Melissa McCarthy has emerged as one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars. But her offscreen lifestyle suggests otherwise.
She still resides in a small three-bedroom house in Los Angeles suburb Toluca Lake with her husband, Ben Falcone.
Their two young daughters share a room, and her Mac computer is packed in the closet.
“We’re in the tiniest bedroom on Earth,” McCarthy confesses. On the morning of the 2012 Oscars, when she was getting dolled up for her big evening as a supporting actress nominee for her breakout role as the loudmouth sidekick in “Bridesmaids,” she didn’t have any space in the house to get dressed. “I had my stylist come to my garage,” McCarthy says. “My friends are like, ‘Get it together!’”
(Danielle Levitt for Variety)
McCarthy recounts this story on a recent evening in Budapest over a long dinner of veggie burgers, cucumber salad and beer. Her husband of nine years, seated at her side, often nods, smiles, finishes her sentences and holds her hand. McCarthy is here filming the upcoming 20th Century Fox action comedy “Spy” while on hiatus from her CBS series “Mike & Molly,” for which she won an Emmy in 2011. She reveals that when her family heads back to Los Angeles, they will eventually move.
“We’re working on a bigger house,” she says. “It’s going to take a while.”
The McCarthy-Falcones aren’t just looking to upgrade their digs. They are also expanding their careers. McCarthy, 43, an actress who early on did character work in Tennessee Williams plays in New York and co-starred on the TV series “Gilmore Girls,” is now the reigning queen of comedy at the box office, thanks to her hits “Bridesmaids,” “Identity Thief” and “The Heat.” Falcone, 40, is a character actor who appeared in supporting roles in the TV series “Joey” and films such as “Enough Said.” But now he’s best known for popping up as the lovable sidekick in his wife’s films — the modern-day Desi to her Lucy.
In “Bridesmaids,” he played the air marshal who ends up in her bed by the end credits (wearing a pair of McCarthy’s panties at the urging of producer Judd Apatow). He’s a hotel clerk in “Identity Thief,” an ex-boyfriend in “The Heat,” and a lost American tourist in “Spy.” In their New Line Cinema summer comedy “Tammy,” about a Midwestern heroine who loses her job and embarks on a road trip with her alcoholic and promiscuous grandmother (Susan Sarandon), he’s the grumpy fast-food boss that fires her. “She threw burgers at me and hit me in the face so many times,” Falcone says.
Behind the camera, the duo is aiming to build a comedy empire one raunchy joke at a time through their 2-year-old production company On the Day. “Tammy” represents their first outing as bigscreen producers, and it also poses a significant risk. Falcone doesn’t just appear in the film, he co-wrote it with his wife, and for the first time he’s stepped in to direct. McCarthy took a pay cut from her multimillion salary in exchange for a backend on the Fourth of July weekend release.
It’s a risky proposition for a movie star to put her trust in the hands of a first-time helmer — let alone her spouse. “I’ve been there,” quips Sarandon, who won the Oscar for “Dead Man Walking,” which was helmed by Tim Robbins, her boyfriend at the time (who had previously directed “Bob Roberts”). But McCarthy downplays any concerns. “Ben has always been great with big picture and minutiae,” she says. For his part, Falcone says he never thought about jinxing his wife’s hot streak at the box office. “She’s done so well,” he says. “You want to help continue that. But then if you’re given an opportunity, you have to take it. You can’t say, ‘Oh boy, what if this doesn’t work?’ ”
In fact, McCarthy originally planned on directing “Tammy” with Falcone, and the couple even went so far as to consider applying for co-director status at the DGA until she realized her TV schedule would get in the way of pre-production.
“I directed an episode of ‘Mike & Molly’ this last season,” McCarthy says. “I loved it, because … ”
“ … Because she craves power above all else!” Falcone quips.
McCarthy changed the comedy landscape by proving she could be just as vulgar as her male counterparts.
“I think she’s thrilling to watch,” says Will Ferrell, one of “Tammy’s” producers, who knows good raunch when he sees it. “There’s a sense of excitement and danger with her performances. She’s beautifully reckless and does things you’ve never seen a woman do.”
(Danielle Levitt for Variety)
Anyone who’s ever shared the screen with McCarthy can attest to her boldness and uninhibited creative impulses.
“Melissa has no sieve when she works,” says her “Heat” co-star and close pal Sandra Bullock, whose family took a trip to Disneyland with McCarthy’s. “She has no problem humiliating you or herself when she works. It’s all or nothing for her, and I think audiences feel that.”
