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 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, seven, and Georgette, four.
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."
- The Los Angeles Times