Melissa McCarthy is taking Hollywood by storm in her own signature manner. The star of Mike & Molly and Bridesmaids talks to Patricia Danaher about her Irish roots, family and road to fame.
There is no one more amazed than Melissa McCarthy at where she is today. “Overnight success” was 22 years in the making for the Chicago-born actress who was nominated for a 2012 Oscar for her part in Bridesmaids. At 42, and with a multitude of accolades and offers at her feet, Melissa retains that actor’s anxiety that it could vanish as suddenly as when success finally arrived.
Her grandparents emigrated in the early 1900s from Cork to Chicago, where they had ten children. Melissa’s Irish identity is something she feels very keenly. She grew up on a farm in Illinois, living with her grandmother and parents and assorted aunts and uncles. There are three nuns in the family and she was educated at two Catholic convents. Her husband, Ben Falcone, whom she met in LA ten years ago, when they were both part of the legendary Groundlings comedy troupe, is also of Irish descent. His parents lived in Galway for many years before Melissa and Ben met.
“There’s a scrappiness to the Irish that I can very much relate to,” Melissa said. “It’s a kind of working-class, not afraid to get your hands dirty, take care of a situation kind of thing. Being Irish means being self-sufficient and doing whatever is needed. My dad’s friends in Chicago were all Irish and we grew up thinking of ourselves as Irish. His dad was a Carty, but the name got changed to McCarthy when he emigrated. I’m truly a Carty.”
She and her husband have visited Ireland a few times and are particular fans of Dublin. Last year, she was given an Oscar Wilde award by the Irish American Alliance, but she lost her voice and wasn’t able to attend the party at JJ Abrams’s studio in Santa Monica.
“When I was awarded it, it made me think of my grandma and grandpa and the struggles they had, immigrating to a new country. It would have made them very proud and I thought about them a lot.
“I’ve got about a million Chicago Irish cops in my family, and if things hadn’t worked out for me as an actress, I could have seen myself as a teacher,” she told me in December at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. Dressed in an ankle-length brown dress, she arrived with a sizeable entourage and was very much at ease, while apparently taking none of it for granted. Her close friend Octavia Spencer, who won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Actress (which Melissa was also nominated for), also broke through to the big time in the past few years, and the two pals regularly pinch themselves at the way things have gone.
“It’s just a crazy thing. We’ve both struggled for over two decades and to have had such a fun, wild last few years has just been amazing for both of us. I think it’s been ten years overdue for her. We’re occasionally a little dumfounded at what’s happening. We’re secure for about a minute and a half and then that goes away and we’re panicking and wondering if we’ll ever work again.”
Melissa’s body shape is more like that of the average American than your typical Hollywood star, and instead of automatically being excluded from roles, she is now getting cast in part because of her size. It is something she is very relaxed about.
“No one knows anything in Hollywood. You’re told you’re too tall, or you’re not tall enough or you have the wrong accent. I find it all batty. I mean, I never want to watch just one visual. I think the point of us actors is that you should forget you’re watching actors. It should be like a slice of life – whether that’s a beautiful person or a regular Joe. When everybody starts to look alike, I tune out. I’d rather watch someone who’s like me, just to break up the monotony of every little thing being perfect at all times. And I think it’s not good for young girls to just see one visual all the time, that’s not realistic. I also don’t think everybody should be thin. I mean, come on, give us a little variety.”
She also cheers other plus-sized actresses making it big on screen on their own terms, like Australian Rebel Wilson.
“Rebel’s not taking anyone’s seconds and I can’t wait to see her unleashed on the world. I’m excited to see her writing, because she just doesn’t care in the best possible way. As wild as she is on screen, she’s so sweet and proper in person, and that’s just the best mix.”
Melissa broke into the comedy scene just over two decades ago. “I went to New York when I was about 20, thinking I was going to make it big in fashion design. I had about $32 on me and I decided to take a limo from the airport – the first of a series of bad financial decisions! A friend of mine persuaded me to do stand-up and I dressed up like a crazy drag queen in gold lamé. I looked like a woman trying to be a man, looking like a woman in a crazy wig and shoes and I went to an open mike night and for the first time I thought, ‘This is fun, making a group of people laugh in a room,’ so I never went back to my fashion studies.”
All her recent success has given her the confidence and funds to start her own clothing line, which is currently in development.
She won the 2011 Emmy for best actress in a comedy for her TV show Mike and Molly, and has written and sold a movie (with Bridesmaids co-writer Annie Mumolo) and a television pilot (with her husband) to Hollywood studios. One of her most recent on-screen roles was in the new Judd Apatow movie This is Forty, which also starred Roscommon-born actor Chris O’Dowd. Bridesmaids was the film that launched O’Dowd in Hollywood, and Melissa becomes positively joyful when his name comes up.
“He’s one of the most charming, funny men I’ve ever met, because I don’t think he’s trying to be anything other than what he is. He’s truly, wickedly funny and it’s just natural. He’s bigger than life to me. Bridesmaids affected me and my career so much and, as well as Chris, it was wonderful working with such a nice and caring bunch of women. At some point in my 20s, I thought, ‘maybe I should be bitchier or a bigger smart-ass and that’ll do it.’ But I’ve learned, especially on Bridesmaids that if you do it kindly and you do it smart, you can still get ahead. I feel like I’m still learning.”
Up next, Melissa teams up with fellow funny lady Sandra Bullock in the crime caper The Heat. McCarthy plays a Boston cop Shannon Mullins, who reluctantly teams up with FBI special agent Sarah Ashburn to take down a drug lord. “We had no interest in making [a film about] two wacky cops that are bad at their job and they’re fighting over lipstick in the car,” she said during a recent press conference, emphasizing the strength of the two main characters.
Away from the public eye, Melissa says she’s blissfully happy at home in LA with her husband and the chaos of bringing up their two girls Vivian (5) and Georgette (2).
“I am cuckoo for my husband Ben and my two little creatures. In our house, there’s always a dog barking and someone has done something strange in one room that involves a diaper and two tubes of red lipstick! It’s not a quiet house, but I love the chaos. This morning, I felt like I was in a fist fight with two live bears. I know I could take them physically, but the two-year-old didn’t want to eat and the other one wouldn’t get out of her ski boots. When I finally got them into the car and off to school, my husband and I had a crazy fight and now I can’t wait to get home and go back to all that noise!” she says with a raucous laugh.
She rarely goes online and hardly ever uses email, partly because she doesn’t want to, and partly to protect herself from the noise of the critics in the blogosphere.
“I don’t read anything – that sounds like I’m not literate! I can read, but I don’t read random stuff online. I don’t use email. I worked a long time just to get someone to come and see me in a play or a show and now I’m really glad there’s someone there to give me a job and let me do what I do, so I don’t need to keep looking out for what strangers say about me.”
Given the fickleness of Hollywood, Melissa continues to write and although she’s enjoying success and visibility right now is under no illusion that it won’t all vanish.
“You create your own work. I started this at 20, when instead of moaning and thinking no one would ever hire me, I put on my own show. I played 65 at 20 and I thought, why not? There was an older woman’s play that I loved, so I did it. You can’t tell somebody who is generating their own work that they can’t work. They’re doing it themselves. So there!” ♦