She’s conquered comedy — now the actress, who talks LGBTQ inspiration and her drag alter-ego, is bringing queer biographer Lee Israel to life.
Melissa McCarthy knows her way around a woman who doesn’t care what other people think. This is the foundation on which her bawdy and vanity-free slapstick characters are created. Anti-feminine horn-ball Megan in Bridesmaids dialed up dude-level crass and free-wheeling sexuality (and earned her an Oscar nomination). Officer Mullins in The Heat was a gun-toting ballbuster who shamelessly and daringly — because she’s female, and this is Hollywood — went unpolished, hair unkempt, mouth a free-flapping trap.
If you’ve ever gotten a lesbian read on McCarthy’s subversive heroines, you’re not misreading, exactly. They’re not explicitly lesbian. But the 48-year-old actress and bona fide action star, thanks to the Ghostbusters reboot and Spy, tells me the characteristics of being lesbian — the not caring, the disregard for convention, sensible shoes — are absolutely at play.
There’s nothing vague about Lee Israel’s sexuality in McCarthy’s latest film, the poignant Oscar-worthy dramedy Can You Ever Forgive Me? but it’s the least interesting thing about Israel. So, even if you didn’t know her as the real-life literary scammer (and, yes, lesbian) she was, forging and selling letters by famous writers like Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker out of desperation to survive and work and care for her cat, McCarthy will make you care deeply about this woman who, in true McCarthy fashion, has few cares herself.
Recently, McCarthy phoned to talk about steeping her onscreen personas in lesbian qualities “out of admiration”, her appreciation for queer films wherein a character’s sexuality is not the whole story and why her drag alias is “Miss Y”.
What took you so long to play a lesbian character that went beyond being just suggestively lesbian?
(Laughs) It hadn’t been presented to me. I just fell in love with Lee. I was not even a quarter of the way through the script and I thought, my god, she’s so unapologetic about who she is and how her demeanor is. So I tend to always fall in love with women who simply don’t care what other people think of them. Sometimes to their detriment. I don’t think it made her life easier that she was so prickly with so many people, to say the least. But I think in a world where so many people look outward to see, “How do you think I am?” as opposed to, “I know who I am, I know how I am, and I’m fine with it,” there was something in Lee’s voice that really appealed to me. I thought a little bit more of Lee in all of us would not be a bad thing.
Was there something special that stood out to you about the film’s treatment of her sexuality?
Yeah, I liked that it wasn’t treated as if her sexuality was something new — a new sweater she got, or something she was trying on. I would say 80 percent of my friends are gay and it’s not something that is an integral part of who they are — it’s not an accessory or a phase — and I thought it was just simply sunk into who she was as a woman and I related to that. That seemed real to me, and it’s about time that’s the type of character you see: where it’s part of the whole person, and it doesn’t always lead with it.
Eighty percent is very precise. Has it always been 80 percent?
(Laughs) Probably! I mean, still to this day, I don’t know why. Who knows how and why and who you pick as your friends, but it’s usually me and all my lovely, dear gay friends that I’ve had forever.
In the film, Richard E. Grant portrays Jack Hock, a charming gay boozer who becomes Lee’s drinking buddy and partner in crime. Do you have a gay friend as close to you as Lee Israel was to Jack?
I have about five of them. They were all my bridesmen. I had my sister — and then I had five bridesmen.
Did you make some new gay friends while shooting at New York City’s oldest gay bar Julius’?
I didn’t meet anyone new in there, but I found it fascinating that that’s where Lee hung out. I thought that was very telling of her not wanting to be seen, but to still be with people who wouldn’t judge her, especially in the early ’90s. But no, no new friends! Richard’s my new friend!
Richard as Jack is everyone’s new gay friend.
Isn’t he? I think it took me three seconds to literally fall in love with him. And I was like, “Oh my god, where have you been all my life?” I think how he played Jack and how bigger-than-life he was, and then how vulnerable and how he could break your heart — I can’t imagine anyone else on the planet playing Jack. I thought Richard was perfect.
How did Lee’s friendship with Jack — two gay people living during the AIDS crisis — speak to you?
I thought what really tethered the whole story were these two characters. These people are so lonely, so isolated, desperate in different ways but similar in others. Who hasn’t had that feeling? Who hasn’t felt completely alone or undervalued? And to put that in this time period, I mean, that’s part of why I’m so fascinated.
When I found out she hung out at Julius’, especially in the early ’90s, I thought she wouldn’t meet anyone there. Then I thought, “Of course!” And she knew that. So she would go to be isolated and I thought, “Oh, Lee.” I sometimes rooted for her. I know it’s crazy, but the scene with Dolly Wells, who plays Anna so brilliantly… and I know how this movie ends; I’ve seen it, I did it. And yet every time right before Lee makes that turn outside the restaurant, I can’t help but go, “Oh, please, let it work out.” She’s so close to having a lovely thing, and then Lee could not get out of her own way.
