walked the red carpet in a pair of sparkly pumps specially designed for her by Atwood. “I had imprinted on the sole to my bff on oscar night,” he says.

There will no doubt be more red carpets in McCarthy’s future. She and Falcone are working on multiple projects together, including a TV series and a comedy, Tammy, which they cowrote and Falcone will direct this summer; McCarthy will star alongside Susan Sarandon. “I just want to do—it’s not the most interesting answer, but I just want to do good stuff,” says McCarthy. “The goal is always that the characters are grounded. I like to play an eccentric version of people, but I never like to be wacky, wacky, look how crazy I am.”

Also in the next year, she plans to launch a plus-size clothing line (“It’s what I always thought I’d end up doing,” says the onetime fashion major), work on M&M and other projects, renovate a new, larger house they’ve bought (“Renovating is one of my favorite things on the planet,” says ­McCarthy, a loyal HGTV viewer) and clear time for her weekly dinner dates with Falcone. “Lately, it’s more every other week,” he says. “We go out to dinner at 5:12 pm, and we’re home by 6:38 and put the kids to bed.”

Mostly she’s going to enjoy having a life and a career that are where she wants them to be. By 40, she says, one gains perspective. She no longer focuses on “the stupid stuff I worried about at 20—because at 20 you don’t have any responsibilities, so of course you’re a shallow narcissist. You can’t appreciate anything, you’re so self-absorbed. I bought into it—I should be taller, thinner, have better hair. But I think that’s part of being young. Now, especially with kids, you lose any sense of time or energy to worry about all the little stuff. It’s like the chip was taken out.

“Could things change and be better?” she continues. “Could I sleep more? Sure, and maybe I will. Or maybe I’ll never sleep again and things will be fine. I’ve discovered,” she says, smiling broadly and lifting her latte, “a love of coffee that has helped my life.”  

Next: Funniest Women Onscreen

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First Published Tue, 2013-06-25 14:05

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