EW exclusively chats with the Oscar-nominated actress about filming with very angry CGI birds in the trailer for her new Netflix movie The Starling with Chris O’Dowd and Kevin Kline.
Upon first glance, there’s an air of slight absurdity flapping through EW’s exclusive trailer for Melissa McCarthy’s upcoming Netflix dramedy The Starling. The clip (below) teases a plot bordering on preposterous, in which the Oscar-nominated actress frequently dons a football helmet to skirt dive-bombs from a renegade bird nesting above her garden. But that’s just how the filmmakers want you to feel before they hit you square in the gut.
“It’s the thing we all relate to: You laugh at funerals, you cry at weddings,” McCarthy tells EW of the tonal spirit guiding the film’s deceptively deep plot, which follows her character, Lily, as she soldiers through unfathomable grief following the death of the infant daughter while her husband, Jack (Chris O’Dowd), recovers in a mental health facility — all while a feathered neighbor becomes hellbent on driving her out of the family home.
She continues: “Theodore Melfi is one of the most relatable, delicate directors, because he can still do humor and break your heart.”
That dynamic tone runs consistent throughout The Starling, with McCarthy’s layered performance shifting from searing rage to somber introspection at breakneck pace. It all mirrors the messy reality of piecing a shattered life back together through periods of extreme joy and sorrow as Lily’s recovery dovetails with her foe’s increasingly hostile attacks. She seeks out a prickly therapist (Kevin Kline), makes weekly visits to Jack, sells every piece of furniture in her home, and yet each time she seemingly finds her grip on a fresh start, she’s ruffled by avian terrorism that’s as emotional as it is physical; a staunch reminder that unmanaged grief can peck away at the soul.
McCarthy admits she enjoyed acting opposite a CGI bird for most of the film’s 28-day shoot, but hopes viewers see the pest as symbolic of something beyond, well, a “cantankerous pain in the ass,” she says with a laugh. Laughter was necessary to get through the film’s grittier moments, and she found her share alongside her director, who also stepped in as an impromptu scene partner.
“Ted would do the voice of the bird, which, at some point, I got used to it, but at first it’d make me laugh. He’d be trying to give me something to look at, but he’d be like [makes turkey noises]. It made me laugh, but I was supposed to be upset or angry. There’s lots of footage of Ted Melfi making bird sounds,” she remembers.
McCarthy’s ability to match her signature comedic chops with Lily’s grit — a dramatic feat she previously flexed across her tremendous turn in Marielle Heller’s 2018 gem Can You Ever Forgive Me? — gave Melfi confidence in asking her to navigate the peaks and valleys of the Starling script.
But, he needed to make some changes for his former St. Vincent star before she signed on.
“After reading the script several times, 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. This is beyond a cliche to me,” the Academy Award-nominated Hidden Figures helmer explains, noting that he swapped the genders of the lead roles in Matt Harris’ story to serve a greater thematic purpose. “Switching Jack and Lily was not only more interesting, more compelling, fresher and more modern,’ it was simply more accurate. Seeing a strong woman hold her life together and fight for her marriage while going through the worst circumstance any couple could go through is a story we need to see and a story that I had to tell.”
McCarthy was ultimately fascinated by the resulting story’s earnestly hopeful heart roosting under its wilder dressings.
“There are a lot of shoulds in our world: How you should behave, how you should react, how you should get over something. You should be over it by now,” finishes McCarthy. “The shoulds are always judgmental. Jack’s not wrong for not wanting to join life again, and Lily’s not wrong for barreling through, pretending it never happened. There’s no right way to do it. Especially now when everybody wants to tell everybody else how to live with so much anger…. if everyone stopped thinking in terms of what other people should be doing and start thinking about what I could do to help, we’d have a very different world.”
The Starling debuts in theaters on Sept. 17 and will available on Netflix Sept. 24 following its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival earlier that month.