WILMINGTON, N.C. — One humid night last June, on a dock along one of this port city's winding creeks, Melissa McCarthy and Kathy Bates took their places for a scene in the new movie "Tammy." Five years earlier, McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone, had written the role with Bates in mind — the Oscar winner was to deliver a needed dressing down to McCarthy's title character, a perennial screw-up.
On set the crew was hushed, the only sound the clicking of cicadas in some nearby oak trees and the water lapping at the dock. Everyone seemed aware that something important was happening ... except the guy in a boat across the lagoon who started playing techno music.
"Do we have anybody over there with a $100 bill?" McCarthy shouted as a crew member was dispatched to solve the problem.
Twenty minutes later when the shoot was done, McCarthy rose, walked to the end of the dock and started crying, overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment.
"It's a scene we wrote for Kathy Bates, dreamed of her doing, she's actually here doing it and now she's summoned all of her power, which is a lot," McCarthy said, explaining her reaction back in Los Angeles this month. "It was a palpable, amazing feeling. It felt like a lightning bolt ripping through my chest."
For much of the movie, which opens Wednesday, McCarthy plays the kind of character audiences have come to expect of her — an outrageous woman with big appetites and little judgment. But there are also dramatic moments, like the one with Bates on the dock, that reveal the beating heart underneath all the funny wigs, oversized T-shirts and unflattering shoes.
"Tammy" is part of a transition McCarthy is trying to make in her career. Make no mistake, she's still a peerless physical comedian who uses her size and foul mouth to side-splitting comic effect. But she's also a relatable human being here, one whom audiences won't just laugh at.
McCarthy has the opportunity to try this evolution thanks to her increasing power in Hollywood as a rare female star who can guarantee an audience for a film.
For the actress, "Tammy" is a dream project. It's one she and Falcone — making his feature directing debut — started planning long before her breakout performance in 2011's "Bridesmaids" and starring roles in the subsequent box office hits "Identity Thief" and "The Heat" earned her the kind of career where dreams come true.
"[Ben] said, 'I think I can write something so that you can actually get to do what you like doing, which is being kind of an extreme character but then actually being able to play the heart of it,'" McCarthy said. "'It would be nice to write something so you could do that,' which was incredibly sweet of him, and at the time the odds of us doing it were … I don't think we ever thought it was gonna be an actual movie."
In person, in red lipstick, a black silk blouse and pants, McCarthy projects a polish and a sweetness that seem antithetical to many of her characters and in particular to Tammy, who spends a lot of the film dropping F-bombs while wearing a shirt with a cartoon bear on it and a pair of Crocs.
After losing her job, her husband and her dignity, Tammy piles into a late-model Cadillac to drive to Niagara Falls with Pearl, her alcoholic, diabetic grandmother, played by Susan Sarandon, in a frumpy wig and prosthetic swollen ankles. Falcone has a small part as Tammy's unsympathetic boss at a fast-food restaurant; Mark Duplass is Bobby, a charming guy Tammy meets along the way in a bar; and Bates is Lenore, Tammy's highly functional cousin, a no-nonsense businesswoman with a giant plantation-style home and a happy marriage to Susanne (Sandra Oh).
"I love all the women I've played," McCarthy said. "I know why they mess up. They want to hurt somebody before they get hurt.... They're trying so hard to be better people. I really always think they have a valid point in their point of view. Maybe I like them too much, I'm defensive for them."
Falcone, 40, and McCarthy, 43, both grew up in Illinois but first met as members of Los Angeles' improv comedy group the Groundlings in the late 1990s, quickly discovering a shared appreciation of the absurd.
In one skit they performed together, as the Jethro Tull song "Locomotive Breath" played in the background, McCarthy was a woman working unhappily at a train station. Falcone, dressed in a silver suit, enticed people at the station to be nicer to her. At some point during the song's instrumental interlude, McCarthy pulled a flute out of her sleeve.
"I thought she was real cute and funny," Falcone said. "We had a quick connection where I felt like, 'she's here, and she makes this room good,' and then I was like, 'Oh, wait, she makes other rooms good — hey, she's making everything good.'"
The character Tammy, with all of her immaturity, shares DNA with McCarthy in her 20s, the actress admits, a time when she made coffee at a Starbucks in Santa Monica, among other jobs, while attempting to get her performing career off the ground.
