'I found myself rooting for her... they sidelined a great writer who refused to play their game'
Melissa McCarthy showed she's box office gold with a string of hit comedies, but she moves into drama with new film Can You Ever Forgive Me? which won her an Oscar nod. Here, she tells Laura Harding why she felt for the main character and why she doesn't want to be confined to one genre
Think of law-skirting, anti-social anti-heroes in film, and it is unlikely you would think of a woman. Perhaps it's even less likely that you would think of Melissa McCarthy, who first charmed audiences as the sweet Sookie St James in Gilmore Girls and then shot to global fame as the breakout star of the comedy Bridesmaids, followed by lead roles in The Heat, Spy and The Boss.
But the 48-year-old could change all that with new film Can You Ever Forgive Me?.
The movie is a biopic of celebrity biographer Lee Israel, who turned her hand to forging letters purporting to be from the famous people she admired when her own books fell out of favour.
"I think people love to categorise and say, 'You did this, you did that', but for me there is absolutely no difference in how I read a script, why I read it, what I feel about it, " McCarthy reflects.
"I just look to the story and I look to the character, and what kind of tone the movie takes on is really secondary.
"I've done so much drama that not many people have seen - it was mostly on stage - but I think it somehow makes it more digestible to people to know what box you're in.
"I am never a big fan of putting people in boxes."
Taking a turn for the dramatic is already paying off for McCarthy.
The part has landed her a best actress Oscar nomination, seven years after her supporting nod for Bridesmaids, as well as recognition at the Baftas, Golden Globes and Critics' Choice Awards.
McCarthy fell in love with Israel straight away, captivated by her fall from a best-selling author of biographies of stars, including Tallulah Bankhead to persona non grata in the age of celebrity authors.
Desperate for money and furious her gifts were being overlooked, she started forging correspondence from the likes of Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Noel Coward and Louise Brooks, and selling the letters to dealers.
McCarthy said: "I loved the fact that I found myself so rooting for her, although she wasn't doing anything that was necessarily admirable.
"I didn't know why I liked her so much. It was a very confusing, wonderful spot to find yourself in when you're reading a script... to be like, 'I'm completely enamoured with her and yet I don't know why'.
"To me, that means something is going right to the heart, and I felt her loneliness. It reminded me of that thing in life, where you're like, 'They are kind of a handful but I love them'.
"We all have friends that are a little too Lee, a little tricky, a little difficult. You may have to qualify them before someone meets them.
"You say, 'They are a lot but they are actually great and I love them to death and I don't know why', but I have to explain them before they walk in the room.
"I have become so attached to Lee that I just want people to see her for everything she was. For her talent, her intelligence, her caustic, remarkable wit and to also see her difficult circumstances - her flaws, her broken heart, her anger. I want people to love her as much as I do.
"I think you see dimensions in her that you don't often see in female characters. She's not all shined up and floating through life, making everything wonderful.
"She kind of storms in and leaves a path of destruction."
McCarthy particularly revelled in Israel's razor-sharp tongue and caustic turn of phrase.
One line she relished was Israel lamenting: "Oh, to be a white male who doesn't know he's full of crap."
"I had to make sure I went easy with it because there are lines that are just so juicy, and you need to make sure you don't just rush into them. Talk about the essence of Lee's wit - even when she's blind mad, and should have been, what a turn of phrase," the star says.
Indeed McCarthy, who is married to the actor Ben Falcone, with whom she has two daughters, admired Israel's capacity to be true to herself, even when she was committing crimes.
"She has been told she's obsolete, essentially. She's an incredible writer, a great writer, and yet still they were saying, 'We are done with you... you won't play the game and sparkle and shine and all of these other things'.
"And she was right with saying, 'Why can't I just write? If the writing is good, why can't I be a writer?'
"They wanted her to act accordingly and play this game, but I love the fact she was exactly who she was, even when it made her own life difficult.
"She did not want, and did not need, other people's approval. Especially today, that is a very remarkable thing to see.
"There is a strange obsession currently, where people really look to other people to tell them their own self-worth and right or wrong.
"You can question how Lee did it a million ways, but in terms of someone saying, 'This is what it is, I don't care to change for you', that is pretty admirable."
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is at cinemas now