“Put Your Money Where Your Mouth is”: Melissa McCarthy On Supporting Female-Led Films

“I think we need all people -- women, people who support equality -- to show up and support these movies when they come out.”

Melissa McCarthy interview The Kitchen

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Already 2019 has been a big one for Melissa McCarthy.

She earned a second Oscar nomination for her role in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, her first in the lead actress category. She officially broke through the comedian rite-of-passage: from funny woman to serious, dramatic actress.

Now she’s doing something she has never done before: lead a period crime epic.

The 48-year old stars in The Kitchen, an all-star adaptation of the Vertigo comic book of the same name, that sees three women take over the Irish mob after their husbands go to jail. McCarthy is at the head of this trio, with Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss completing the triangle of ladies who have been under-appreciated and undervalued.

Together they come into their own, not just as women but, well, criminals. As one character in the film calls it: “that Gloria Steinem shit”.

A Step In The Right Direction

“I found myself reading the script and for all three of the women, it’s very easy to say what you wouldn’t do,” says McCarthy.

“It’s very easy to sit in judgement, but when you really put yourself in someone else’s shoes, I think that usually shifts.”

“You can say everything you want, but until you prove that number, show that number is wrong, you kinda gotta put your money where your mouth is.”

Sitting at a table in a restaurant on the Warner Bros lot in Los Angeles, it’s clear how much the studio has already judged this film. It’s rare to see a female driven drama — with a female writer/director — have this much marketing clout thrown behind it.

Three full blocks of the studio’s lot were converted into an authentic recreation of 1978 Hell’s Kitchen, to promote the movie, complete with vintage cars parked on the street, record stores stocking only vinyl and tape, and hot dog vendors asking if you want “fried onions” with that.

For McCarthy, she hopes it’s a step in the right direction for studios to “stop questioning whether things are viable and equally lucrative” if they’re female driven.

“I think we need all people — women, people who support equality — to show up and support these movies when they come out,” she says. “Because some accountant is sitting there with a ledger going ‘female movies don’t make as much, they’re not as worthy’. You can say everything you want, but until you prove that number, show that number is wrong, you kinda gotta put your money where your mouth is.”

She adds this is necessary for “all areas of entertainment, not just movies” because her fear is that in a post #MeToo world, the push for female-driven content is about saving face — it’s temporary — and as soon as the heat has died off, Hollywood could very likely go back to the way it was.

Things Don’t Need To Be Subtle To Be Poignant

The comparison between the entertainment business and women in The Kitchen fighting to ‘make it’ in a patriarchal industry while overcoming sexism, racism, and classism, is obvious to McCarthy. Yet things don’t need to be subtle to be poignant.

“…I think women always have that moment where they want to stop apologising or feeling diminished.”

“I didn’t think specifically just about Hollywood,” she says. “I thought it was a good analogy for the world. I think unfortunately this applies everywhere, doesn’t matter what town or what industry. Is the balance better than ‘78? I think it’s less blatant in some areas, questionable in others, I certainly don’t think the numbers are suddenly like ‘oh we finally figured it out’.”

Her perspective is informed by more than 20 years in showbiz, with not just film and television credits to her name, but her own production company, fashion line, and years as part of the famous The Groundlings comedy troupe.

There’s a moment when her The Kitchen character Cathy says “fuck balls, when have balls ever gotten us anywhere?” and to be honest, she kinda has a point.

“I think it’s a very strong statement,” McCarthy says, with a grin. “I think there are a lot of situations and a lot of women that feel that. I think everyone has felt that, male or female, but I think women always have that moment where they want to stop apologising or feeling diminished. I think for her to say that in that moment, it was a really remarkably written scene that Andrea created and it was tricky to do because there’s such anger. I have wonderful men in my life, I’m really lucky, from my father to my husband to my friends, but you’ve certainly still have had run-ins where you feel that. To know people are having that all the time and it’s their only kind of relationship with some men is pretty heartbreaking.”

From Comedy To Drama

Cathy — like McCarthy — is married, with two children. Cathy — unlike McCarthy (far as we know) — is a criminal, someone who uses not only her empathy and intelligence to take over the Irish mob, but her cunning and brutality.

We never see Cathy physically maim or murder someone, yet we see her orchestrate it. And that — for McCarthy and the audience — is whole new territory according to The Kitchen’s filmmaker Andrea Berloff.

“This is not a natural role necessarily for Melissa,” she says. “It’s very different. I wanted to see her do something different. And she wanted to do something different… she’s amazing, I can’t wait until people see what she can do.”

Berloff, who is coming off the back of an Oscar-nomination for Straight Outta Compton, says it’s the kind of role McCarthy doesn’t get offered.

Sure, we’ve seen her wielding a gun before and tackling bad guys in The Heat, Spy, even The Happytime Murders. However with this, there was no comedic undertone. It was deadly. It was serious. It was deadly serious and based on the journeys of countless real-life women navigating the world of organised crime.

“No one can do what she does,” says McCarthy’s co-star Tiffany Haddish. She’s understandably in awe of her ability as a performer.

As a comedian in the process of making the transition from comedy to drama just like McCarthy did — just like Robin Williams did, Steve Carell, Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey and dozens of male examples before them — Haddish is someone who has been watching her career very closely.

The 39-year old said she spent much of her down time on set hanging out with McCarthy and Moss, listening to their stories and learning all she could. All Melissa’s stories have, like, morals,” she laughs. “What have we learned today guys?”

Always Learning

McCarthy too was learning from her co-stars, including Moss, who she’s a big fan of thanks to Australian-New Zealand police drama Top Of The Lake (“it’s so, so good”).

She was also learning from the characters they were playing, who were first brought to life by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle in graphic novel form.

“I never felt safe,” Cathy tells her father in the film at one point, who has been resistant to her rise through the organised crime ranks. “No women does. Now I do. I put me first.”

For McCarthy, that notion was an empowering one — even if it’s something she’s still “working on”.

“I think I do and I can put myself first, but I always struggle with it. My mum is someone who will literally make sure every single person will be tended to 15 times over and you’re all ‘sit down and eat something hot for once!’. I do kind of follow that and it’s the best of her, but it’s also the trickiest … I always say ‘I’m going to take a bath’, but the truth is I haven’t even gone to the bathroom alone in 12 years. That just goes away. You have a kid and you’re like ‘It’s never going to happen by myself? Okay. Still?’ Sometimes they bring the dogs in and it’s just … it’s odd, it’s odd — it really is.”

McCarthy laughs, quickly adding “oh God, please don’t end the interview there” before pausing and offering a shrug instead.

The Kitchen opens in Australian cinemas Thursday, August 29.

Maria Lewis is a journalist, screenwriter and author of The Witch Who Courted Death, It Came From The Deep and the Who’s Afraid? novel series, available worldwide.