In her new film Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Melissa McCarthy takes on the complex role of real-life writer Lee Israel, a queer biographer who, in the early 1990s, turned to forgery when her books stopped selling. Penning phony letters and pawning them off as the private work of literary icons, Israel cashed in, but not without consequence. And with her performance, McCarthy subtly presents what made this antisocial wordsmith tick.
Here, the Oscar nominee talks books, faking it, and her deep love for drag.
Are you a big reader?
I always joke that someday I’ll be literate again. I don’t read as much as I used to — I have kids now and I work. But nothing can make my mind go somewhere else the way a book can, and I still love a tangible book.
Lee Israel impersonated some heavyweights, from Noël Coward to Dorothy Parker.
What I love about Lee is that she ripped off the best, but she also had a very distinct style. She’d do Noël Coward with an awareness of how strong and funny the written word can be. On the outside she didn’t come off that way — she wasn’t hilarious or witty — but she could still write like that. She thought it. She just couldn’t, for lack of a better word, perform it.
What was it like shooting at Julius’, the legendary New York gay bar where Lee hung out?
It was emotional — it brought me back to a specific time in New York, when I first moved there in my early 20s. My best friends were gay, so we went to Splash, Julius’, Universal Grill. I was a kid from a farm in Illinois, so it was all so exciting and hopeful. Lee and I could have been at the same place at some point. I thought about that a lot.
Any favorite memories from those days?
I probably saw drag shows two or three times a week, and drag is still one of my absolute favorite forms of entertainment. I still have a huge obsession with wigs, and I swear it comes from watching drag. We went to Limelight, Palladium, and Susanne Bartsch’s parties when she was still throwing them.
She still is.
Oh, my God. I feel like my heart just jumped out of my body. I didn’t know!
The film’s director, Marielle Heller, had to recreate that bygone early-’90s New York look.
New York is one of the great loves of my life. I loved it when I lived there, but that New York isn’t there anymore — it doesn’t have the grit. Mari was careful to find city blocks that still look like they did then, that aren’t filled with $2 million apartments. It’s hard to find those spots. And many of the bookstores were the real places [that Israel swindled], so it took a lot of work to convince the people who were traumatized by this to let to us in and shoot something that was, ya know, not a shining moment for their business.
In one scene Lee admits that she writes about other people because she can’t open herself up. Do you relate to that?
I felt an incredible similarity because I’m an actor. I get to be other people and experience all these things that maybe I can’t do myself. I’ve never been shy, but I feel a bit stronger every time I play someone else — like I get an extra centimeter from a different life.
Do you think Lee would like this film?
When we were shooting at Julius’ there was an older gentleman there, and I didn’t know who he was because he didn’t seem to be from the crew. I said, “Hi,” and it turned out he knew Lee, and would sit next to her at the bar when she was alone. I asked if he thought she’d be happy with the movie. He said, “Being happy wasn’t really Lee’s thing. But she would have appreciated the attention on her work.”
Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens in theaters October 19.