It’s one of those classic Mom stories that keep getting better with age. In the Illinois farm country where actress and comedian Melissa McCarthy grew up, her mother, Sandy McCarthy, would sometimes discover an abandoned box of kittens and, without fail, would take in the whole litter as pets.
“On a farm it’s great,” Melissa says. “They live outside. You don’t have mice. And when someone comes to your house for the first time, 25 to 30 cats run toward the car like in a horror movie.”
Sandy laughs even though she knows that’s not the funny part. “Every night,” she adds, “I’d set out a big pan of cat food on our back stoop, and the kitties would gather around to eat and nuzzle up to me. One night it was dark. For some reason, I didn’t switch on the little light that’s out there. I’m petting one of the cats, but the rest are staying away. I go back to the house, turn on the light …”
“She’d been petting a skunk,” Melissa says.
Now they’re both howling.
“I’d been petting a skunk!” Sandy admits.
It’s been like this all day. Now, at McCarthy’s gorgeous office — which she designed and which overlooks the Warner Bros. back lot in Burbank, Calif. — mother and daughter trade family anecdotes, occasionally breaking for hee-hawing hysterics.
There was the time, around age 3 or 4, when Melissa scared her great-grandmother half to death by scissoring off her pigtails while Sandy was at work. “I come home to my grandmother sobbing at the kitchen table and Missy dancing around going, ‘Look how nice and neat I am!’ ” Sandy recalls. That reminds Melissa of her brief Goth/punk phase in high school, when she dyed her light brown hair raven blue-black, “expecting a standing ovation,” she says. “Instead, Mom just took a picture and was, like, ‘You’re going to laugh at this later,’ and now, of course, it’s the funniest thing ever.”
At 47, McCarthy is among the highest-paid, most buzzed-about actresses working today, with successes ranging from the sitcom Mike & Molly, for which she won an Emmy, to her nervy breakout movie role in Bridesmaids, which earned her an Oscar nod. Then there was her gum-chewing, podium-pushing turn last year on Saturday Night Live as White House press secretary Sean Spicer, a caricature that cracked up the nation across party lines (“I think people just needed an outlet and a release and something to laugh at,” she says). She has a clothing line, too, for customers of all sizes, and a thriving production company that’s behind such projects as her new film comedy, Life of the Party — about a mother who enrolls at her daughter’s university — to be released on May 11.
That’s what McCarthy does. But you can tell that who she is has more to do with the kindly silver-haired lady who has just returned to the conversation with a plate of snacks and treats to share.
“You’ve got to try these deviled eggs,” Sandy, 74, offers. “Or maybe some of this guacamole bread?”
“I’ve learned so much from my mother,” says Melissa, “starting with the fact that the world’s a nicer, happier place if everybody has a sandwich.”
After an insightful (and, yes, sidesplitting) day with these two, it’s clear that even when you’re a big Hollywood star, even when you have a supportive husband and two kids of your own, even when you’re comedy queen Melissa McCarthy, you still look to Mom for truth and serious meaning in life. Here’s why Mother knows best.
You can go your own way
“She called me up one day and said, ‘Mom, I got a one-way ticket to New York,’ ” Sandy remembers. Melissa was 20, a bored, sometime college student living in Boulder, Colo., with bigger dreams — including a New York fashion career. “I just said, ‘Oh.’ ”
The actress grew up in a home her parents rented on a corn and soybean farm in rural Plainfield, Ill. She was the second of two daughters for Sandy, who worked for the World Book Encyclopedia, and Mike, an arbitrator for a Chicago railroad company. (The couple, who spent the winter in Los Angeles and plan to divide their time between Illinois and L.A., recently celebrated 54 years together.) Sandy’s grandmother lived with them, too, in a house with just one bathroom, run on sturdy Midwestern values — church on Sunday, grace before meals, Catholic-school education, and an emphasis on manners and hard work.
