Q&A: Longtime friends Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph are the ‘Life of the Party’

Melissa McCarthy, left, and Maya Rudolph star in "Life of the Party," a film about a housewife who goes back to college and winds up at the same school as her daughter.
Melissa McCarthy, left, and Maya Rudolph star in “Life of the Party,” a film about a housewife who goes back to college and winds up at the same school as her daughter.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Share via

For many actors, the ability to say no to a job is something to aspire to. They want to get to a point in their careers where the constant hustle of Hollywood has been replaced by power, influence and the ability to deliver box office dollars and/or high ratings. Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph, longtime friends and comedic gold when together and apart on any screen, have done just that.

“It’s delightful, [even though] I don’t really think about it,” Rudolph said. “But I will say it’s nice to have a choice.”


“It is nice to have a choice, that’s for sure,” McCarthy added. “It’s nice to generate your own work, and though I’ve enjoyed myself on things other people have created, the balance of those two things has really been a dream … . To do characters I love with people I love, I don’t know what else you can ask for.”

Being able to come and play with your friends that you love so much, it’s a true luxury.

— Maya Rudolph

On a recent overcast afternoon, the pair sat together in a posh Beverly Hills hotel at the end of a press day for their new movie, “Life of the Party,” in theaters Friday. Co-written by McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone, who also directed, it stars McCarthy as Deanna, a middle-aged woman who decides to go back to college to finish her degree following her recent divorce. Along for the ride — which includes being classmates with her daughter and a romance with a younger man — is her best friend, Christine (Rudolph), who doesn’t mind injecting life with the fervor of a sorority girl.

McCarthy and Rudolph are exactly what you’d expect friends to be like, or at least the kind of friends who have a deep history even though kids and multimillion-dollar careers might limit their interactions. In reflecting on their busy day coming to a close, they talked about their sleep schedules. McCarthy can’t sleep past sunrise while Rudolph clamors for as much rest as possible. They then talked about one of their dogs that used to eat its own feces. The two women laughed uncontrollably.

In a long-ranging conversation, McCarthy and Rudolph spoke about the benefit of working together as friends, wanting to make a buddy comedy with comedian-of-the-moment Tiffany Haddish and the importance of ensuring that women of a certain age are seen as sexual on-screen.


How did you come to the idea for the movie, an older woman going back to school?

McCarthy: The original idea came from Ben. He said he was staring at my mom, Sandy, who was in a themed sweatshirt, and she’s so funny and sweet. And he’s from a college town and his dad taught English in college, so that world is near and dear to him. So he said he just started thinking about my mom — if she was my age, although I’m not 40 [laughs], I’m 22 — and college and if she went to school. It kind of ballooned from there.

Did you know you wanted Maya to play the friend as you were writing it?

McCarthy: Yes, as we were writing it.

And why did you say yes?

Rudolph: I always say yes to them. Ben, Melissa and I have been friends for over 20 years, and this is the way we started together, doing improv and sketch together. Being able to come and play with your friends that you love so much, it’s a true luxury. There’s plenty of jobs that you could be doing that feel like jobs, but this is a total life bonus. And we all know each other, so when someone knows you and you know them, it’s the most fun to set each other up. I didn’t ask any questions. I just showed up. It’s so comforting to come into their set and the environment they’ve created, and to see them working together. It’s really fun.

How was the comedy of it all? Was it all scripted or was there some improv?

McCarthy: Both. I always want to get the gist of the script, and then the wheels are off. You can’t suddenly change the story, but if you stay true to the character, that can be the most fun stuff. And when Maya’s there’s, it’s, like, “Say whatever you want. Let the noodle loose,” because the stuff that comes out of her mouth, at any given moment, you can’t write it. When someone is handing you all this great stuff, you just shut up and keep that camera rolling … .

Rudolph: But it’s inspired. I know I’m going to laugh my ass off when I’m with them, so that’s where that play comes from. You get into it.

And you’re comfortable with your friends, and some of those barriers you might typically erect are already pulled down, right?

McCarthy: And you just don’t care. At this point there’s nothing left I could do to shame myself in front of [her], so you just feel so free to try anything. It can’t be too dumb or too stupid.


Rudolph: And that’s where the good stuff comes from.

McCarthy: Because if it doesn’t work, it’s not going to go in the movie. You feel protected by Ben, because you know he’s in editing and always watching out for us.

One thing I like about the film is how both of your characters are women of a certain age and are very sexual beings. We don’t see that often.

McCarthy: It was [intentional] for me because, firstly, the thought of all that going away is just nuts. And I think it’s been a strange movie device of, “Ugh, nobody wants to see anything unless you’re 20.” But that’s telling 90% of your audience, “Ew, you’re awful.” I think it’s just silly not to show the world as it is.

