July 07, 2014 12:00 PM

Melissa McCarthy is crying. Again. Ironically, for a woman who has become synonymous with a certain brand of raucous, ribald comedy, in real life McCarthy is far more prone to welling up than acting out. “I’m a crier. So is my sister, so is my mom,” she says. “It can be anything: I just get overwhelmed.” In fact, as she dabs at her eyes, she reveals it’s not the first time today that she’s started to sob. “Our friends have a son who is 4, and he’s started singing in a way that is, like, he may be a prodigy. I heard him singing Imagine Dragons’ ‘Demons,’ and it was just …” Her eyes start to glisten. “Every note, every word, was perfect. I just burst out crying. He’s found his passion, his outlet already. Some people never find it, and he’s found it – at 4! I’m bawling now!”

Wiping away tears, McCarthy has swept her hair into a side ponytail – a literally off-kilter look befitting any of the loopy characters she’s known for playing. From her breakout role as the over-sexualized Megan in Bridesmaids (for which she got an Oscar nod) to her bawdy portrayal of a Boston cop in last summer’s hit The Heat, McCarthy has rarely embodied characters who follow societal norms. Her latest star turn, in the comedy Tammy, out July 2, is no exception. Yet this time the part hit particularly close to home: She cowrote the script with her husband of eight years, Ben Falcone, 40, who also directed. “I’ll do almost anything for a laugh,” McCarthy says. “I’m completely delighted by people who think, ‘I don’t care what anybody else thinks, I look great in this, and I rock it and I love it.’ It’s such a delightful sort of confidence.”

It’s an attitude that McCarthy, 43, has tried to embrace as well, on her own terms. As her star has risen, so too has the number of people, from film critics to bloggers to Internet trolls, who have attacked her for everything from her acting ability to her dress size. But with a full film and TV slate – her hit CBS sitcom Mike & Molly returns this fall – and two daughters, Vivian, 7, and Georgie, 4, to raise, McCarthy has little time to worry about her detractors. But she found a moment to open up to PEOPLE about her journey from struggling actress to America’s funniest woman, sharing what she’s learned, and laughed about, along the way.

Your 20s are for (lots of) tears.

I think I have a really good sense of self-worth, but I’ve grown into it. In your 20s, you’re kind of a wreck. You’re still a narcissist, and you probably should be. Yes, in my 20s I used to cry about why I wasn’t thinner or prettier, but I want to add that I also used to cry about things like: “I wish my hair would grow faster. I wish I had different shoes …” Seriously, that’s the sort of stuff I would cry about. Just freaked out about everything. You’re like, “I’m so embarrassed I don’t have a new shirt for tonight.” By the time you’re 44, it’s like, “If this is marginally clean, I’m good.” But I didn’t get that back then. I could barely pay my bills; I was an idiot. Delightfully so, but still an idiot. It’s part of the whole process. It’s a decade of tears. I’d call my mom about four times a week, crying about something. And I’m sure she was like, “Oh my lord, it’s not that bad! ”

I left behind that kind of crying somewhere in my 30s. Once I had a real job, I remember thinking, “I think everything’s going to be okay.” I felt like, I can actually pay my bills, which made me feel like an adult, and like I could stop checking the couch for coins. That gave me a boost of confidence. “Look at you! Having insurance and all! Look at you, able to get sick or see a dentist!” Success brings with it a measure of validation. The first time an outside person says, “You’re the best for this,” you’re like, “Doggone it, people like me!” By the time I turned 40, I was like, “Bring it.” And 15 years from now, I know I’m gonna look back at myself and be like, “Not bad there, Missy.”

Don’t sweat the small stuff – or critics.

I always had a pretty good idea of who I was, but once I got married and had kids, I couldn’t believe how everything changed. In my head the checklist just became, “Are the girls okay? Is Ben okay? Fine. Then I have nothing to worry about.” Little superficial things all seemed kind of silly compared to the top three of, “My girls are okay, my husband is okay, my family is okay?” Then anything else is not the apocalypse.

My profession is 99 percent rejection. But I got superlucky: I grew up with a great family, where you weren’t belittled or broken down. That was a huge bonus to my self-esteem. When I started acting, I wasn’t trying to alter myself or be what anyone else wanted. I’ve never felt like I needed to change. I’ve always thought, “If you want somebody different, pick somebody else.”

But sure, criticism can sometimes still get to me. Some things are so malicious, they knock the wind out of you. It’s surprising that anybody could say these things to any human being, especially someone they don’t know and haven’t met. But I also feel sorry for these people. I did see this one comment once, as a fluke, that was so terrible and hateful, and it was tagged with “Canton, Ohio, 2:35 a.m.” I just couldn’t get over wanting to go and see that person. I wanted to go knock on their door, and be like, “What did I do? Are you all right? Is this a cry for help?” But Ben just said, “Yeah, let’s not do that ever.”