Melissa began working multiple jobs from the time she was 16, including one as a waitress at a nursing home across the street from her high school. “I straight-up loved being with people over 65,” she explains, “because I’d instantly get perspective on the not-so-well-formed experience I was currently having. When somebody who’s 80 tells you it’s going to be OK, you take that in.”
Although Mike originally moved the family to the countryside to keep his daughters safe from big-city influences, Melissa just couldn’t stay away. She’d drive an hour to hang out in Chicago, dancing at music clubs, and when a high school friend urged her to ditch Boulder for the wilds of Manhattan, she went without a master plan.
Looking back now, the wonder for McCarthy isn’t that she showed up in New York City with just $45 in her pocket, or that her friend didn’t actually have an apartment but was living on someone’s couch, or even that McCarthy got herself onstage for her first-ever stand-up gig within 24 hours of arriving. It’s that her parents never tried to stop her.
“We just said, ‘If she doesn’t want to go to college, OK. Let’s let her give this new thing a try,’ ” says Sandy.
“Which is kind of terrible parental advice,” Melissa notes, “but also the greatest thing I could have possibly asked for. Mom never said, ‘You can’t,’ but that’s how she is about everything. She gave me the freedom to do what I needed, even if she didn’t understand it. A normal parent might have said, ‘You’re insane.’ Instead, this maniac kept saying, ‘OK, good luck. Let me know what play you’re doing.’ I was, like, ‘My mother’s crazy!’ ”
Don’t stop ’til you get enough
“In your 20s, oftentimes you don’t have anything else to worry about other than your narcissistic self,” says McCarthy, reflecting on her long road to success. “You cry if you don’t have the right shirt. You cry if you have work. You cry if you don’t have work. It’s the worst night of your life if you can’t get in to see some band.”
For a slightly adrift, rejection-prone Midwesterner, being young, single and broke in New York proved to be nearly as discombobulating as life on a farm was solid. “I knew I wanted something, but I didn’t know exactly what,” she adds. “Way longer than I should have been, I was looking to my parents for help when I couldn’t quite make it.”
For Sandy, that would take the form of a phone call. “There was the ring, ring, ring: ‘It’s time to pay the rent, and I’ll have the money if this and that works out,’ and so I’d write out a check.”
Even now, Melissa gets tears in her eyes from the gratitude she feels.
“I don’t know how you did it, Mom,” she says. “I would have said, ‘This is silly. You’re not going to become an actor. The odds of this are ridiculous, and you should move home and knock it off.’ But you’d just send me 70 bucks, 200 bucks. The fact that you didn’t give me guilt changed the course of my life. Because if I’d been guilted out, I definitely would have quit.”
Now it’s Sandy who is misting up. “As long as you had a place to live and a bank for depositing a check, I knew you were trying,” she responds. “You always knew who you were, and I knew you’d be fine.”
At 27, Melissa bought another one-way ticket (“I could never afford round trip,” she says), this time to Los Angeles. At the famous Groundlings theater company, where everyone from Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) to Will Ferrell got their start, McCarthy sat next to a low-key young man three years her junior. It turned out that Ben Falcone was also from Illinois, also a stand-up comic and soon would be the calm, centered yin to McCarthy’s brassy, fast-talking yang. “She did these high-energy versions of Midwestern moms or angry cops who always put their foot in their mouth,” Falcone recalls, “and I thought, This is the funniest woman on earth.”
By the time she was 30, McCarthy and Falcone were living together and McCarthy had her first major acting gig, as the klutzy culinary whiz Sookie St. James on the mother-daughter hit show Gilmore Girls. It took McCarthy only a decade to become an overnight success.
She learned from her mom, as Falcone puts it, the “attitude that we’ll always be able to make things happen: ‘We’ll sell things. We’ll move. We’ll work at a restaurant. One way or another, we’ll get there, but let’s not worry.’ ”
Married since 2005, with two daughters — Vivian, 10, and Georgette, 8 — McCarthy and Falcone like doing as many projects together as they can. If you saw Bridesmaids, you’ll remember Falcone as the creepy air marshal who ends up in an improbable sex scene involving McCarthy and, well, a giant hoagie (Sandy may be right about those sandwiches). Falcone also cowrote and directed McCarthy in the comedy Tammy, as well as directed Life of the Party, their new mom-in-college farce, reminiscent of the 1980s Rodney Dangerfield classic Back to School.