And for Deanna, when she meets Jack, who Luke [Benward] plays so well, I love that he’s not meeting her as a mom or as a wife; he’s meeting her as herself. And he sees her and loves her for herself. She hasn’t been seen just for who she is in a long time, and I love how sweetly he played that. I wanted to see that in the story.

Was it weird filming those steamy scenes with your husband behind the camera?

McCarthy: Yes. [laughs] But Luke is so noncreepy and the crew was laughing. It was also our 10th anniversary on that day.

Rudolph: Oh, my goodness! That is … wonderful.

McCarthy: It made the whole thing unbelievable. Ben would be, like, “Happy anniversary. I love you. Can you touch his butt in this one?” And before the crew said, “Rolling,” they’d be, like, “Happy anniversary! Rolling … .” The whole set was so jokey and a light, funny atmosphere.


And right after that is my favorite scene of the movie, when Deanna calls Christine, and you, Maya, pop your leg up on the counter to seduce your husband. I died in the theater.

McCarthy: When that sock comes up, you know things are about to go down. [laughs]

Rudolph: It was so fun. Our friend Damon [Jones] played my husband, and he was also in Groundlings with us.

McCarthy: And so was Karen Maruyama, who plays the mediator. She probably was all of our teacher.

Rudolph: We’re just all old friends, so these are the people I try to make laugh the hardest. And they make me laugh the hardest. Me putting that sock up there was all about them being [entertained].

McCarthy: When that sock went up, I was, like, [cackles] ... because nobody knew she was going to do that. She just did it. The fact that the take wasn’t completely ruined by everyone laughing … .

You’re both creating your own content now. Are there types of roles you still want to play?

Rudolph: I keep being inspired by so many talented people that I know. But it’s less about wanting to play the lady who invented the tampon and more about how do I get to be with the people I love being with the most. That’s more the goal for me. I learned a long time ago that for me it’s about the experience of it. I’ve had great experiences and been completely cut out of a film.

I was in the original “Anchorman” and I was so excited. I loved my part and had so much fun making it. But the movie was, like, 3:45. It was so long they cut out our part. I was devastated, and my husband said, “Did you have fun making it?” I said, “Yeah,” and he was, like, “That’s what it’s all about.” I will say when stuff isn’t that great, I remember that I should be enjoying this.

McCarthy: And I think somehow it shows. I know some people are, like, “We hated each other and that’s why the chemistry was so good … .”


Rudolph: But that sounds like torture.

McCarthy: It sounds awful. And, like, Ben and I, we call around on people we don’t know, like, “Are they nice?” “Do they take turns?” “Are they glad they’re at work?” Because you’re building, like, this summer camp of sorts and you don’t want someone who, a week in, starts screaming at people. And that goes for the cast and the crew. We do checks on everyone, because then you do end up with a bunch of people who are nice and respectful of each other, it ends up being fun.

I’m not good enough to do good work when I’m miserable.

Rudolph: That is not a technique I subscribe to … . [laughs]

Tiffany Haddish, left, and Maya Rudolph during the telecast of the 90th Academy Awards.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times )

Everyone loved you and Tiffany Haddish at the Oscars. Everyone wants you two to do something together: get married, host the Oscars, a film. And I think you, Melissa, would be a great third.

McCarthy: I’m in. I’m not going to fight you on that. You should get started on it.

I’ll write it.

Rudolph: Cool. Cool. Cool.

How was that experience?

Rudolph: She’s a joy. First of all, she’s so happy to be doing what she’s doing right now. She’s completely aware of this moment for her. That was fun to see firsthand. But easy, easy collaboration. She’s funny as hell and tells a damn good story. Just a riot.

Are there any other funny women in the industry right now who have you keeling over?

Rudolph: I had never met Heidi [Gardner] until this movie. She’s so funny it it, and then she joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” this year. She is a monster, so damn funny.

McCarthy: I know. I’ve known her for awhile, first through mutual friends, then through Groundlings. I just always thought she was so funny. Such a weirdo, but that’s a huge compliment to me. I mean it in a good way, and when she came in for this part, there was no one else for the role. And I got so choked up and excited for her when she got “SNL” right after that.

If you could go back to school, at the age you are now, would you?

Rudolph: I’ve said this before this movie that I think I’d appreciate school now. I didn’t before. I was all, “Hey, guys … .” I was not a great student. But what I would give to it now would be a great experience.


McCarthy: The thought of going to a class on anything … I could take it in without the pressure that comes around the first time. I blew it at 18.

Rudolph: I think college is actually designed for 40-year-olds. I don’t know why it’s for 18-year-olds. That’s dumb.

McCarthy: People click into it or they don’t. I did not, but I was real fun. [laughs]