"All through my 20s I worked so hard, so many jobs, but still, you'd go out one night and it's like, there goes a chunk of my rent money," McCarthy said. "It's a feeling of, 'I don't want to grow up, I want it to be easier.... All of us, you run in those cycles where you know exactly what you're screwing up doing.
"Intellectually you always know what your faults are, how to fix them, what would make it better. Engaging in those practices is entirely another thing. Those are lifelong struggles for people.... One of the most fun things to figure out in a character is, 'What's the struggle? What do they know is better and what do they choose?'"
Falcone and McCarthy married in 2005 and have two daughters, Vivian, 7, and Georgette, 4.
At the time Falcone suggested the idea for "Tammy," McCarthy had a modest role as Christina Applegate's lovably wacky childhood friend on the ABC sitcom "Samantha Who?" She had just come off a seven-year run as another lovably wacky best friend on WB's "Gilmore Girls."
The best-friend part might have been repetitive, but within a year it led to McCarthy having a starring role on the CBS sitcom "Mike & Molly" as a fourth-grade teacher who meets a good-natured cop at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. The show turned into a reliable performer and was renewed this past spring for its fifth season.
Over the years McCarthy and Falcone have worked together on multiple projects — they shot a Web series of one of McCarthy's characters, an opinionated video blogger named Marbles with a bad pageboy haircut, and they share a signature scene in "Bridesmaids," in which McCarthy's character sexually harasses Falcone's on a plane.
The transition from making Marbles together at home to making "Tammy," a $20-million film for Warner Bros.' New Line Cinema with producing support from Will Ferrell's company, didn't seem all that great to McCarthy, she said. "We've been prepping for 15 years," she said. "We've been writing and doing stuff at Groundlings together.... It's never been difficult. It's never been tense or weird."
Falcone and McCarthy's marriage seems remarkably unscathed by the challenges of navigating success together.The day before the film's press junket, he went to the Grove to take photos of the film's posters, which feature McCarthy with a paper bag on her head.
The couple have multiple projects in the works through their company, On the Day. Their original script "Michelle Darnell," which they'll produce for Universal, is about a wealthy woman who loses it all — "She's very flashy," McCarthy said of the character. "There's a big musical number. We'll see. We'll see how my moves are." They've also adapted a memoir for Fox about a married couple who decide to have sex every day for 101 days to rekindle their passion.
And McCarthy is hard at work in other people's movies. She just finished shooting "Spy," a comedy in which she plays a secret agent, with her "Bridesmaids" and "The Heat" director Paul Feig, and she plays a single mom opposite Bill Murray in the dark comedy "St. Vincent," due this fall.
She is also launching a clothing line for plus-sized women, after finding the options available to her either too matronly or wildly inappropriate. When she went to the Oscars for "Bridesmaids" in 2012, she said she had trouble finding a designer to make her a dress before finally going with a custom, blush-colored gown by Marina Rinaldi.
"I got a lot of no's," she said. "Who knows, people could be busy, but it also could just be, 'We don't quite know what to do if you're not a size 2 column that can wear a strapless dress,' which I almost wish they would have said that."
Like many of the best comic actors, including Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball and Jim Carrey, McCarthy uses her body in her humor. But having a female, plus-sized body has made the actress subject to particularly personal criticism, as when New York Observer critic Rex Reed called her "tractor-sized" in his "Identity Thief" review and dismissed McCarthy as a "gimmick comedian who has devoted her short career to being obese and obnoxious with equal success."
McCarthy has said she doesn't spend much time thinking about her critics, but there's a scene in "Tammy" that's revealing about the actress' world view on the issue of appearances.
Tammy is getting cleaned up for a party, trading her T-shirt for a borrowed blouse and allowing someone to flat-iron her frizzy hair. It's a subtle change, hardly the dramatic makeover montage that has become a trope of many comedies geared to women.
"I did not want a makeover scene," McCarthy said. "I didn't want her to be better because she suddenly looked a certain way.... It's not that if you were prettier you would be a better human. I talked to [costume designer] Wendy Chuck. I said, 'If we give her a makeover it will hurt my heart. I just think that will imply that "Now she's fixed."' There's nothing wrong with her in that way."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times