It’s like that with the entire McCarthy-Falcone crew. In an industry that’s known for testing relationships to the max, McCarthy & Co. look for ways to stay connected. McCarthy’s and Falcone’s dads make cameos in Life of the Party, and the couple’s daughters were on the set to meet singer Christina Aguilera, who performs in the movie. On Jimmy Kimmel Live! last year, when McCarthy guest hosted, Sandy and Mike played an uproarious game of “Who Loves Their Daughter More?”; Sandy went home the winner, with cans of corned beef hash.
More meaningful is the fact that McCarthy’s parents recently decided to try an extended stint in Los Angeles. They stayed in the actress’s former house, which she and Falcone still own, roughly a minute from their new home (which the couple also designed from the ground up), and even McCarthy is surprised at her level of pleasure whenever she has Mom and Dad nearby.
“It’s been the first time we’ve lived in the same city since I was 18, and it just feels like heaven,” she says. “When parents live far away and they come visit, you do things together and it’s great. But to be able to do the stupid everyday stuff — let’s go for coffee, let’s have breakfast, or come over and play rummy or Uno with the kids and try my bean soup — it’s absolutely the greatest thing ever.”
Just be you — at any age
In person, McCarthy is as unpretentious, likable and out-and-out funny as her public image would suggest. What’s perhaps unexpected is that she’s also quite thoughtful, even philosophical.
After a day of nonstop chatting, Sandy says her goodbyes (along with “Maybe I should take some of these deviled eggs for Dad”), and Melissa and I sit alone in her office in the fading afternoon light.
It has taken hours for us to get to the topic many interviewers like to focus on with McCarthy — being a plus-size woman in a size 2 celebrity world. And even though she has dropped about 75 pounds over the past couple of years, neither of us finds the size question particularly relevant.
“I just find it dumb and boring. I really do,” she admits. “No one’s asking a man, how do you keep your legs in shape? Which I’ve been asked. I think every time we categorize people — by weight, by race, by gender — we put them in boxes and it’s not a good thing for the world.”
That goes for age, too. As she approaches the big 5-oh, McCarthy is embracing the possibilities. She wants to learn Italian and French, maybe live in Paris, and “see whatever great vistas are around the next corner” with Falcone and the girls.
“I’ve never minded getting older,” she says. “I’ve never had that thing of, ‘Why can’t I still be 35?’ The older you are, the more interesting you are as a character. There’s a whole life history and knowledge of the world and self-possession that come from someone who has seen more. That experienced point of view is always more exciting. Yes, things may start to sag and shift, but the older you are, the wiser, the funnier, the smarter you are. You become more you.”
McCarthy’s mom, for sure, lives with that outlook. At the photo shoot earlier in the day, the photographer crooned Bruce Springsteen’s “Sandy” (also known as “4th of July, Asbury Park”) to her as she danced around the studio with him like a woman half her age. As Falcone observes, “Sandy’s got more energy than she can use. It could be 11 degrees in Plainfield, and Sandy will be out walking over ice and stuff. Like Melissa, she’s up for anything, and an inspiration.”
I ask McCarthy what kind of woman she’d like to be at her mom’s age, and she doesn’t hesitate.
“I hope a crazy one,” she tells me. “I always say, ‘Once I hit 70, it’s going to be all caftans and turbans and big wacky glasses.’ I’m more than halfway there. I see these years ahead as a time to say, ‘What does it matter? You want to wear daisy prints? Who cares!’ Getting older means knowing yourself, and if you know yourself, express it. That ripples out. It makes the world a happier place. When you’re in line for coffee and the older lady in front of you has a daisy-print blouse and a smile on her face and something to say about the world, you feel the magic of it.”