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Melissa McCarthy and Lupita Nyong’o Discuss Headlining Movies on Their Own Terms

Melissa McCarthy and Lupita Nyong’o sat down for a chat for Variety’s Actors on Actors. For more, click here

Melissa McCarthy is best known for creating outsize comedic characters, but this year she took on a dramatic role in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” Marielle Heller’s story of a forger desperately holding onto her place in a gentrifying New York. It’s a turn that’s surprising only before one considers the attention to detail McCarthy applies to every role, regardless of genre.

Lupita Nyong’o also made a turn that makes crystalline sense. As Nakia, a warrior and the love interest of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa in Marvel’s “Black Panther,” she brings a fierce energy to the superhero genre. The Oscar winner is playing a part far more interesting than simply the hero’s girlfriend. Together, Nyong’o and McCarthy are a case study in headlining movies in Hollywood on their own terms.

Lupita Nyong’o: When I heard that you were doing a dramatic role I was like, “I wonder what that’s going to be like.” Because I think oftentimes we’re very territorial of our comedic actors, and rigid with them, almost. What is the difference in doing dramatic and comedic roles?

Melissa McCarthy: There’s no difference. When it is a comedy I spend a lot of time thinking about how if they’re super happy and bubbly, it’s a defense mechanism. I guess I have a fascination with defense mechanisms and what people do and how they present themselves.

Nyong’o: Do you know what that was for Lee Israel, the thing that was a kernel that opened it up for you?

McCarthy: I kept thinking of her as an armadillo. I’ve played a lot of aggressive women that are forward moving. I push first. In Lee, I felt like she was just laying and waiting. I’m more of a spazzy, energetic person, so just playing that different weight of “I’m not moving or showing you that I’m alive,” it’s kind of when an animal plays dead.

Nyong’o: What’s your relationship with armadillos?

McCarthy: I guess that they curl up in a ball. I don’t have a lot of great protective shields. I thought it was so interesting that she’s so guarded. Now I want to ask you: When you start something like “Black Panther,” did you have an immediate reaction to what that was going to mean for the world? And then I want to know how insane you find that, that it’s a first in so many ways.

Nyong’o: I recall getting the phone call from Ryan [Coogler]. He walked me through his idea, and it seemed very politically acute. I had never seen this kind of movie, that’s actually talking about real issues and doing so within the world of fantastical heroes. I’d known Ryan for a little bit, and I felt that he was a man of deep integrity and a man who works from real gut. So I signed on blindly. With a faith in Ryan. He had this idea in the Obama era, and suddenly this thing was resonating in such a new and urgent way.

McCarthy: Strangely, maybe better when it came out. It did feel like it was maybe, for tragic reasons, better it came out when it did than if it had come out three years earlier.

Nyong’o: I had a sense. But we could not have imagined the droves that would go to cinemas dressed up to the nines in all their traditional garb all around the world. I went to Nigeria shortly after the film came out, and Africans, they’re not moviegoers. But it had been three months since the film came out, and people were still going with their grandmothers and their granddaughters.

McCarthy: How women were portrayed in that movie was so incredibly strong and fierce. I brought my family the second day it opened, and I was so proud to have my girls, an 11- and an 8-year-old, see the world in which I want to live and also for them to watch the women portrayed in that movie. On two fronts, that just kind of broke every bad meeting where people say, “You can’t really do this.” “Black Panther” just crushed it on every level.

Nyong’o: Because Ryan is a feminist himself, he wanted this film to show women like the women he grew up with, who are strong and multi-talented and multifaceted and involved. Then what I love about him is that he’s humble enough to hire artists whom he can trust to bring more to the table than he might have even imagined.

McCarthy: We always say, “Best idea wins.” It doesn’t matter where an idea comes from. I’ll steal anyone’s idea. That’s how I want sets and, I guess, the world to be. Mari Heller, who directed “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” has such a clear vision of what she wants, but what’s so amazing is that she’s completely collaborative. It was just a great feeling of leadership and guidance, completely flexible to change at any moment. It’s such a gift to work like that. Because I didn’t produce that, I can turn off my producer brain and just be like, “I don’t have to do any of that. The schedule’s not my problem. I’m just going to actually do the scene.”

Nyong’o: You work both as a producer and actor in your work, as well as just as an actor like you did with this. What is your relationship with control?

Lupita Nyong'o Variety Actors on Actors

McCarthy: I’m a big fan of it. I want the sets to be right. I will sit and talk about the rug that our director wants to get. I feel like I’ve never met anyone truly as interested.

Nyong’o: Do you do that also when you’re not a producer in a movie now?

McCarthy: Yeah, I do. Not because I’m like, “Listen to me or else.” It’s just part of the fun. It’s also how I get into the character, because I’ll already be familiar with sets and I know the weird thing I put in a drawer. I also wanted the control because I wanted to put real women into movies. Funny, dramatic, whatever it is. Don’t you feel that unless you take that control, it is often presented to you [as] “This is a real woman” — yet it’s no one either one of us would recognize as a real human?

Nyong’o: When you have a say in the creation of the thing, then you can nip that in the bud. That’s the attraction to producing. It feels really good. I’m in the early stages of doing that as well, developing, adapting books for the screen. It is very rewarding. I haven’t yet been in the situation where I’m producing and acting yet. I’m curious to know what that’s going to be. The moment I step on set, I kind of need to reclaim my sovereignty as just the character. I wonder when I’m a producer what that’s going to be like when they’re like, “Oh, we don’t have enough dry ice for the scene that’s two weeks from now.”

McCarthy: It does tend to split your brain. You start to see the matrix and you are like, “Wait. We can’t. That’s never going to get shot in time.” Would you ever direct?

Nyong’o: I don’t enjoy that level of control, quite honestly. I’m very subjective to one person’s point of view. I do enjoy directing documentary. That’s something that I’m interested in. The documentary I did previously, in film school, was about people with albinism in Kenya and the complications of this condition that was really misunderstood. I like being in a totally new terrain and figuring it out. I want to be an eternal beginner.

McCarthy: I’ve directed television, and I’ve directed a short, and I like it. I would prefer to not be in it; I don’t like the split. I don’t know about a feature. At some point, I will, but I have to wait until a story really owns me and I just can’t let it go.

Melissa McCarthy Variety Actors on Actors

Nyong’o: How are you feeling about being a woman in this industry right now?

McCarthy: I feel like there’s forward motion when people are like, “What a difference, huh?” I’m like, “Let’s not oversell it.” But I do like seeing more women behind the camera and in front of it, and I like seeing more real women being portrayed.

Nyong’o: I just did a film this summer, and the boom operator was female, and I’d never seen that. You realize how preprogrammed you are in those moments, that I’d never even considered that I’d never seen it. I feel like this conversation is really good that we’re having, that it is sustained and that we don’t congratulate ourselves too much, but we don’t berate ourselves either.

McCarthy: Well said.

Nyong’o: It’s about the awareness and that it takes everybody to be aware that this is not just a battle for women. It’s one for men, as well, and that they have a very, very pivotal role to play to change those demographics. I’m excited about this.

Watch the full interview below.

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