Raise kids who love themselves (and maybe wigs too).

I want my girls to know what’s real, that how you should or shouldn’t look—all of the “shoulds” – it applies to no one. It’s not real. It’s made up. That person doesn’t really look like that. I should know! I’m hoping that Ben and I can show them, “You’re great. You play your sports and do your weird art projects, and that’s fantastic. You don’t have to do any of the ‘shoulds.'” I try not to say negative things in front of my girls, like, “God, I look terrible,” or “I should go put some makeup on.” I very consciously avoid stuff like that so that my girls won’t tear themselves down either.

My daughter Viv is the classic first child. She’s very responsible, very calm, and she’s so thoughtful and reflective. And then Georgie, who is 4, is me. She has the might and energy of a whole rugby team put into this teeny little blonde body. Sometimes Ben just looks at me and goes, “That’s all you. All you.”

Both of my girls are pretty funny. Lately, the goofy plays have started, and dressing up in costumes, and taking on strange little characters. The other day they were the Carols. They were both people named Carol. They were wearing wigs and working in an office together, and they’re like, “Carol, how’s that file coming along?” “Fine, Carol!” They weren’t doing these glamorous characters or princesses or anything, they were just these really strange, weird women in an office. Georgie kept walking around with a file and slamming it down. I loved that I couldn’t figure out what it was based on. It was just some weird, genetic thing. I have never been more proud, or terrified.

Fashion doesn’t stop at size 6 …

Designing clothes is what I went to college for. After I had Georgie, I was a different size than I’d ever been before, and I realized, “Well, wait a minute, just because I’m a different size doesn’t mean I flipped some switch and turned off a desire for anything current or modern, or a desire to look good and feel good.” When I was looking at what’s out there for plus-sizes, it was like, you could get a strapless taffeta gown, and I don’t know who needs that over a certain age and certain size. Or it looks like it’s for someone in their late 70s. I was like, “Where is a cool T-shirt? Where is a great sweater that’s not built like a tent?” I don’t care what size I am, I don’t really want a T-shirt that stops at my waist. I haven’t since I was 16, and even then, when I was in great shape, I don’t know if I would’ve done it. So with my friend Daniela Kurrle, we’d make things, and on the red carpet people would keep asking me, “Where did you get that?” I realized that there’s a real need for this. I thought, “Why don’t we just do it? Is that nuts?” Apparently, maybe it’s not. So hopefully within the next year it will happen. I hope women will love it. I think I know what’s missing out there – because I can’t buy it.

… And a dress size doesn’t define you.

A recent article referred to me as “America’s plus-size sweetheart.” It’s like I’m managing to achieve all this success in spite of my affliction. I always find that interesting, because it’s like, would you ever do that to a male comedian considered overweight? Would you ever put that in the headline for a male star? I feel like it never would happen. And it’s not that it’s not a fact about me, but I don’t know what the obsession is with pointing it out. Because when that happens, I do feel it’s like someone is saying, “Well, good for her, she’s doing well despite her troubled blah blah blah …” It blows my mind. My weight? It is what it is. Like most people I know, it’s like, you gain a little, you lose a little. You have a good hair year, a bad hair year, you manage money well, you don’t manage it that well … your entire life is ebbs and flows and ups and downs. And you could get hit by a bus tomorrow. It’s about being content. And sometimes other priorities win.

It’s okay if you turn out like your mother.

I hope to God I can be even 1/16 of a mom that my mom was. So far I’ve done everything I swore I would not do. I’ve blown noses with my shirt, I have licked the hand and wiped the face, I have said, “Because I said so.” But I don’t take it back, because when you’ve answered a question for the 54th time, and that question is, “But why do I have to wear underpants when I go out?”, after 600 reasonable explanations, it becomes, “Because I said so! Put your pants on and let’s go! You need underpants for school!”

I know my mom kept me and my sister safe. We weren’t allowed to do certain things. I remember demanding a pair of heels after I saw Grease. I mean I really threw down. In a mall. First of all, if you’re having a full-on tantrum and crying, it’s a pretty good indication you’re not mature enough for heels. My mom just flat-out refused, and rightly so because I was probably 8 at the time. I thought, “Surely I can wear her down,” and I couldn’t. All the effort that goes into not being worn down – I hope to keep that up so that when my girls are grown, they’ll say, “Oh, it was so annoying then, but I understand why now.”

I know my girls will hit their decade of tears, and that call will come where they will be crying and wishing they were different. I know it won’t help them, but I will say to them, “You’re perfect. And I wouldn’t change a thing. Just don’t get a tattoo. Nothing against tattoos, but someday you’ll be 75 and that tramp stamp just won’t look good.”

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