Paul Feig, the director of “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat” and “Spy,” calls McCarthy his muse. He credits her wide appeal to her innate ability to connect with audiences.
“She’s what you want out of every comedic hero: She’s you. She’s not intimidating, yet she’s aspirational, because she’s a beautiful woman, but she’s a real woman,” he says, while chatting with a reporter during a shopping trip in Budapest for antique walking sticks. “What I love about her is the meritocracy of comedy. The funniest person is bringing the biggest laughs.”
McCarthy and Falcone have been comedy collaborators most of their adult lives. They grew up in Illinois, though they didn’t know each other — she lived on a farm in Plainfield and went to college at Southern Illinois U. in his hometown of Carbondale. He was a high-school student who wore sandals and his trusty “A Clockwork Orange” T-shirt, and he remembers seeing McCarthy at neighborhood parties. They never talked because he was too intimidated — she went through a goth phase in college and wore full-length capes and wigs. “She was scary!” Falcone says.
They reconnected in the ’90s at the Los Angeles Groundlings, where they became partners on- and offstage, sneaking away for latenight drinks at the Snakepit Alehouse on Melrose Avenue. They finally started to tell their friends they were a dating because “we didn’t have the money and livers” to keep their courtship secret any longer, McCarthy says. She recalls acting in countless skits with Falcone, including weird musicals he’d write, and she learned more from the jokes that bombed.
“In the process of doing 8 million sketches, you’re going to tank terribly,” she says. “When it goes poorly, you cannot in any way think everything out of your mouth is gold.”
Falcone came up with the idea for “Tammy” six years ago, before his wife was a household name.
“I always thought she could channel the Midwestern lady,” he says. “I never imagined who else it could be.” McCarthy recalls how he pitched her the premise. “He literally came downstairs one morning and said, ‘I had a dream about something,’ just bleary-eyed,” McCarthy says. “He said, ‘I think I’m going to write a movie where you take a road trip with your grandma, and she sleeps around.’ The more we talked about it, it kind of became real.”
Although Falcone has many friends who are directors, he never envisioned himself in the chair. He took the job only after an exhaustive search — which included Feig, Beth McCarthy-Miller (“30 Rock”) and Tate Taylor (“The Help”) — came up empty due to scheduling conflicts. Falcone finally worked up the courage to ask New Line Cinema president Toby Emmerich for the job.
“They were writing the movie and producing the movie and starring in the movie,” Emmerich says. “It was clear they understood the material and character better than any filmmaker we could find.”
New Line wanted to make the comedy at a price — $20 million — that’s quite low, given its cast of Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Sandra Oh, Dan Aykroyd and Mark Duplass. McCarthy herself is so cost-conscious she still winces at an accident she had early in the production. The actress, who does most of her own stunts, took a jet ski out for a spin only to flip over at 40 miles-per-hour. She wasn’t injured, but she lost Tammy’s blondish-brunette wig at the bottom of the lake. She’s upset that she put the production back $5,000 for a replacement, an amount most movie stars wouldn’t register.
“I always start with the wig,” McCarthy says. “There’s a drag queen trapped inside me, trying to get out.”
Falcone shot the movie based on what he learned from Apatow and Feig on “Bridesmaids.”
“I stole everything I possibly could from those guys,” he says.
He encouraged long improvisations from his actors, with many takes, so that he could assemble the final picture in the editing room.
Sarandon, who wore prosthetic cankles as the grandma, had never worked like that. “I felt free to contribute and make mistakes,” says the veteran actress, noting she tried her best to keep up with McCarthy. “She’s just a force.”
(Danielle Levitt for Variety)
Falcone had two cameras rolling, so that he could land natural reaction shots from more than one actor.
“The first time I ever did cross-shooting was ‘Bridesmaids,’ ” Falcone says. When he’s cracking up onscreen, it’s usually a real reaction to his wife’s crazy lines, which she often makes up on the spot. He recalls one of her better jokes in “Bridesmaids” about “the thing up your butt,” he says. “I don’t know whose butt that was supposed to be.”
“I think I kept it very vague,” McCarthy says. “When I watch that stuff, I’m like ‘Omigod!’ When did I say that?’ I don’t remember it.”
“You black it out to protect yourself,” Falcone says.
