LOS ANGELES — Melissa McCarthy is a good friend. After all, for years now, she has been there for the likes of Lauren Graham, Christina Applegate and Katherine Heigl.
On TV and in romantic comedies, McCarthy has been quite happy to be the confidant to the star, a character actor frequently called upon for advice or comic relief.
"I've always kind of been the supporting person or the friend, which is perfectly fine and fun, but I always want to push that," said McCarthy, 40, who for years played such a role on the long-running TV show Gilmore Girls, and in the movies Life as We Know It and The Back-up Plan. "Have I been up for leads in movies? Not really. I don't think I had the opportunity before."
If the success of her new film, Bridesmaids, is any indication, McCarthy's movie prospects are about to change. The Judd Apatow-produced R-rated comedy about the misadventures of a maid of honor preparing for her best friend's upscale wedding raked in a surprisingly strong $26.2 million at the box office when it opened last weekend, prompting Hollywood to declare a need for more smart, female-driven comedies.
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The film stars Saturday Night Live's Kristen Wiig, and the ensemble cast includes Rose Byrne, Maya Rudolph and Ellie Kemper in addition to McCarthy, who audiences also might recognize from her hit CBS series Mike & Molly. Critics have praised her scene-stealing turn in Bridesmaids as the bawdy Megan, a woman with no time for the graceful femininity that her fellow bridesmaids display; she wears her pearls with Dockers, thank you very much.
She also burps in public and flirts aggressively with strangers. She "turns the underestimated beauty-challenged woman of the world into priceless comic fodder," the Los Angeles Times' Betsy Sharkey wrote in her review.
McCarthy, who grew up in Illinois, said she based Megan on women she encountered there, later developing the archetype at the Los Angeles-based improvisational comedy troupe the Groundlings.
"There's just something about that no-nonsense Midwestern woman in a sensible shoe that I really love," McCarthy said. "I like having specificity in a character. In the movie, I had long acrylic nails with French tips. I like strange little unexpected things, because if you start to pull those together, you have a really specific interesting character as opposed to a caricature."
That was the draw for Wiig, who suggested McCarthy to Bridesmaids director Paul Feig and Apatow, both of whom had considered writing Megan out of the script because they couldn't find the right actress for the role.
McCarthy commits to creating a recognizable person out of a broadly drawn character "and never going out of it. You think, 'Oh, yeah, that's how this person really acts,'" said Wiig, a former Groundlings member herself, who co-wrote the screenplay with Annie Mumolo. But "Megan is a tad aggressive, where Melissa has a soft-spoken energy."
"Megan was a total dark horse at the end of the process," Feig said. "We'd seen a lot of people and didn't feel like we had it. Then Kristen and Annie were like, 'We have this friend from the Groundlings, and people line up around the block when she performs.'"
McCarthy did cultivate a fervent fan base at the L.A. comedy venue. She joined the troupe in 1997 after moving from New York to Los Angeles in the hopes of working in local theater.
She spent the next 14 years there, retiring only recently to focus on Mike & Molly, which was just picked up for another season. Her co-star is Billy Gardell. The series, which premiered in September, initially earned attention with its premise about a hefty couple who meet at Overeaters Anonymous.
Marie Claire writer Maura Kelly claimed on the magazine's Web site that she would be "grossed out if (she) had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other." But McCarthy thinks critics have since been able to move past the issue of the characters' weight.
"I guess I was expecting it because people love to make a thing out of everything," she said. "We always said, if people are still talking about weight at the end of the season, we'd be in trouble. But they're not, so we're on the right track."
McCarthy's future in movies, meanwhile, is already shifting into high gear — last week, she and Mumolo sold a script to Paramount Pictures about a group of Midwestern women who set out to steal the Stanley Cup.
And this time, McCarthy will play the lead.