Leading Lady: Melissa McCarthy
by j.p. anderson
Television put Melissa McCarthy on the map—think Gilmore Girls and Mike & Molly—but it was her hilarious, Oscar-nominated turn in the 2011 blockbuster Bridesmaids that really made audiences sit up and take notice. Now, freshly ensconced on the A-list, this farmer’s daughter from southwest of the city is stepping up for her first headlining film role. In an exclusive interview with Michigan Avenue, the actress opens up about loving the Midwest, brawling with Jason Bateman, and embracing her newfound stardom.
You were born and raised on a farm in Plainfield. What were you like growing up?
MELISSA McCARTHY: [Laughs] I was kind of a handful, I think—pretty energetic. I would run around the farm, climb up into things I wasn’t supposed to, and get up into the rafters in the barn. I went up into the silo once when I was really tiny, and the farmer had to come and get me down. It was an amazing way to grow up.
What was it like being raised on a farm?
MM: [We didn’t have to do] so much farm stuff—my older sister, Margie, and I did all the things every other little kid has to do: We had to help dust and clean and vacuum. But we always had nine million cats.... I think, at some point, we were up to like 25 cats! Outside, that is. We weren’t crazy. It was great for a farm, because there were mice and all these other things, and people would bring strays out to us because they knew we had a big farm, and my mom would take them. It was kind of horrifying, because all through school when people would drive me home for the first time, I always remember thinking, Oh, no. They’re going to see the cats. They’re going to see the cats.
You come from a big Irish Catholic family. How many kids were there?
MM: Just Margie and me, but my dad came from a really big family. He had nine or 10 brothers and sisters, so with cousins and my dad’s cousins, they all had kids, so there are just a lot of McCarthys.
So what was your role growing up? Were you the baby?
MM: I was the annoying baby. Because my sister was really good and kind of quiet, and all I wanted to do was go outside and play baseball or run through the barns and do something crazy. Margie would just want to sit and read a book, and I was too spazzy for that, so instead of trying to lure her in by being nice and friendly, I would just annoy her, hoping that she would then not want to read and instead go play with me, but of course it never had that effect. My goal was always to try to get Margie to play with me.
Do you think growing up in that small-town environment has given you a different perspective?
MM: Oh, completely. I mean, I married someone from Illinois [Ed. note: McCarthy’s husband is Carbondale native and actor Ben Falcone]. There’s something about that sensibility that I’m drawn to, [both myself and] in the characters I play. There’s a friendliness and an eccentricity to Midwesterners—they’re more likely to just be themselves. I know that’s an idealized version, but there is something about the Midwest that I love.
In a way you’re still tied to Chicago because Mike & Molly is set here. Have you spent much time in the city?
MM: Once I was old enough to go out, in high school, I just went downtown, much to my parents’ chagrin. And my dad, who grew up in Hyde Park, said, “We tried to be somewhere quiet and move you out to the country, and no matter what we did, you were like a magnet, all you wanted to do was be in the city.” I wanted to go to the Art Institute. I went to Medusa’s. I don’t know if it’s still even there.
It’s not, but it’s legendary.
MM: Especially for me, because I’m from such a small town, to go into Chicago to a nightclub—even though it was a juice bar and it was 21 and under, it still blew my mind. I couldn’t even believe I was doing something that cool, and I just loved it. I’ve always loved the energy of the city. Anytime I go back now, I think everything has made just such huge leaps since I was in high school. I go back and think, Oh, my God, it’s so amazing. I’d love to come shoot a movie in Chicago. That would be really fun.
When did you realize you have this ability to make people laugh?
MM: My mom and dad are really funny—my dad can tell an amazing story. Even when I was little, I realized he could tell the same story over and over, and I’d watch him tell it to other people, and he would just kill it. I knew what he was going to say, but I still found it funny. At dinner together, it was the thing to do: tell a really funny story and make somebody laugh. I’m lucky that it’s such a big part of what I get to do for my job. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.
Who were some of your other comic idols when you were growing up?
MM: Gilda Radner, Madeline Kahn, Jane Curtin—who I just got to work with this summer. She played my mom in a movie, and I held it together the whole time. But at the end, she was leaving, and I burst out crying, saying “Saturday Night Live was such a big part of shaping what I thought was funny my whole life.” I’m making a scene, and she says, “You know, I have one more day.” And I thought, Well, perfect. I’m making a jackass of myself yet again. Also Teri Garr, to me, was just perfect. She could be that grounded character, so funny but such a good actress and just kind of magic. I love all of those women.
You started your career doing standup in New York. It’s a long way from Plainfield to the stages of New York—how did you decide to go east?
MM: I wanted to go into fashion, and I wanted to go to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. When that came up, my parents said, “No, you’ll kill yourself in New York,” because I was a wild child, and they were probably right. So I went to school in Illinois. Then I was living in Boulder, Colorado, making costumes for a dance company and clothing for a million other clients in 15 million other jobs. I had a friend living in New York who was from Joliet, and he came out to visit and said, “What are you doing here?” and I said, “I don’t know.” Three or four days later, I packed everything up and moved to New York. The day we got there, we were standing in the grocery store, and he said, “You should go do an open mic night.” I thought I was going to finish up school at FIT, but I did standup one night, and that changed everything. I never went back.
You were a hit on your first night?
MM: Oh, no, not at all. I just mean I loved it. I loved the feeling, even the weird parts that should almost be bad. The nerves. “Why am I possibly doing this? Why would I walk up on that stage?” All the adrenaline. I think either you hate it or you’re crazy enough to love it. And I was crazy enough to love it. I love the challenge of “My God, am I really going to put myself through that again?” And I thought, Yeah. You know, I fell on my face for like 20 years; I still fall on my face. I think part of what makes it fun is it doesn’t matter how much you do it, everything, all the timing, everything has to work out just right. The audience has to be in the right mood. I enjoy that aspect of it.
