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.

More Film

  • Empty movie theater

    Theater Owners Create $2.4 Million Fund for Cinema Workers

    The National Association of Theatre Owners and the Pioneers Assistance Fund have created an initial $2.4 million fund to provide financial assistance to movie theater employees who need help due to the coronavirus pandemic. The organizations said Monday that the first part of the initiative is a grant program that will provide a stipend to [...]

  • Bob Chapek Bob Iger Disney

    Bob Iger to Give Up Salary, Other Senior Disney Executives to Take Pay Cuts

    Disney has joined the list of companies implementing sizable pay cuts for senior executives amid the upheaval caused by the coronavirus crisis. Bob Iger, who shifted from chairman-CEO to executive chairman last month, has opted to forgo his salary for the year. Bob Chapek, who succeeded Iger as CEO, has taken a 50% pay cut. [...]

  • Sundance Horror Movie 'Relic' Picked Up

    Sundance Horror Movie 'Relic,' Starring Emily Mortimer, Picked Up By Film Constellation

    London-based production, finance and sales company Film Constellation has boarded the critically-lauded “Relic,” the debut feature from Natalie Erika James. The film, which stars Emily Mortimer (“Shutter Island”), Robyn Nevin (“The Matrix Trilogy”) and Bella Heathcote (“The Neon Demon”), had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in the Midnight section. The film, which [...]

  • Judy Movie 2019 renee zellweger

    Korea Box Office: ‘Judy’ Debuts on Top as Cinemas Slump to Historic Lows

    The South Korean box office, which has been widely affected by coronavirus and has fallen to historic lows, was further hit by leading exhibitor CJ-CGV’s recent decision to shut 35 complexes nationwide, and to reduce screenings at those theaters remaining in operation. Opening on Wednesday (Mar. 25), Oscar-winning drama “Judy” debuted on top of the [...]

  • 'Elephant' Review: Less Majestic Than the

    'Elephant,' Narrated by Meghan Markle: Film Review

    Of all the members of the animal kingdom we think of as akin to humans — chimps, dolphins, whales, perhaps (if we’re being honest about it) our dogs — elephants may be the most movingly and preternaturally aware. Because you can see how intelligent they are. You see it in a chimp’s face, too, of [...]

  • Ken Shimura

    Japanese Comedian Ken Shimura Dies of Coronavirus at 70

    Ken Shimura, a comedian who was a fixture on Japanese television for decades, died on Sunday evening from the coronavirus, the Japanese media reported Monday. He was 70, and immediately before his illness had been set for his first starring role in a feature film. Shimura entered a Tokyo hospital on March 20 with fever [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content