LOS ANGELES — "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" is a film about Lee Israel, a biographer who started a side hustle writing fake letters as Noel Coward, Louise Brooks, Dorothy Parker and other deceased luminaries and selling them to collectors. Part cautionary tale, part celebration of this unapologetic literary rebel who was so good that her forgeries even appeared in a Coward biography, it's also the year's unlikeliest mediation on friendship between two people who've been tossed out by polite society.
Melissa McCarthy plays Israel and Richard E. Grant co-stars as Jack Hock, a charismatic grifter who ends up helping Lee. The two actors became fast friends off screen as well, and on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles excitedly discussed the hamburgers that McCarthy's husband would be making for them that evening.
McCarthy and Grant spoke to The Associated Press about the film, out Friday.
Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.
AP: Were you able to talk to anyone who knew Lee or Jack to prepare?
GRANT: All his friends are dead. And he died at 47. And Lee, the true, selfish authentic person she was, wrote very, very little about him at all! She wrote everything about herself. It's a testament to the screenwriters that between them they have made this friendship into a three-dimensional, A to zed story. I thought it would be like Wikipedia, like it's a real life person, I can find photographs...
MCCARTHY: Even Lee. There's no video. I found three photos that were basically the same. I was never trying to mimic because there's nothing to mimic. But I think we were lucky enough for Lee that two of our producers knew her quite well.
GRANT: But her voice is so strong and clear in the book of someone who is so smart.
MCCARTHY: And so witty.
GRANT: And that's why they got a very stupid actress to play the part. (LAUGHTER)
AP: What did the producers tell you about her?
MCCARTHY: (That) everything was difficult: There was going to be a fight about a project and a fight about not doing a project. When we were shooting at Julius' (bar) there was an older guy who was just kind of lingering. We were on a break and I walked by and introduced myself and I said "who are you here with" and he said "it's hard not for me to come and join you." I didn't exactly know what that meant. And he goes, "I sat to her left. That was my job. Lee was my friend for many years." And it really did take the air out of me. I said "Would Lee be happy with this?" And he goes, "happy wasn't really Lee's thing." But he said she'd love the attention on her work.
AP: What did you find compelling about these characters?
GRANT: Hock is like a Labrador and she literally is a porcupine. So you go a porcupine and a Labrador, it's the most unlikely friendship but they end up like that "Incredible Journey" movie where the most unlikely animals end up looking out for one another. He's someone who, living on his wits, is going to spend whatever money he has trying to make himself look as glamorous as he can. He would take the false teeth out of his grandmother's face, polish them up and resell them to her at a discount and make her feel like she got a bargain.
MCCARTHY: They're perfect opposites. Lee doesn't want to put on airs. Their balance somehow meets in the middle. They've both been so good at something and they're meeting at a time when they've both been told they're obsolete. And it's like, well then what? You would go to measures that on a rational day you wouldn't admit to.
AP: Aside from the literal theft, her forgery is kind of an art.
MCCARTHY: I love that her letters went into that biography until the second printing of it. I always think that those authors would get a kick out of it. I think Dorothy Parker would be like, maybe don't grift off me anymore, but still the audacity to do something like that? Wouldn't Dorothy Parker applaud that?
AP: Director Marielle Heller recreates the New York City of the early 90s so precisely, it's almost uncanny. Does that time and place hold any significance to you?
MCCARTHY: I moved to New York in 1990. From 20 to like 27, that was my period in New York City. I literally thought, every single day of my life "I can't believe I live here." We were all working three jobs and trying to do something because we wanted to do it and thought we could do it. You could still live in Manhattan. We lived like animals, two and three in a studio, but, my god, my address was New York City. I got really choked up one night, it was just like a street scene and I said, "You gave me back one of the times of my life that I think formed me as a person. You handed back this golden moment to me."
AP: It's surprising that you two met only days before shooting.
GRANT: I begged the director, I said, "I know Miss McCarthy is on many other projects, but please can we just have 15, a half an hour, lunch maybe."
MCCARTHY: Can you imagine meeting on set?
GRANT: I wasn't going to sleep for 72 hours unless we met. And we did. And we didn't get on.
MCCARTHY: And still don't.