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Melissa McCarthy Plays A Literary Forger In 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: So if you ask Melissa McCarthy what characters she loves, She's got a pretty quick answer.

MELISSA MCCARTHY: Characters outside of myself only interest me. Like, if someone's like, oh, we really want it to be almost you playing you, I'd be like - it would just lock me up. I would have no idea. I'm like, I am incredibly uninteresting.

GREENE: And all of this might explain why she was drawn to this character.


MCCARTHY: (As Sean Spicer) That's enough for today. Spicey's (ph) going to go bye-bye right now. I need a big-boy nap. And I will be woken up exactly one minute before tomorrow's press concert. Live from New York, it's Saturday night.

GREENE: That is, of course, McCarthy on "Saturday Night Live" playing former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, a role she said she never needs to revive.

MCCARTHY: I think we've had enough.

GREENE: It was a moment.

MCCARTHY: It was a moment. It was a moment and hopefully not a moment we will revisit with him.

GREENE: Of course, Sean Spicer does have one thing in common with McCarthy's latest character. They are both real people. In the film "Can You Ever Forgive Me?", she plays the late writer Lee Israel. Israel wrote some successful biographies, but her books stopped selling in the early '90s. And she couldn't keep a job. Maybe, her friends believed, it was because she was so prickly and eccentric. But she had made a new friend, a swinger named Jack Hock. And over bourbon, Lee Israel told him about her latest scheme.


MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) I mean embellishing documents, if you will.

RICHARD E. GRANT: (As Jack Hock) Are you forging checks?

MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) No. Literary letters by prominent writers.

GRANT: (As Jack Hock) Not checks, not money, just letters?

MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) You're not understanding the world of elite collectible literary artifacts.

GRANT: (As Jack Hock) I suppose not.

GREENE: Now, Jack Hock was maybe the only person in the world who got Lee Israel. And their relationship, two lonely souls finding one another in New York City, is so much a part of this movie. Now, Melissa McCarthy never met the real Lee Israel. In researching her, she came to love her.

MCCARTHY: Even after she was caught and convicted, I love that she never - she would not take back the work. So, you know, this may not have been the right thing to do, but that work was good. My work was good, and I won't negate that. And there's something so independent about that that I think that's - I don't know. It made me love her.

GREENE: Lee Israel died in 2014, and she left behind almost no photographs. And so Melissa McCarthy had to rely on stories from people who knew Israel like actress Jane Curtin.

MCCARTHY: She was at a book party in Manhattan with her husband. And someone just kind of came in the door and like - she said it was just like this disruption, not necessarily noise, but just like muttering. And just - she's like, almost just energy wise, people kind of clearing and moving and interrupting conversations and went through, got some food, got a couple - like, pounded a couple drinks and like went right back out the door.

GREENE: Jane Curtin was describing this to you?

MCCARTHY: And she said, it was Lee. She goes, because once she left, she turned to either her husband or somebody at the party and said, who the hell was that?

GREENE: Melissa McCarthy said she had a lot of fun becoming a character who breaks the law but who you really want to root for.

MCCARTHY: So many of my characters have been very like energy out. They're the ones that kind of knock the room down. But Lee really directed it all to the interior. I kept thinking Lee was an armadillo. Like, she was always kind of putting on armor to protect herself and to be a little bit more invisible.

GREENE: It seemed like New York becomes such a character.

MCCARTHY: Oh, it is.

GREENE: I mean, I just think about your apartment and the gritty streets and the angry-but-lovable superintendent in your building and the bars and the diners. Like, was that - was that important, and did you play a role in creating that New York around you?

MCCARTHY: No. I mean, Mari (ph) did such an amazing job.

GREENE: This is Marielle, the director, right?

MCCARTHY: Yes, Marielle Heller, who is awesome. I mean, for someone who was there and that's like such a part of who I am today because of that New York and other people that I know were in New York City that have seen the movie so far. It's like, we all felt - like I got really kind of overwhelmed one night. We were just out on the street shooting something where I was like just walking along, about to get on the subway.

And everything about it of like no one with cellphones, the block, you know, trying to find New York to look like that now is really difficult, so she would find these little slivers of different neighborhoods where she's like, it is untouched. It hasn't been, you know, cleaned up and pretty. It looks like it really did. And we would go to these places. And I was just like, I feel like you gave me back this magic time in my life. And I've talked to a lot of people that are like, it gave us back our New York that we had.

GREENE: Is there a Jack Hock you remember in your life? Like, did you connect to this character in a way that reminds you of anyone?

MCCARTHY: I did. I mean, almost all of my friends in New York City were kind of fantastic gay fellows. And in that time, it was like so many people I knew had come from smaller towns where they could not be who they were. They didn't feel safe. They didn't feel comfortable. They couldn't tell their families. So I had so many friends that were kind of like experimenting and trying to figure out, like, who were they and what does it mean to suddenly be 20 and in New York City and out?

As tricky as things still are in 1990, you know, that was a long way from what it is today. And that, plus, you know, the AIDS epidemic that we see Jack struggle with at the end is like - it was just such a part of that city. There's such a conflicting part of you're finally here, you're out, you can be and do whatever you want, and then at the same time, this crisis of like - except it's, like, killing all of these men.

GREENE: Did you learn anything about yourself in this role, in this film?

MCCARTHY: I think, for me, it made me really try to remember more like to look up and see people. Here's this amazing, ridiculously talented, interesting, difficult, fascinating woman, and most people passed her by on the street. And she was invisible. So I do feel like I look differently as I'm passing people. And I think, what is your story, or what are you amazing at? Like, who loves you? Who do you love? What do you miss? What breaks your heart? I try to like - is - I don't know if it sounds strange but make more eye contact.

And I do really think that there is an effective - if one person really looks at you in a day, that can change the whole trajectory of your day and then maybe your week. And maybe you look at one other person and connect that you're humans. And to have someone know they've been seen, I think, can do a lot more than I had remembered it can.

GREENE: That was Melissa McCarthy. Her new movie is called "Can You Ever Forgive Me?". Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.