Mike & Molly is in its third season and is a solid hit. Why do you think that show’s characters resonate for so many people?
MM: They’re really relatable. [Creator and Executive Producer] Mark Roberts is also from Illinois, and he wrote somebody who’s just like people he knew—and when you write what you know, you always get something stronger. I like that Molly is a schoolteacher, and she’s good at it, and she likes it. So often [on TV], someone from some network says, “You have to be a schoolteacher by day, but you’re a crime fighter by night.” But there are 9 million cops and teachers, and a lot of them are married. I also don’t think there are a lot of sitcoms right now that aren’t afraid to have a very sweet moment or even kind of a tender moment. It’s the up and down that makes it that much more of a compelling story. One minute, you’re laughing, the next you’re upset. It’s a roller coaster.
How did it feel when you won the Emmy for Mike & Molly?
MM: Bonkers. Like I still can’t quite believe it. It was so surreal that I was there. You try for so many years to just get a job, then to get on something that you actually like, to get it on the air, people seem genuinely to like it, and then you get [an Emmy]—I just thought, Oh, my God. This is too much.
Bridesmaids has become a classic comedy. When you were filming it, did you have any idea that it was going to be such a sensation?
MM: I don’t think you can ever anticipate that. I do remember that every day when I came home, I would talk to Ben about it, and I would say, “It’s just so funny.” It was the kind of stuff where you were really dying laughing every day. And it was the first thing [I’d done] where I thought, that’s my humor.... The movie was one of the funniest things I had seen that I found relatable to my humor as a woman, and I thought, I buy all of these people. I’m not rolling my eyes, thinking, No one would ever say that. I just thought, I buy all of that.
What was your reaction to being nominated for an Oscar for it?
MM: I was walking through the house because our baby [Georgette] was up, and I saw Ben sitting in front of the TV [as they were] announcing the nominations. They said my name, and I didn’t get what had happened; it was more than I could take in. It wasn’t until Octavia [Spencer], who is a dear friend of ours, was nominated that I went, “Oh, my God. That’s really the Oscar nominations,” and Ben was just staring at me, and he was like, “Honey, what else just happened?” It just took a minute to connect the dots. And then, I went completely nuts. It just was mind-blowing. The whole process of the Oscars is mind-blowing. It shook my whole life.
It’s taken your career to a different level. How has your life changed since then?
MM: It is quite a bit different in a lot of delightful ways. I mean, I have a lot less free time—I’m busier than I ever thought physically and mentally possible—but I have opportunities now that I had only dreamed of. And now it’s a daily delight of writing with my husband—we’re shooting our first movie that we’ve written this coming summer, and we’re writing another one, and we’re producing shows; it’s kind of amazing. It really created the opportunity for people to ask me, “Well, what do you have to say? If you’ve got to say something, what is it?” And now there are actually places where we have the opportunity to do that. It’s pretty mind-blowing.
Identity Thief is your first major starring role in a motion picture—you’re carrying the movie with Jason Bateman.
MM: I’m crazy about Jason; he was as smart and funny as I’d always hoped he’d be. It was so hot—we were filming in Atlanta—but it was so fun. I’m pretty good about not breaking, but I tell you what, Bateman can get me. He kind of crushed me. Other than destroying a lot of takes by just blatantly laughing, it was kind of a dream job. There were fistfights and hitting him with a car. I thought there would be a stuntman, and they said, “No, if you want, you can just drive your car into his car and hit him.” I was like, “Who else gets to do that?” I love doing my own stunts, so other than constantly hurting myself, it was really, really fun.
You’re playing a pretty unlikable character.
MM: It was really fun. I mean, I’m destroying their lives; I’m an identity thief. The fun of it was trying to figure out what’s redeemable in that person—how does she justify it? She doesn’t start and end anywhere near the same place. It was fun [to be the bad guy]. I beat Jason up. I took cheap shots at him. I kept suggesting ideas: “What if I punch him? What if I punch him in the throat?” And Seth [Gordon, the director] goes, “Great!” It was kind of amazing to play a jerk.
You’ve become a mother twice in the past few years. What has motherhood been like for you?
MM: It’s extreme everything. It’s extremely tiring. It’s extremely overwhelming in a good way. It’s everything you hear when this crazy creature shows up, and I just can’t imagine or quite remember what it was like prior to that. The chaos, the noise, and the nuttiness, it just somehow makes it all better. I’ve done away with sleep; I tell myself I don’t need it because you just don’t sleep when you have two kids. But they’re so funny. The bigger they get, the weirder and the funnier they get, and their true personalities come out. They surprise me every day. There’s nothing quite like it.
What does your family think of your success?
MM: I’m really close to my family—they’re great, and I’m lucky that way. My dad is completely nuts, and he’s [basically] wearing a sandwich board with the Mike & Molly poster on it. He’s very proud and very verbal, and I apologize to anyone who he accosts. My mom says it takes him 14 seconds to randomly bring it up. Someone stops him and asks for directions, and somehow he answers, “Have you ever watched Mike & Molly?” I think they have to be just wildly relieved that I’m okay and making a living doing this crazy thing. They were always so supportive, but I could just see in their eyes that they were like, Acting? You? They’re so sweet, but I think they’re just thrilled that I get to do exactly what I want and that I can keep my lights turned on.
Photography by Mary Rozzi; photography by guy d’alema/Universal Pictures (Identity Thief); mary rozzi/contour by getty images; photography by michael ansell/©cbs/warner bros. (Mike & Molly still); steve granitz/getty images (emmys); evan agostini/getty images (reynolds); theo wargo/nbcuniversal/getty images (fallon)