Their writing process isn’t typical, either. They scribble notes on scraps of paper and napkins in the car before one of them transfers the dialogue onto a laptop. “I wish I would have saved the napkins,” McCarthy says. “It makes me laugh. While we’re doing it, we’re like, is this what other people are doing?”
Unlike the characters she plays, McCarthy rarely curses in real life and insists she and Falcone don’t fight much. Emmerich never witnessed a single argument, and neither did producer Chris Henchy, who says McCarthy and Falcone would hold hands like newlyweds while the actress watched her takes on the monitor.
“We’re not a volatile couple,” McCarthy says. “I really like him. He’s super calm. I’m annoying.”
“You’re not annoying,” Falcone says. “You’re great. When she gets quiet, I get nervous. She’s a fun chatterbox.”
“I talk a lot,” McCarthy says.
“If it stops, I wonder what’s wrong.”
McCarthy is showing no signs of slowing down. Since “Bridesmaids,” she has been juggling the kind of schedule that would exhaust even James Franco. Her CBS series, “Mike & Molly,” starting its fifth season in the fall (she’s under contract for six), has meant she’s had only a small window to make movies. In March, she wrapped the series, jetted to Las Vegas to unveil an extended trailer of “Tammy” at CinemaCon, and then flew straight to Budapest to shoot “Spy.”
Falcone joined a few days later with their daughters, Vivian, 7, and Georgette, 4, who were enrolled in a local school to finish their studies. While McCarthy swung from the tail of a helicopter and ran through cobbled streets in heels (she admits to falling a lot), Falcone played Mr. Mom and shut himself indoors to work on the adaptation of novelist Ron McLarty’s “The Memory of Running,” one of her favorite books. The pair hasn’t decided if McCarthy will appear in the movie, but she will headline another project they are producing and writing for Universal, called “Michelle Darnell.” The comedy will shoot next March, and Falcone again will direct.
The story is based on a character McCarthy first unveiled in the Groundlings: a self-help guru who goes to jail for insider trading.
“I just could never get her out of my head,” McCarthy says. “She’s got short, red spiky hair and wears a lot of turtlenecks, and from there, a script is born.”
She’s also attached to produce and star in “Just Do It,” a comedy Feig will direct about a husband and wife who attempt to repair their broken marriage through 100 continuous days of sex. Despite the premise, McCarthy insists the comedy isn’t graphic. “It becomes endearing, even though it’s about sex,” she says. “It’s more about a couple trying to get their relationship back to where it was.”
Audiences haven’t really seen it yet, but McCarthy does have a serious side. It makes an appearance in the third, more emotional act of “Tammy.” And in “St. Vincent,” the Weinstein Co. fall drama that could be this year’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” starring Bill Murray, with McCarthy in full-fledged character-actress mode as a divorced mom.
The film’s writer-director, Theodore Melfi, says he had to push to cast her as co-star, since Harvey Weinstein wasn’t sure if the dramatic scenes would fit the comedic powerhouse. McCarthy didn’t back down from the challenge.
“Melissa said, ‘Let’s show Harvey!’ ” Melfi recalls. “We put her on tape, which is unheard of for someone of her stature. Harvey got the tape on a Friday. On a Monday, he called me. He said, ‘You’re 100% right. I can’t think of anyone else now.’ ”
When she looks to her future, McCarthy hopes to wear an assortment of different hats (or should that be wigs): as an actress, producer, writer and director.
“I’m a dork,” she says, admitting to making adjustments to her co-stars costumes when she did plays in New York. “I love it when things look and feel right.”
An avid reader who pours over every script in her pile, McCarthy notes that the industry still struggles with giving equal air- and screentime to women in comedy.
“Hollywood wants to make women so perfect,” McCarthy says. “Perfect hair. Perfect job. Perfect manners.” She looks down at her empty glass of beer. “I know some of the most beautiful women, and they are so weird! That’s what makes them funny and captivating.”
Part of what makes McCarthy and Falcone’s marriage and careers work is that they are so well-matched. But it’s not always easy balancing family life and individual ambition.
“I get scripts for stuff that she’s not in,” Falcone says. “We’re here in Budapest. If it shoots in Austin or wherever, how am I going to see my kids? How do I leave my wife and kids for four months? It doesn’t sound appealing.”
“I’m against it,” McCarthy says. “Eventually, I know we’ll switch. He’ll direct something, and I’ll take the kids and go with him.”
Spoken like true partners.