She’s best-known and best-loved for her kooky comedies but with her latest film, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Melissa McCarthy shines in a much darker, deeper role, writes Des Sampson.

Melissa McCarthy is in a buoyant mood as she cheerfully concedes that she knew "absolutely nothing" about Lee Israel, the infamous celebrity biographer she portrays in the biopic Can You Ever Forgive Me? It would probably have remained that way too, she admits, if it wasn't for a twist of fate.

"My husband had got a part in an earlier incarnation of this movie, so one day I picked up his script and began reading it. As soon as I did, I remember thinking; 'Wow, how did I not know about this woman, how did I not read anything about her?' She's got such a fascinating story.

"I read through it [the script] so fast and rushed out the room, saying to him; 'this is amazing, this is such a good script.' I was so excited for him because these kinds of movies don't come around that often. I was hooked and wanted to be involved too, so I ended up shoehorning my way into his movie, she admits, laughing.

You can understand why she felt that way, because Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a brilliantly pithy, poignant, deeply dark and deathly funny retelling of Israel's troubled life, including her alcoholism, reclusiveness, sexuality and dysfunctional relationships. But, most importantly, it spotlights her spectacular fall from grace, as a celebratory biographer, and how she turned her spurned talent into a lucrative sideline, by forging hundreds of letters from Hollywood stars to sell for a quick buck.

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It also lifts the lid on Israel's burgeoning friendship with fellow misfit and miscreant Jack Hock, adroitly played by Richard E. Grant. As Hock gets drawn into Israel's murky world of forgery, theft and deceit they become an unlikely, inseparable duo, connecting over drink, despair and desperation.

Can You Forgive Me? is based on a bizarre true story.
Can You Forgive Me? is based on a bizarre true story.

"They are an odd couple," concurs Grant, nodding in agreement. "When I read the script, I was trying to find a reference for them and a buddy movie that has a parallel to this. I immediately thought of Midnight Cowboy, because in that you have two people - 'Ratso' Rizzo and Joe Buck – who are living in this incredibly, wealthy city but are very lonely. On paper, they should have nothing to connect them together but they end up in this odd, love-hate co-dependence and friendship, just like these two.

"Their relationship does the A to Z of the vicissitudes of what friendship is," he adds, earnestly. "When they first meet, in a bar, it's the 'honeymoon' phase of their friendship and then it goes through a loyalty stage before, inevitably, comes the betrayal of that friendship, followed by the poignancy of reconciliation when Jack is dying of Aids and she's asking for his forgiveness and his permission to write this memoir."

"That friendship underpins the whole story and, I think, it's what makes it so universal," concludes Grant, solemnly. "I think that's what touches people, I genuinely do. At least that's what people have been telling us!"

It is a heart-warming, life-affirming tale of their friendship - forged through criminality - coupled with moments of caustic humour, stoicism, sadness, regret, mischief, honour and betrayal that combine to weave the threads of life's rich tapestry. For McCarthy, it's left a lasting impression.

"I think people are often in circumstances you can't imagine, like there was a time when I couldn't meet my bills and needed a helping hand, so I can really relate to her plight," she reveals.

"That's why I feel very blessed now. In fact, I don't think there's a single day that goes by where my husband and I don't look at each other and go, 'Isn't this crazy? We get to do what we want and we get to support our family with it.' That's an amazing position to be in, and one I don't take for granted – especially when I've seen the other side of how things can be and how quickly you can fall."

Melissa McCarthy had never heard of Lee Israel until she read the script for this film and was instantly fascinated by her.
Melissa McCarthy had never heard of Lee Israel until she read the script for this film and was instantly fascinated by her.

Just like Lee Israel experiences in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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"Exactly," retorts McCarthy. "You never know what will happen and whether, tomorrow, you'll be the one reaching up and needing a hand, needing that hand. I guess I see it as a snowball effect – whatever you put out you get back. It's just part of the whole cycle of life."

LOWDOWN
Who: Melissa McCarthy
What: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
When:In cinemas next Thursday