Not too long ago, Melissa McCarthy got America’s attention by stealing every scene she had in Bridesmaids, the comedy that ushered in a new era for funny women in film and blew the door to Hollywood’s upper echelons off its hinges. Bigger roles soon followed, and with mixed results: Identity Thief, The Heat, and Tammy. Now reuniting with Bridesmaids and The Heat director Paul Feig for Spy, McCarthy has found the best star vehicle for herself yet: a violent and vulgar R-rated action-comedy tailor-made for her particular set of skills.
Spy made its debut over the weekend at SXSW, the same fest where Feig & Co. successfully launched Bridesmaids a few years ago. In it, McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, an unassuming and self-conscious CIA analyst who’s spent a decade desk jockeying for—and crushing on—the dashing 007-esque Bradley Fine (Jude Law).
When Fine is brutally murdered on the job by a Bulgarian arms dealer (Rose Byrne), who has a nuke and the IDs of the agency’s top spies in her hands, the brass reluctantly sends Susan into the field to gather intel in an assortment of fantastically fugly disguises ranging from Midwestern cat lady to “I look like someone’s homophobic aunt.”
The role is an unusually dynamic one for McCarthy, best known prior to her movie ascent for playing Sookie on Gilmore Girls and starring on CBS’s Mike and Molly. Her Susan starts out as a timid doormat, but slowly takes back her power. She reaches her true badass potential once she leaves the CIA’s basement and ventures out on her first globetrotting mission.
McCarthy’s inner boss bitch also goes head-to-head with Hollywood tough guy Jason Statham as the CIA's resident macho pig, a superspy with a penchant for grossly exaggerating his own exploits, and Peter Serafinowicz as a handsy local Italian operative who has a thing for full-figured women. And when McCarthy gets physical, it’s a beautiful sight: She pratfalls like no one has pratfalled before not named Belushi or Farley.
On paper, Spy verges on cringe-worthy broad comedy. In the hands of Feig, who wrote Spy and tapped Bridemaids co-star Byrne to play McCarthy’s flamboyantly haughty nemesis with Eurovision hair, it’s a rare everywoman’s action fantasy.
“There are so many great, funny women you wouldn’t think would be a spy; that’s what I wanted. I refer to the movie as Harry Potter for adults,” Feig told me. He calls McCarthy his muse and has already announced she’ll star in his upcoming Ghostbusters remake for Sony.
“I didn’t write Spy for her because I didn’t think she was available,” he said, “but she was over for dinner one night and when I told her what I was working on she wanted to read it.” McCarthy called back the next day to say she wanted in.
The pair’s previous two films together raked in a combined $518 million worldwide. Coming on the heels of her most recent star turn in the vanity project Tammy, McCarthy’s career moves have been strategic, going from supporting standout in Bridesmaids to sharing the screen with Jason Bateman in The Identity Thief, sharing it with Sandra Bullock in The Heat, and sharing it with Susan Sarandon in Tammy.
“This is the first movie where she is the star!” said Feig. “There’s been a natural progression because she came in as supporting role in Bridesmaids and made such a splash. You get your chance and the industry goes, well now you get your shot at a bigger part. It’s very smart. But it’s tough.”
McCarthy is also in the unusual position of being a marquee female star whose looks, like fellow comedienne Amy Schumer recently, have become cannon fodder for sexist critics and pundits. “It’s always been the bane of comedy for years to look for the hot girl who’s funny,” said Feig. “I love telling stories about normal people. I get sent scripts occasionally that are like, ‘He was a high-powered lawyer who had it all—then he fell’ and that’s not a guy I care about. I care about the normal people we all know. Melissa’s the perfect embodiment of that, even though we sometimes play her so extreme like in The Heat where she’s just a ball of fire. It was important for me with Spy that people see her in this mode.”
Feig’s guided a lot of rising talent over the years as the creator of Freaks and Geeks and an executive producer of The Office. He’s seen others stumble while trying to build their career brick by brick.
“A lot of times people will overstep,” he said. “If the material is great and you have a starring role you think you can kill in, that’s great. But we’ve seen people get that bump over and over again, coming off a hot TV series or something, and they just don’t pick a good project.”