“Icon. Maverick. Celebrity. Billionaire.” So reads the character description of one Michelle Darnell, a chichi, cocksure, manic, rampantly successful wackadoo (also, a shockingly accomplished swordsman) played by Melissa McCarthy in this month’s sidesplitting big screen comedy, The Boss, which she produced and cowrote with Steve Mallory and her husband, writer/director Ben Falcone.
The superlatives used to introduce (with comic hyperbole) McCarthy’s Boss (anti) heroine might just as well have been inspired by – and monogrammed to the birth certificate of – the 45-year-old comic juggernaut herself, who has emerged from the riotous mediocrity of much contemporary, mainstream comedy in diverting-to-outstanding projects like Bridesmaids, St. Vincent, and last year’s blockbuster Spy, earning an Emmy (for her leading lady duties on CBS’ hit series, Mike & Molly, exiting the airwaves this spring), an Oscar nomination, and some $1.6-billion at the global box office for her bold efforts. So perhaps McCarthy is an icon, maverick, celebrity, and (not quite, not yet) billionaire – though she is, according to Forbes, the third highest-paid actress in the world, behind only Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett Johansson.
Who says you can’t write your own ticket these days?
The way McCarthy figures it, she (along with steadfast husband and reliable partner in crime Falcone) is the only one who would even try to push – let alone flourish at successfully branding – her proverbial square into the pathologically groomed round hole of the Tinseltown-legislated mainstream. McCarthy, you may have noticed, is no hollow, blank-eyed, demure, 82-pound waif. It’s not that she can do anything exactly – unless you first tell her she can’t. And then, look out, kiddo.
Few human beings in the white-hot, interrogative spotlight of modern-day celebrity know as well as McCarthy how quick and zealous society can be to inform its more unique members of exactly what they can’t do or be – because they’re overweight or they’re not 21 years old anymore or they’re devoted to their families or, you know, they’re a woman (who could never, ever in a million years be funny, right?). While some of us shrink into oblivion at that kind of abuse, broken by the mockery, insult, and idiotic boundaries, the Illinois-bred McCarthy, that’s where she gets worked up enough to get busy. After enduring more than a bushel of public humiliation in her youth, not to mention the constant racket of people insisting she can’t do this and could never do that, McCarthy thought she’d never know if the haters were right unless she at least tried to do the very things apparently off limits to her.
So she went to Chicago to tell jokes and then to New York to study at The Actors Studio and then to Los Angeles to study improvisational comedy with The Groundlings (the birthplace of Michelle Darnell, incidentally, as well as Pee-Wee Herman, Steve Butabi, Captain Carl, Master Thespian, Tommy Flanagan the Liar, The Target Lady, an entire cornucopia of inspired comic creations.) Along the way, McCarthy began to suspect that she probably could do all the things she’d been told she couldn’t, and maybe even more.
Today, McCarthy keeps her friends close, but her enemies (yes, film critic Rex Reed, who has labeled the actress “a hippo” and “tractor-like” in reviews of her films, we’re looking at you) closer, their harsh, nay-saying words transform by McCarthy into rocket fuel.
“People have told me my entire life what I can’t do, bless them,” she says, her lips curling upward into a mischievous smile that hints she may be about to break wind or, maybe, transform into a critic-devouring werewolf. “That didn’t go the way those people had planned though, I don’t think. I hear those words, ‘You can’t do this,’ and it’s like, ‘Oh, okay, yes, let me take another look at that thing I supposedly can’t do. Mmm hmm, okay, yes.’ And then I’ll take the core of whatever it is that’s making those people act so crazy and crank it up to 11, so they’ll have no choice but to pay attention when I do it anyway – and the best that I can!”
A brief list of things McCarthy has been told she cannot do, which she has, nonetheless, gone ahead and done: become a television star, become a movie star, become a very popular celebrity, urgently poop in a bathroom sink (in the film Bridesmaid, if only), dangle midair from a helicopter, pilot an airplane, bust out some pretty impressive, unquestionably effective martial arts moves, and hurls some fruit of her own with genuine fearsomeness (much of that on display in last summer’s hit, Spy, recently released on DVD), brawling with soccer moms, swordfighting a dwarf, topped only by cinema’s first-ever “boob fight” (front and center in this month’s The Boss), and eradicating a pesky phantom problem in Manhattan with the help of a trio of fellow misfits, some sassy quips, and a very hefty proton pack (not a euphemism) in Ghostbusters, due July 16.
When McCarthy’s not defying the expectations of curmudgeons and pleasing the rest of the masses with her comic twinkle, she’s enjoying the good life with husband Falcone and their two daughters, Vivian and Georgette. The best parts of her family are, she says, the regular bouts of song and, surprise, surprise, plenty of strategically timed flashing. Don’t even bother telling McCarthy she can’t do that.
Michelle Darnell, the title character in your new film The Boss, has been a part of your life for some time. It’s a character you created at The Groundlings some 15 years ago. Tell me about that.
Oh, so many great characters have been born at The Groundlings – not just characters audiences love, but characters the performers love too. For me, my favorite character that I created was always Michelle Darnell. I loved her so much that I couldn’t let her go and I would randomly bring her up in conversation and talk about her over the years. She’s a tricky one, though, because she is so dynamic, so forceful, and so confident. Yet, Michelle is someone who makes you wonder what lies beneath it all when she says, “I don’t need anyone, other than myself.”
