For their fourth movie together, actors Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd were happy to portray a role reversal of sorts.
“The Starling” follows a couple who are grieving the loss of their child. While O’Dowd’s Jack ends up at a psychiatric clinic, McCarthy’s Lilly has to hold it all together as she waits for his return, including contending with a feisty bird that’s taken over her garden.
The script wasn’t originally written that way, but McCarthy believes that director and producer Theodore Melfi made the right decision to change it.
“He (Melfi) always said, ‘I was raised by a single mother, I have two daughters, I have a great strong wife.’ He couldn’t envision the woman being weak. And for me, I loved that,” the Illinois-born actress said in a video interview. “But I also loved that it gave Chris the opportunity to play a male character that was also vulnerable and broken … I mean to only portray men as macho, ‘I have no emotions,’ it’s just not any men I know. So I think this is much more grounded and real.”
Irish actor O’Dowd, who joined McCarthy during the interview, agreed.
“There’s a lot of conversations about the fragility of men and feeling like it’s some kind of modern inconvenience. The truth is that men’s hearts give up on them so much earlier than women, they commit suicide in much greater numbers; men are fragile. It felt very useful to be able to talk about it in a film like this, where they’re going through something very, very real. And at the same time, exploring how women have become this kind of driving force.”
“The Starling,” which also stars Kevin Kline, had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12. It debuted on Netflix Friday.
McCarthy and O’Dowd are no strangers to TIFF, having brought “St. Vincent” to the fest in 2014, which was also directed by Melfi. (The pair have also appeared together in the films “Bridesmaids” and “This is 40.”)
They weren’t able to be in Toronto in person this time and McCarthy said she missed the festival’s “real sense of film community.”
“I miss making the trip. I was looking forward to it. So I’m hoping next time to be there in person. But it’s a great place. It’s so welcoming to films.”
For McCarthy, 51, “The Starling” presented an eye-opening opportunity to think about mental health and how everyone deals with it differently. When it came to unpacking the weight of grief of a parent and articulating that trauma onscreen, it was a balancing act.
“It was a funny combination of really going into that world knowing what that grief was … (it’s) very difficult to even try to imagine what that must feel like, and then playing a character who is in a good amount of denial and who is simply moving forward for fear of completely falling apart … So the challenge of the balancing act is to have all of those emotions and have that trauma, and yet show nothing on the outside except for certain moments when she breaks.
“It’s so opposite to me,” she added. “I’m not that strong. I cry at a Kleenex commercial.”
O’Dowd, 41, has a heavier role displaying grief.
“I talked to people who had lost kids and even people who just suffer with depression, because I think that’s what’s happening with Jack. His head is right before and then everything goes wrong, and it’s hard to find a way out. So you try and put yourself there as somebody who feels hopeless, which is really hard,” he said.
“I’m quite a positive person and to put yourself into a place where you’re willing to give up everything because you’ve lost so much, it’s definitely taxing going home to the kids. But, luckily, I was surrounded by great people. And so it always felt like a privilege to be able to tell the story.”
McCarthy and O’Dowd have a natural camaraderie both onscreen and off.
“Melissa has lots of things that I admire,” O’Dowd said. “She works really hard. She’s always really prepared. She’s got a warmth and a vulnerability to her that people kind of cling on to. And she’s really good at her job. She’s a really good listener. I think to be able to do improv to the standard that she’s done over the years, you have to be able to listen to the people that you’re working with. She does it remarkably well.”
At which point McCarthy joked, “I just agree with Chris!”
There’s a reason she and O’Dowd have worked so often together, she added.
“You don’t work with someone (that often) if you’re like, ‘Boy, they’re tricky.’ And also, I’m selfish and greedy. I love working with exceptionally good actors. I think they raise you up, they keep the standard high. Chris can be so vulnerable, as he was in this part. And then, in a blink, he can make you laugh or make you feel for him. And with someone who’s so nice, there’s just nothing more that you want for.”
She joked: “That’s what he told me to say. He texted me that exact speech.” She burst out laughing as O’Dowd quipped: “I said handsome!”
McCarthy also shared scenes with prolific actor Kline.
When asked about her time working with him, she told a story about him surprised her and her family at a cookout at her house. She had invited Kline over, not thinking he would actually show up because he had just flown cross-country and was tired.
When Kline turned up, “I think it was maybe my brother-in-law or my father-in-law pouring a glass of wine and he turned around and he was like, ‘Oh!’ … And Kevin just went — without missing a beat … it was so funny — ‘It’s true! It’s me, Kevin Kline!’” sang McCarthy.
“Everybody burst out laughing and he sat around, and we told weird family stories and he told stories. It was like we all knew him our entire lives. It’s like that warmth that you feel when you see him in films is only even better in person and then he’s so good in a scene you just feel like you only hope to come up to his bar.”