The LGBTQ community has seemingly found lesbian subtext in some of your characters. Did you recognize the lesbian sensibility when you shot The Heat as much as gay critics did?
It wasn’t intentionally driven by that, but it was driven by a sense of I don’t have to be anyone else than I am. I’ve had and still have so many great lesbian friends. I remember early on being like, “Boy, they’re not putting on these airs and stereotypes of what it means to be a woman, and they certainly seem comfortable and at ease with it,” and there was a real weighted feeling to that. I remember being like, “Yeah, why am I in a heel? What am I doing?” Like, “This seems dumb. She’s not in one and between the two of us that’s the smarter move.” I remember thinking someone who stops doing certain social cues that have been assigned and simply does what they want is very appealing to me. I find it very strong and respect it quite a bit.
The lesbian chemistry between Sandra Oh and Kathy Bates in your film Tammy — you called it “magical.” If you were to play another lesbian role after Lee, who would you want as your love interest?
That’s a tough question! That’s like, “What’s your favorite album?” I don’t know! Oh, god. Glenn Close, I don’t know. There are so many women that I love, that I find magical, I couldn’t possibly answer that. It would be endless.
As a kid who grew up on a farm in Plainfield, Illinois, where I imagine there weren’t a lot of out and loud farmers…(Laughs) Not many that I knew of!
Describe your experience the first time you stepped into a gay bar, then?
I thought, “Where has this been all my life?” That’s honest to god truth. There was a feeling of anything goes, you’re OK, no one’s going to find you odd. What you’re wearing, who cares! What you’re doing, dancing all night! A celebration innately built in. It’s like, I didn’t go there to be somber, I went because I was like, there’s such a feeling of unity and I never felt… I just… I really did, I had such a strong reaction to it. It’s like, I think, certainly, from many of my friends I was with as they came out and struggled with their families or had delightfully surprising responses from their family, to have a place to go where they were just fully accepted, a lot of joy went with that. So I kind of sat in the backdrop of that and enjoyed it.
The feeling must’ve been so strong that “Miss Y” was born. How did you get your drag name?
(Laughs) I do kind of consider it my drag name. A lesbian gave it to me in southern Illinois. When I went to college, I went by Melissa, but up until college I had always been called “Missy.” And someone who knew me before said, “Missy,” in front of this woman and she went, “Uh! My friend ‘Missy’? Completely unacceptable! I’ll call you ‘Miss Y.’” I don’t know why Missy offended her, but bizarrely it stuck and everyone called me Miss Y. When I ended up in New York, it had become somewhat of an alter ego — and in my wig and silver lamé trench coat dress, Miss Y was born.
Which drag look was physically easier to transform into Miss Y or Divine, who you impersonated for an Entertainment Weekly cover shoot — or Sean Spicer?
Sadly, Sean Spicer was quicker. I was like, “This will take hours,” and they’re like, “Not really. It’ll take about 17 minutes,” and I was like, “Oh, come on!” I would’ve loved for them to have been like, “Oh, it’s really difficult to make her that masculine.” Instead, nope. Really easy. I had no problem doing it!
What do your daughters think of Miss Y?
(Laughs) They don’t really know her — thank god they were not at the Palladium (a NYC gay bar) in ’92 with me!
Wait, what happened at the Palladium in ’92?
Oh, so many things. So many things that I’ll never put on a recorder. Susanne Bartsch parties and debauchery; the ball pit, the slide. I could go on but I won’t. (Laughs)
You know, one day they’re gonna ask about what happened with Miss Y in ’92 at that bar.
You know, something I hope my girls feel is a freedom. I always say I find them delightfully weird, which I have always rooted for. We play a strange game that is not really meant to offend any banker, we just mean this as a generalization, which is terrible — but we play a weird game where we’re a very serious family and Ben (Falcone, Melissa’s husband) will come out and say, “Hello, children, how was education?” And they answer properly and we can only do it for about a minute and a half. It’s really weird and then we all feel uncomfortable and a weird dance party starts. So I love that they fully embrace that they can be as strange and goofy as they want. I think that’s a feather in my cap, that they’re not afraid to be exactly who they are.
Do pieces of Miss Y exist in any of the characters you play?
I think there’s always a bit of her. Not surprisingly, the beginning of me being a character actress — I didn’t even do stand-up for that long. I couldn’t possibly do it as myself. It didn’t make any sense to me. But I could go on as her and tell amazing stories about myself and talk about being so young and wealthy and tall and all these things that I was not. And I could kind of channel it through someone and do that without any reservations or embarrassment. I think I’ve taken that into so many of these flawed, challenging women that I play. As long as I can channel through someone else, I feel quite a bit braver.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).