During the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike, which shut down production on Mike & Molly, you began to brainstorm if Michelle Darnell might be a substantial enough character to support a feature film. How has the character evolved since then?
Well, it all really goes back to The Groundlings. That’s where I met my husband, where I met Dax Shepard (husband of The Boss’ Kristen Bell), and a bunch of other good friends and amazing performers who are in The Boss. It’s where I met Steve Mallory, one of my best friends, who has always written Michelle Darnell with my husband and me. I could just never let this character go. I was always taken with her vision and her energy and just how bombastic she was and how confident and, in the weirdest way, no matter how extreme she was, she always kind of made sense to me. It’s not that Michelle changed very much through the years; but we figured out how to change or expand her world. I didn’t want to just do one of those sketch things that gets stretched into a feature film. There had to be things for Michelle to do and good reasons for her to do them.
You do some spectacular work in the film with Kristen Bell, well known to many for Veronica Mars. Tell me about working with her.
Kristen Bell is a real, real dreamboat. I was trying to think of something terrible to say about her . . .(Laughs to herself). . .But I just can’t! We just hit it off immediately. I've met her in passing. Her husband, Dax, has been a good friend of ours for a very long time, so I figured – loving Dax as much as we do – that his wife must be at least kind of cool. But, man, she’s super crazy, super funny, super nice, and she makes these weird cashew dips and brings it to the set. You show up on set with a cashew dip and I am all yours. I’m still always calling her and texting her and emailing her, “Hey, how about that recipe, lady?” So what can I tell you about Kristen Bell? Cashew dip. The best.
Just when audiences thought they’d seen every kind of physical combat in a feature film, you and Kristen get pretty, uh, nuts in the film’s “boob fight.” How did that work out?
Ah, yes, the whole bra-la-la-palooza fight scene. When we wrote it, we were like, "How far will we go? Will Kristen want to go that far?" Then she was, "Oh, let's really get into it." So before we shot it, (husband) Ben made us both have a snack so our blood sugar was up and we both got a little feisty and we just really went for it. At one point, I was laughing so hard because I suddenly became aware that we were actually doing all of this crazy stuff – and we were doing it on camera! I’m quite sure I’ve never seen an epic boob fight in a movie before. I didn’t want it to be some slap and tickle thing; I wanted a mauling, like Leo and the bear in The Revenant. That kind of thing!
It is riotously funny, but it also ends up revealing some key character information about Michelle Darnell.
Yeah. A good laugh can be anything, pretty much, but a great laugh has to be about revealing character or, at least, forwarding the story somehow. So I was thinking about a woman, like Michelle, who is kind of an island unto herself, the “I don't need anything or anyone, I’ll do it all on my own, I’m my own person, and I’m going to go out and get my money and power, no matter what,” and I started wondering, How do you throw that person off their axis? How do you crack that person’s veneer and help her realize that maybe she does need people – and that need doesn’t necessarily make her weak. That all just worked for me.
On last year’s Spy and next summer’s Ghostbusters, you’re working with director Paul Feig, who is amazing. What’s the draw for you with Paul?
We have such an easy relationship. I think Paul is truly is the best. He makes everybody come up to their best of their abilities. When someone like Paul is rooting for you and giggling off camera, ruining take after take, once you’ve finished beating him bloody because he’s ruining your best take, you realize what a gift he is. With Paul, you feel like you can do anything – and I think if you look at his movies, you’ll see his actors being better than they have ever been before.
Spy must have been a great time for you. You were an action hero!
Oh, she's such a great character! What I really loved was that she transformed from being this completely dismissible, easy to ignore desk worker into a crazy, secret agent – but she didn’t make that transformation instantly or with any kind of swagger or cool. There’s nothing graceful about her transformation, which makes it more real I think, and it’s so much fun to do.
She may not have a ton of swagger, but your Spy character does look like she’s having a lot of fun – eventually. Was it fun for you?
That was, by far, the most physically challenging role I ever had. I felt a little tricked sometimes by that movie because I’d read the script and there’d be, like, this ¼ of a page little scene thing about how my character was going to hang from a helicopter. No big deal, right? But then you get to the set and you find out you’re going to be hanging from this helicopter, strapped into this harness thing that makes your hands go numb and gives you all kinds of blisters in weird places, and you’re going to have to do that for three days! Things get moved around on a woman when she does that kind of stuff! Even riding the scooter around for the movie, it looks like fun, but not in heels, riding over cobblestone! Weirdly, I loved all of it!
A lot of the characters you play, many of which you also write, are deeply flawed characters who, nevertheless, continue striving for self-improvement. Why is that?
Well, we’re all humans, right, and everyone has a worst day and everyone has a best day. How people come out of the worst days so they maybe have a chance at another best day, that’s what a story is, right? That’s drama. Or comedy. Or whatever. It’s the universal thing. It’s why we love movies. With Michelle (in The Boss), we wanted to take a character who had enjoyed everything she ever wanted, but was kind of a terrible human being, then take all of the good stuff away from her and see what she does about it. That’s a wonderful journey, I think.
The Groundlings were so key to your creative development. What do you keep in mind today from your training there years ago?
Well, a lot of the people I met in Groundlings, they’re still part of my world, so I keep those people close. They’re amazing human beings and amazingly talented. But what I think about a lot are the rules we were taught about comedy and improv – and there are rules – and how to bend them or break them, and how sometimes you’ve got to rein it all in again. You can be peculiar. You can be eccentric. You can be insane. But it all still needs to make sense. That’s kind of important, isn’t it?