When Melissa McCarthy puts on a football helmet for protection against a territorial nesting bird as she’s trying to garden, Australians who’ve been swooped by a magpie will immediately relate to her problem.
As Lilly Maynard in The Starling, McCarthy can’t walk outside without being attacked by the pesky bird, no matter how hard she tries.
But to McCarthy’s character, the bird is more than just “a nuisance” and it plays a central part in helping Lilly and her husband Jack — played by Chris O’Dowd — cope with an unimaginable tragedy that threatens to tear their marriage apart.
“The character of the bird, which sounds like I’ve lost my mind saying that, it was such a nuisance,” McCarthy tells 9Honey Celebrity.
“But the only way Lilly could cope with her grief was to simply keep moving forward, like a shark, can’t stop moving, because if she did she feared, or I feared, I would fall into a million pieces.
“That little bird just kept pecking away at that armour, that denial, that she had built up.”
That little bird, as she calls it, is the namesake of her new movie coming to Netflix on Friday.
For those not used to seeing McCarthy in a dramatic role, The Starling reunites her with O’Dowd, also best known for his lighter films, as they both deal with their shared grief in very different ways.
“When you’re dealing with mental health and grief and loss you don’t know where that help is going to come from, it could be the most unlikely of places which it was for Lilly,” McCarthy adds.
Coming together on screen again, having previously worked together in Bridesmaids and St Vincent, the pair ensure viewers feel the pain they are experiencing.
And, crucially, they make us laugh in a way only McCarthy and O’Dowd know how.
The gardening-while-wearing-a-football-helmet scene is a moment of light, while Kevin Kline as the psychologist-turned-veterinarian counsels Lilly in ways she never expected.
“I think it’s relatable and you need it for the balance,” McCarthy says of the comedic moments.
“You need both to feel like these are real people in a real situation and you need that levity because you can only take that much pathos if you have some joy, too.”
O’Dowd agrees and says he “felt lucky” being given the opportunity to work with McCarthy again.
“We kind of can fall into our comedic grammar quite quickly and with subject matter like this where it needs your full attention you need that headspace, I suppose, to confront the emotional heartbreak that we go though to be able to make each other laugh at the same time.”
Directed by Theodore Melfi, best known for the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures, and written by Matt Harris, the movie was shot pre-pandemic and completed in the thick of it.
“Hope is the light at the end of the tunnel, the thought that things must surely get better,” Melfi says about the film.
“For me, The Starling, is ultimately about this hope and my wish for the film, is that it will be a balm for our collective grief… and it will allow us to laugh and cry together and know that there is something on the other side if we have the courage and will to keep going.”
The script originally had the roles of Lilly and Jack reversed until they were “gender-flipped” – a change both McCarthy and O’Dowd believe was the right, and only, way forward.
While Jack retreats to a mental health facility to protect his fragile state of mind, Lilly is left to hold down the fort at home.
“It just made total sense to me,” O’Dowd tells 9Honey of the script change.
“I grew up around a lot of strong women and I know Ted did too and they can often be the ones that keep the show on the road.”
McCarthy, too, was thankful for the rewrite.
“As important as it was to show a woman being strong and holding it together I think it was equally as important to show that a man is just as vulnerable, just as easy to break,” she says.
The Starling premieres worldwide on Netflix on Friday.
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