LOS ANGELES — The Heat has all the elements you'd expect from a buddy-cop movie — the oil-and-water partnership, the car chases, the wisecracks — and a few you wouldn't — for instance, a scene involving Spanx.
Faithfully conforming to the macho genre made famous by movies such as Bad Boys and Lethal Weapon, The Heat is also — curiously — summer's only studio film built around female leads: Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.
"If someone asks what you wanna do and you don't really wanna work, you pick the most farfetched thing," Bullock said. "This was it, a pairing where everyone was equal and you had these story lines that weren't girly. ... It had depth and humor and balls and action. It was just something I saw the boys getting to do."
Directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) from a script by Parks and Recreation writer Katie Dippold, The Heat pairs Bullock as Sarah Ashburn, an uptight FBI agent in ill-fitting suits, with McCarthy as Shannon Mullins, a brusque Boston cop who dresses like a 1980s rapper. Instead of romantic pining, the story's emotional undercurrent comes from the loneliness of women who are very good at their jobs.
"It wasn't a movie written for two guys," Feig said. "It was funny in a way women are funny and touched on themes of female friendship, professional women in the workplace who have chosen career over family and kids."
Onscreen, Bullock and McCarthy play goofy but capable everywomen, and during a joint interview they slipped easily into their public personae, sharing photos of their young children, bickering about texts — "You don't answer, that's just a fact," Bullock said. "I'm better at texting than anything else I do," McCarthy responded — and assessing how much teasing a reporter could withstand. "I bet we could push you pretty far," Bullock said, with a twinkle.
Were it not for the presence of enough publicists behind the hotel room door to launch a presidential campaign, it would be easy to forget these are two of the most powerful women in Hollywood, with the ability to get movies greenlighted and to approve their directors and costars. Once they attached themselves to The Heat, the project went from script to shooting in a matter of weeks — an accelerated progression in a town where even favored scripts linger in development for years.
That both women are older than 40 — a demographic Hollywood typically ignores — and that McCarthy's body doesn't conform industry norms makes their shared success that much more unusual.
Bullock, 48, and McCarthy, 42, have both risen on that ineffable quality that creates movie stars and sometimes presidents: They seem like they'd be fun to get a beer with. Bullock, born in Arlington, Va. to a Pentagon contractor and an opera singer, came up in the '90s, propelled by a tomboyish charm in movies such as Speed and Miss Congeniality before winning an Oscar for playing the brassy Southern mother in 2009's The Blind Side.
McCarthy, raised on a farm in Plainfield, Ill., performed in the L.A.-based improv comedy group the Groundlings and has appeared on TV shows including Gilmore Girls. She won an Emmy for her current TV show, Mike & Molly, but is a more recently minted star on the big screen. She emerged in a breakout role as a rambunctious and occasionally lewd member of a wedding party in 2011's Bridesmaids, which earned her an Oscar nomination, and solidified her status this year as a star who can open a movie by playing a crook who plagues Jason Bateman's character in the surprise hit Identity Thief.
The actresses had never met until Bullock called McCarthy to see whether she was interested in playing Mullins. As in any screen pairing, chemistry would be critical — The Heat calls for their characters to evolve from elbow-flinging rivals to glass-clinking buddies over less than two hours.
"You have to instantly bond, instantly create a relationship in this weird world that we're in," Bullock said.
"She was game for anything," McCarthy said. "It was fun to poke and jab at her."
"We had a safe word," Bullock said: "Peaches."
In person, Bullock was the alpha female, McCarthy more reserved — in stark contrast to the naughty, all-id characters she often plays.
One thing both women share is a willingness to wield their bodies onscreen in unflattering ways: In The Heat, Bullock is all angles — elbows and knees and pin-straight hair — and McCarthy is a linebacker, barreling after criminals in MC Hammer pants.
"It's those weird quirks to me that make someone who they are," McCarthy said. "A lot of times, especially for women, all of the tools are taken away. You have to look perfect, act perfect, you're perfectly poised, you're always appropriate. I don't know anyone who's like that, but also you've taken away all the tools to be funny or to be odd."
In one scene, Ashburn and Mullins dance drunkenly in a bar — Feig provided a choreographer, but the actresses dismissed the idea, fearing the dance would not be sufficiently awful.
"We have to be the butt of the joke," McCarthy said. "If you're outside commenting or winking ... no, you're the ass. You are the joke. You have to take the hit. The more you can take the hit, the funnier it is for people watching ... just out of sheer relief that, 'I'm not the one who ripped her pants.'"