Melissa McCarthy is no stranger to awards season, with an Oscar nomination to her credit for “Bridesmaids.” But this year definitely feels different, considering the Plainfield native is hitting the festival circuit with a dramatic showpiece.
After splashy premieres at Telluride Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, director Marielle Heller’s drama “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” will screen at the Chicago International Film Festival on Oct. 14 before opening at local theaters on Oct. 26. McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a struggling biographer who found financial success forging letters of dead celebrities.
When the topic of an Academy Awards run comes up in conversation, McCarthy is quick to applaud the “wonderful team effort” around her.
“Every movie has a different energy: Sometimes you feel like it’s just this raucous, wild, goofy time. Sometimes it’s physically hard. And this one really just felt like everyone was kind of working together to build this world,” McCarthy says. “I think when people seem excited to see it, that’s just the cherry on top. It’s everything.”
McCarthy admits she becomes “personally attached” to her characters, such as her quirky Megan in “Bridesmaids” — a role that earned her supporting actress nominations at the Oscars and Screen Actors Guild Awards. But with Israel, who died in 2014 at 75, McCarthy says it’s important that audiences know her tale.
“I want people to notice her and notice what she did and how she wrote. And I also think it’s such a great story for people to see,” McCarthy says. “It’s a pretty good thing to have a reminder [that] you never know what someone’s going through. Pass them on the street, they seem like just another number — someone very unnoticeable and forgettable — and yet you never know.”
The Oscars love transformative performances, and McCarthy embraced Israel’s distinct physicality and “utilitarian” wardrobe: “I just kept thinking Lee was always kind of cocooning herself. Her clothes and even how she walked — she did not peacock about.” But with no real footage and very few pictures of the real-life woman, McCarthy leaned on her old acquaintances.
She recalls asking one person if Israel would have been happy with her performance, and he told her, “Well, Lee’s thing wasn’t really ‘happy.’ ”
“I thought, ‘What a fantastic answer,’ ” McCarthy says. “She didn’t have a huge circle of friends, so when you met someone that really said, ‘I knew her, I was friends with her,’ it meant something.”