Melissa McCarthy has always been a funny girl. But not because she was cute (though she was) or unexpectedly crude (though she could be). She was funny because she was quick; she always had reply, a reference or a self-deprecating, soft jab. Now, with three movies out this year — a starring role in the box-office busting “Identity Thief,” a stint in the debaucherous finale “The Hangover Part III” and this month’s “The Heat” — McCarthy, 42, is standing tall as Hollywood’s Queen of Comedy.
But the Plainfield native, who used to go by Missy and grew up with my oldest brother, shoe designer Brian Atwood, hasn’t let the fame go to her head. “There’s no departure from reality,” McCarthy says of her ascent to stardom. “I don’t know why, but I’m not questioning it because it’s working in my favor.”
If you don’t recognize McCarthy from her Emmy-winning CBS show “Mike & Molly,” where she plays a sweet elementary school teacher married to a Chicago cop she met at Overeaters Anonymous, chances are you know her from her career-defining turn in “Bridesmaids.” That scene-stealing role as Kristen Wiig’s rough-around-the-edges friend not only catapulted McCarthy’s career from the small screen to the silver screen, but made her a favorite among Tinseltown’s reigning comedy royalty. Her appeal, which is due to her on-screen likability and physicality, was enough for Judd Apatow to immediately create a role for her in his “Knocked Up” spinoff, “This is 40,” and for the scribes of “Identity Thief” to rewrite the title role as a woman so McCarthy could play her.
On June 28, McCarthy will light up the big screen alongside Sandra Bullock in “The Heat.” “I’m crazy excited for it,” she says. “I love it, I really love it, and I don’t just say that.” The plot centers around the unlikely pairing of McCarthy’s rough-and-tumble Boston cop and Bullock’s uptight FBI agent who must bring down a dangerous drug lord — if they can learn to cooperate. “I always tend to gravitate toward an unapologetic character,” McCarthy says of her role as Detective Shannon Mullins. “I’m not that bold in my real life,” she adds, laughing.
On set, McCarthy and Bullock (or “Sandy” as McCarthy calls her) were pleased to find they didn’t clash like their characters. “Just meeting Sandy was the best part of the whole movie,” says McCarthy. “She doesn’t have a single moment of hesitancy and can just jump in and do stupid stuff. I tell her to her face, so I feel OK saying it, ‘I love you because you have no pride.’ And I mean that in a very good way.”
On set, McCarthy is known for her improvisation (a skill she picked up performing in revered LA comedy group The Groundlings, where she met “Bridesmaids” co-stars Wiig and Maya Rudolph), letting her wild creativity take scenes to a new level. So it’s no surprise that in “The Heat,” McCarthy didn’t hold back, and took Bullock along for the ride. “There’s a bar scene and at one point — I think we both felt drunk — we got into a roll of tape and we ended up taping up our faces. None of that was written. It turned into such lunacy that while both our faces were taped up, I turned to her and said, ‘Are you thinking about your Academy Award right now?’ ”
But for all of McCarthy’s current success, her climb to the top was a long time in the making. After graduating from Joliet Catholic High School, McCarthy moved to Boulder, Colo., to work as an au pair. It wasn’t until high school pal Atwood visited McCarthy that things started to change. “He said, ‘What the hell are you doing out here?’ ” McCarthy remembers. “I said, ‘I dunno.’ ”
She packed her bags and moved into his small Hell’s Kitchen apartment (back when it was one of Manhattan’s less reputable neighborhoods). “On the second night he said, ‘You’re going to go do standup,’ and I didn’t have the common sense to say, ‘I can’t do that.’ I said, ‘All right, I guess?’ ”
On stage for the first time at The Duplex, McCarthy picked up the mike and just started talking. “I told long, bizarre stories about being amazing and tall and wealthy in New York. None of those things were true,” she laughs. “No one knew what to make of me because I was dressed like a club kid: I had a big wig, and I had Brian’s gold lamé swing jacket on and gigantic heels. I looked cuckoo-town. I was totally in drag. I was a woman trying to look like a man trying to look like a woman.”
“She brought the house down,” my brother recalls. “People were screaming and laughing so hard. I had chills the moment that happened because I knew everything was the way it should be.”
Two decades into her career, McCarthy has kept her childhood friend close — further proof of her down-to-earth nature. On her first walk down the Oscars red carpet as a nominee, McCarthy wore his custom-made heels. When she hosted “Saturday Night Live” in April, she took to the stage teetering on Atwood’s sky-high, pink crystal-encrusted platforms, jokingly complaining, “My quads are seizing up,” while tripping and falling face first. “That was the most nervous I’ve been because I thought, ‘If I do really go down, I’m going to break my ankle.’ ”
But for McCarthy, physical comedy is all part of the draw. And while her weight has garnered negative — and sometimes harsh — comments from critics, she manages to stay positive. “I think every actor uses everything they have. Whether they’re short or tall, accent or no accent. You can’t separate your comedy from who you are.”
It helps that McCarthy has managed to find her piece of paradise with her own family. She’s married to fellow actor Ben Falcone, whom she met during her tenure at The Groundlings, and who is most recognizable for his role as the air marshal in “Bridesmaids.” Together they have two daughters, Vivian, 6, and Georgette, 3.
Her trick to keeping family and work balanced? Take a cue from circus folk. “We’re kind of carnies,” she admits. “You go where the work is and you travel and you live in different places with different people and you get really close to them. Then it’s over and you move to a different city.” But the McCarthy-Falcone clan sticks together as much as possible — during this interview, she was on the set of her next film, “Tammy,” which Falcone is directing.
McCarthy also sticks by famous cousin (and Splash columnist) Jenny McCarthy. While rumors have swirled of a supposed feud, she is quick to set the record straight. “That’s a made-up, crazy story. It’s literally one of the ones where you read it and go, ‘Who has that job?’ It must be so fun to make something up and then write it down. We’ve never had a problem in our lives. I’m waiting to hear a story that I’m, like, an alien. If you’re going to make something up, make it really good.”
When it comes to McCarthy, there’s no need to embellish. After 22 years, she’s still Missy. But with an Emmy.
Story by Zak Stemer