An Oscar nominee for her bawdy breakout role in Bridesmaids, Melissa McCarthy buckles up beside Susan Sarandon for big laughs in Tammy, a road-trip comedy in theaters July 2. As for the Emmy-winning Mike & Molly star's own journey, gays and lesbians have always been along for the ride.
The Advocate: Growing up in Plainfield, Ill., what was your introduction to the LGBT community?
Melissa McCarthy: All of my friends were gay. In high school we started going to downtown Chicago clubs like Berlin, one of the best gay bars ever. I remember being undressed and then redressed by two drag queens up on a pillar, and at the end I looked like Bea Arthur. At 43, it's still one of the greatest nights of my life.
How do you explain that connection?
It was just my world. I was a little odd, and I found them to be the most accepting group. We were a band of outsiders who went downtown and realized, "Oh, we're all right." There were tons of creative people doing their thing, and it was only the scared people who wanted to shut it down.
You had an Irish-Catholic upbringing. What did your parents think of your social circle?
We didn't really talk about it, but it was never discussed as something negative. My parents are kind and accepting. Because so many of my friends were gay, it was just an accepted thing in my house. I was very lucky.
Are you already teaching those same values of acceptance to your two young children?
Well, I actually love that I don't really have to talk about it either. Our friends at the table are gay couples, and my kids have friends with same-sex parents. It's just a part of this next generation, so there's no need to explain it. It's a fantastic reality without lines or rights and wrongs. I love that my girls see no difference between those same-sex couples and the male-female couples that we hang out with. I'm more proud of that than anything.
You spoke on Conan about feeling appreciated by "lovely gay boys" when you were starting out as a stand-up comic in New York City. Can gay men take credit for discovering you?
For sure. They accepted me as a woman trying to be a man who's trying to be a woman. I wanted to be a drag queen so badly. I'll bet I still own more wigs than any drag queen -- I love me a wig.
How many wigs are we talking about?
When I left [L.A. improv and sketch comedy troupe] the Groundlings, I had about 63. I also keep all my wigs from movies. I've donated a lot to Groundlings, but at any given time I probably have about 25 wigs.
Billy Gardell and Melissa McCarthy in Mike & Molly
You dressed as drag legend Divine for a 2011 Entertainment Weekly photo shoot. Doesn't that pretty much cement your status as a gay icon?
I should at least get some sort of membership card, right? Yeah, I think I'm in the club for life.
What does that support mean to you?
Well, my best gay friends -- most of the attendants at my wedding -- are also my funniest friends. It's a loyal group that stays current, so it's a tough crowd. If I can please them, I feel really proud. Why haven't I talked to The Advocate before? It's about time!
Back to the subject of gay men who discovered you, screenwriter John August helped launch your career when you appeared in his 1999 film Go.
He certainly did. Yeah, that was my first movie, and it was huge for me. That's an incredibly smart, talented boy right there. We also did a short film, God, after that, and years later he directed me in his film The Nines. He's fantastic.
Molly's ex-fiance turned out to be gay on Mike & Molly. Have you ever dated a gay man?
Just one? There were so many. In my early 20s I was like the last stop before a guy said, "Yep, it's official: I'm gay." I'd be like, "Really?!" I'd think, But he's so funny, so charming, and such a good dresser. I never saw it coming.
Mike & Molly has featured other LGBT storylines, but GLAAD was among those who criticized the show's use of the slur "shemale" last year. As a comedic actor, are you conscious of not being offensive?
Absolutely. Had I known it was such a sensitive topic, I would've had them change that. So many people get blasted on the show, and I feel like everyone should get equal slaps, but I'm never for comedy that turns mean-spirited.
Sarandon and McCarthy in Tammy
Your titular character in Tammy takes a wild road trip with Susan Sarandon as her boozy grandma. Did all your Thelma & Louise fantasies come true?
Totally. I kept asking her, "Should we go off a cliff? Is that too on-the-nose?" She is one of the coolest women I've ever met, by a landslide. She's so interesting, so intelligent, and such a great humanitarian. The fact that I got to spend time with her -- and now consider her a friend -- is pretty surreal. I was having a delightful breakdown during filming.
It's good to see you two together again after you shared a memorable kiss in an episode of Mike & Molly.
That's right! She's a good kisser, by the way. I loved that Molly actually considers it for a moment when Susan's character propositions her. Molly's like, Hmm ... should I? Nope, I'm married. But the joke on set was that I don't know if I'd really be able to say no! I mean, come on, it's Susan Sarandon.
You cowrote Tammy with your husband, Ben Falcone. What inspired the lesbian couple played by Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh?
They're based on some of my couple friends. They're the goal. As Tammy and her grandmother spiral downward, we wanted them to see this lovely, adjusted couple and realize that, if they made an effort, they could have that, too. Kathy and Sandra played it beautifully. Sandra and Kathy had known each other from before, so they had this fantastic ease together. I totally bought them as a dreamy couple. They just looked so in love, like they'd been together forever. They didn't even need to speak; Kathy would give Sandra these looks and I'd think, Aww, that's the good stuff. They were magical together.
Kathy's character compares Tammy's troubles to her own struggles as a lesbian.
Yeah, there's a scene where she basically tells Tammy to quit bitching about her life. Before we shot it, I remember telling Kathy, "OK, this is when you really hand it to me." She said, "No, I'm saying it with love to try to help you," and she delivered the speech so beautifully. She tells Tammy, "Gay hasn't always been in fashion, my friend," and she delivers the line with the weight of everything you know can possibly be attached to it. It's one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
Along with the lesbian dance party, I assume.
That was pretty fun, I'm not going to kid you. I wanted everyone to look real and comfortable, because I wanted it to seem like a party I'd actually go to. We had a good mix of real lesbian couples and some that were just faking it, but they were all amazing women. It was about 106 degrees outside, but they'd ask the DJ to keep playing music during our breaks so they could keep dancing. That never happens.
McCarthy and Ben Falcone in Bridesmaids
Although you've never played a lesbian, your man-hungry Bridesmaids character, Megan, was pretty butch.
I love a woman who's solid in her shoes. Megan was partially based on two girlfriends of mine, a couple, at Southern Illinois University. They were so at ease with each other and with everything: "We're together, we're great, what's all the fuss about?" I've always been attracted to that confidence, so that's what I channeled for Megan.
And until Hollywood makes a lesbian buddy comedy, The Heat will have to suffice.
[Laughs] Sandra Bullock and I have always said that it was a love story.
Have you ever questioned your own sexual identity?
I don't buy it if anyone says they haven't. I think everyone does at some point. Growing up with so many gay friends, I was always in the minority as a straight girl, so there was definitely a time when I was like, "Boy, everywhere we go, I'm not meeting any fun guys ... Am I looking in the wrong place?" But then I met Ben and [sighs] I liked him. It's all just part of growing up and finding yourself.
If you can't find yourself at an all-girls Catholic school ...
I know, right? Looking back, yeah, I totally blew it. I really missed my moment.
To paraphrase one of your best lines from Bridesmaids, which woman steam-heats your undercarriage?
The more I watch Girls the more I realize I'm crazy about Lena Dunham. She's my girl crush. She's smart, funny, confident, and she isn't afraid to look awkward. She's exactly who she is, take it or leave it. Nothing's more charming than someone who doesn't take herself too seriously.