Melissa McCarthy: “I Am Thor. Or Whatever the Hammer Is Called”

McCarthy opens-up about parenting at home, her latest Netflix drama, and becoming the Little Mermaid's worst nightmare.

by Donna Freydkin

There’s that old trope that comics are a dark, brooding, misanthropic bunch under the shiny, happy veneer they project in big-screen knee-slappers. This doesn’t apply to Melissa McCarthy. “We’re a pretty optimistic bunch around here,” her husband and frequent collaborator Ben Falcone told Fatherly at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, back when everyone had a great excuse to be neither shiny nor happy.

Not much seems to temper McCarthy’s optimism. Not even being unable to do the most mundane of chores: Going to the grocery store. “I don’t even get to randomly chit-chat with anyone. I’m a chatty gal that talks to everybody she passes,” says McCarthy.

While McCarthy is indisputably funny (for reference, please stream Bridesmaids or The Heat or Identity Thief or Spy), there’s a big-hearted pathos to her comedy. Even at her most ridiculous, you never forget she’s a human, with feelings, with insecurities, with big dreams, and even bigger regrets. She tapped into that for her Oscar-nominated turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me?. And in The Starling, now streaming on Netflix, she plays a new mom whose daughter dies of sudden infant death syndrome.

While trying to somehow rebuild what’s left of her life (her husband, played by Chris O’Dowd, is in a treatment center after attempting suicide), McCarthy’s character is attacked by a bird. Over and over again. To McCarthy, the message was simple and resonant: “You can go through really, really unimaginably, tough stuff and come out on the other side of it — there will eventually be the tomorrow you’re hoping for,” she tells Fatherly.

Her tomorrows include a role in the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder, about which she says absolutely nothing. And she’s Ursula in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, slated for release in 2023 and directed by Rob Marshall. The mom of Vivian, 14, and Georgette, 11, talks to Fatherly about Mjölnir, motherhood, and finding humor in dark places.

Wow, Melissa, as a parent, this movie [The Starling] isn’t easy to watch. What’s the message of it, to you?

Fighting for what you love is worth it. Even in the darkest moments, you can come out of it. We made this pre-pandemic. I just love stories about real people. I think we need to see ourselves in these stories. As much as I love all types of movies, everybody can’t be flying with a cape on. I want to look and see somebody that I’m like, ‘Yeah, I felt like that.’ It’s what tethers us as humans, to know that everybody goes through grief. Mental health is relevant for everybody and you never really know where you’re going to get help, but it’s out there.

You’re a mom though — how do you shoot a movie like this and not take it home with you?

Unsuccessfully. I hugged them a little longer. I tried to shake it off on the drive home. It certainly made me appreciate what I had even more. Chris has kids too. You have to really love it to want to go there. And I just tried to be true to her, you know? And I thought it was so interesting. I thought it was really valuable to show a man who’s vulnerable.

How do you find comedy in dark places?

Even when Ben and I do our comedies, we got a lot of flack for it at first, which I found very interesting. Somebody said that you’re putting these dramatic moments into comedies and I thought, okay, I don’t know anyone who’s constantly up and or someone who’s constantly in such a dire strait. I also don’t think it’s real. I think Planes, Trains & Automobiles — I’m laughing like an insane woman one minute. And then the next, John Candy has completely broken me. Terms of Endearment is so funny. And it’s heartbreaking. I think when you’re at your most broken, I think there’s an instinct there to be like, I have to come up for air. If I can make somebody laugh, it’s not going to fix the problem, but do we at least crest the surface and get a breath.

I talked to your husband last year when all of us were at home, and we talked a lot about raising kids when they had no in-person social interaction with anyone. Has your approach to parenting changed?

It’s the first time that I think I saw my kids just glazed over. I think for my younger one, it was a little easier. My daughter, my oldest daughter was 14. She got hit a little harder with that. I think I’m looser now than I was — where it’s like, you want to take Friday off? Because what does it matter? I’m checking on your happiness and your mental health, as much as I care about the math.

I don’t buy into the whole idea that kids are so resilient and that they’ll just magically bounce back.

For sure. Because I always thought to myself pre-COVID that I bought into that whole philosophy of kids are resilient, they’ll bounce back from anything. And I don’t think that’s true at all. In the wake of this, like I think that it’s something we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better. But I think kids are just like us. There’s going to be a ripple effect. We don’t really know what that is yet, but they’re not going to bounce back from it.

Ben told me you two are very cognizant about not raising entitled kids. What are you doing to not raise two assholes?

It’s a really good question. Ben is the most patient. Every once in a while, he’s like, ‘You know why you can’t do that’ after we’ve gone round and round and round and round. He’s literally said, ‘Because it makes you an asshole. That’s why and I’m not going to explain it to you again.’ And we don’t swear around the kids! I think you have to also suck it up. I’m constantly screwing up. So I’m also constantly being like, well, I really screwed that up. I’m sorry. Show them that you can screw up big time.

I hope the fact that we’re nervous about it — knowing that I don’t want to raise assholes makes us do at least enough of the right things that we won’t have them. And God knows if they act like it, we will tell them.

And now we get to the part of the interview where you tell me all about Thor.

I have seen some of the Thors. In my life, I think I am Thor. Or whatever the hammer is called.

It’s called Mjölnir.

Every time I say it wrong, Ben is like, ‘It’s pronounced…’ That’s my guy. I enjoy the Marvel universe.

And Ursula! You’re Ursula!

Fever dream. Fever dream. I can’t put into words how fun shooting that was. Not being a singer and going to singing lessons every day and these crazy numbers, flying around the stage, singing and dancing. I have never loved a villain as much as I loved Ursula. I never in my life thought I’d get to play her.

The Starling is streaming on Netflix.