Melissa McCarthy on The Starling: ‘It’s getting harder to tell stories that end with hope’

As film loglines go, Netflix drama The Starling certainly raises eyebrows. Oscar nominee Melissa McCarthy plays grieving mother Lilly who, in the midst of her trauma, becomes locked in a running battle with the winged nemesis referenced in the title.

The Starling, starring Melissa McCarthy as Lily and Chris O'Dowd as Jack. Picture: PA Photo/Netflix/Karen Ballard

Irish actor Chris O’Dowd stars as anguished husband Jack, whose response to the tragedy of losing a baby daughter takes a more traditional path.

McCarthy, 51, believes The Starling is ultimately a film about hope – and is more timely than ever following the mass grief the world has experienced over the last two years.

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“Unfortunately, it seems like it’s getting harder and harder to tell stories about people and about stories that end with hope,” she says as she chats over Zoom.

Melissa McCarthy as Lily and Kevin Klein as Larry in The Starling. Picture : PA Photo/Netflix/Hopper Stone

“You can really tell dark stuff and I like dark sometimes too, but this one shows you can be broken in so many different ways but you can work through it, it’s worth the fight and there’s always hope on the other side.

“And to show that in a really grounded way – if we don’t need that now, I don’t know what we need.”

O’Dowd, 41, nods in agreement. “It’s exciting to be in a time where it’s so obvious we need to experience some kind of collective grief,” he adds.

“And that would be healthy and useful and hopeful. So to be part of something that – and it’s only a film – but to be part of something that can help a little bit, I feel very privileged.”

The Starling also stars Oscar winner Kevin Kline, 73, as a quirky psychologist-turned-veterinarian and Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs and Loretta Devine in smaller roles.

It reunites McCarthy and O’Dowd with Hidden Figures director Theodore “Ted” Melfi, after they worked together on his 2014 comedy-drama St. Vincent.

The actress says the fact Melfi had been a fan of the script for so long – it first came across his desk eight years ago – was a big factor in her taking the role.

“It’s a tricky story, it’s heart-breaking but it’s also really hopeful,” she explains. “I liked all of the characters and it had a good story and characters you actually care about and actually feel like, ‘these are real people’.

“People can connect to this story and these characters. And I called Ted like an hour-and-a-half later and was like, ‘I’m in!’.”

Both McCarthy – a best actress Oscar nominee for 2018 drama Can You Ever Forgive Me? – and The IT Crowd star O’Dowd are happily married.

McCarthy tied the knot with filmmaker husband Ben Falcone in 2015 while O’Dowd has been married to TV presenter Dawn O’Porter since 2010 and both couples have two children each.

McCarthy, who describes Falcone as “truly my best friend”, said she drew on her own experiences of married life for portraying a heavily strained relationship in The Starling.

“Ben and I have been together 25 years,” she says, “you go through so much and you just have to always be ready to fight for it and know there’s no such thing as perfection, but it’s pretty damn good.”

For O’Dowd and O’Porter, they rely on humour to get them through tough times. “We haven’t had to deal with a tragedy this monumental,” the actor says, “but what tragedies we have had to deal with, and the lows, we have always come out of it by trying to make each other laugh.

“Because they’re the buttons I suppose we find most familiar in each other. And when you’re going through something catastrophic you want familiarity.

“Melissa and I, we know each other enough to make each other laugh and Dawn and I know each other enough to make each other laugh.”

The Starling’s script, from screenwriter Matt Harris, had been knocking around Hollywood for almost 20 years.

In 2005 it featured on The Black List – the annual survey of popular screenplays yet to be produced – but was stuck in limbo until Melfi and producer Dylan Sellers stumbled upon a significant change. What if they gender-flipped the characters?

“I felt that I had seen so many films whereby the ‘strong’ man fights to hold it all together while the ‘weaker’ woman takes a time-out to deal with her mental state,” Melfi says of gender tropes.

“This is beyond a cliche to me. I’ve been married 25 years, I have a 15-year-old daughter and I was raised by a single mum. On any given day these women in my life are stronger, smarter and fight harder than I do and have more faith than I do.”

The Starling was filmed shortly before the pandemic brought the world to a halt, with post-production being completed in lockdown.

The cast did one-day reshoots at the height of the health crisis.

Melfi says he felt a responsibility to bring a film about hope to audiences.

“I’m always trying to find films in my writing and in my directing and in my producing that are hopeful, films that shine a light on humanity and say, ‘hey, you know what? It can be bad but there’s a way out, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel’,” he says.

“And I believe that for myself and I think it’s a responsibility to portray that for the audience. The script was just beautiful to me, it was something I couldn’t get out of my mind, so I was just compelled to do all I could to get it made.”

As well as the soul-crushing grief experienced by Lilly and Jack, The Starling features lighter moments – including the titular bird dive-bombing McCarthy.

Melfi praises both actors for their ability to deftly juggle the light and dark moments.

“I think comedic actors are the best actors in the world,” he says.

“Comedic actors have that ability to ride the comedic-dramatic line so deftly, they kind of suck you in. You’re not even aware they’re doing it.

“You just try to balance them, bring the comedy down so it’s not this crazy over the top thing, and you bring the drama up from dire, and guess where you arrive? At real life. That’s real life.”

The Starling is streaming now on Netflix

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