CAN WE TALK?
Melissa Rivers on Playing Her Mom
In the new Oscar contender Joy, Melissa Rivers plays her late mother, Joan Rivers. She tells the Beast about the emotional journey she went on filming her scenes.
Like many cast members of Hollywood’s big high-profile awards contenders, Melissa Rivers was woken up Thursday morning by a phone call.
In Rivers’s case, however, the news wasn’t that she had been nominated for a Golden Globe Award, the contenders for which had been announced ungodly early that morning, but that she was set to be interviewed by The Daily Beast. Signals were crossed, schedules were mixed up, and Rivers thought she was being given a rare morning to sleep-in in her ever-busier life.
“It’s not exactly early!” she laughs at herself, with that same gruff, self-deprecating sense of humor as her mother, the late Joan Rivers, radiating through the telephone as she apologized. “Please be kind. Don’t be like, ‘I woke her fat ass up! She was babbling incoherently before coffee.’”
Not only was Rivers not incoherent, but there were plenty of other reasons to be kind.
The longtime TV personality and business mogul is the subject of what may be the sweetest, most touching awards season narrative in this year’s already dramatic Oscar race. In the upcoming David O. Russell-directed, Jennifer Lawrence-starring biopic Joy, Rivers plays her mother in several key scenes.
When she arrives in the film, boasting a hearty, gusto-filled channeling of her mother’s gregarious, larger-than-life spirit—a far richer “take” on Joan than any impersonation a comedian may have honed—your heart jumps a little at the surprise (sorry for spoiling it here!) and at the poignancy of it all.
The film will hit theaters just over a year after Joan Rivers suddenly died after complications from an outpatient throat surgery. Melissa Rivers shot her scenes for Joy, which tells the rags-to-riches story of Joan’s fellow QVC maven Joy Mangano (Lawrence), just months after her mom’s passing last year.
“I didn’t know if it was the right thing, or what I wanted,” Rivers tells me about her reaction to being asked to play Joan in the film.
She portrays her mother in a handful of scenes that amount to mere minutes, but they’re memorable—not only is Melissa-as-Joan seen expertly hocking merchandise on the Home Shopping Network, but she also gets deliver a few classically Joan wisecracks to Lawrence’s Joy that get some of the movie’s biggest laughs.
Like mother, like daughter: Rivers, despite being jolted out of bed, was sharp as a tack, warm, and appreciative when talking to the Beast about being asked to pay homage to Joan in Joy. She spoke about being nervous on set opposite the likes of Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, and the emotions the shoot dredged up.
Taught from the best, she also didn’t leave the conversation without a seamless plug. She has taken over for her mother as a host on Fashion Police, which will be airing the night after that morning’s big Globes announcement.
“I look at all these nomination lists for my fashion girls,” she tells me, reminding me of the Monday-night Fashion Police tune-in date. “So I read the nominations very differently the first pass than anyone else does. I’m looking for ‘fashion person, fashion person, fashion person, oh they’ll take a risk!’ And then after that I’ll go back and be like, ‘Oh nice, this talented person got nominated!’”
(For the record, with the likes of Carol’s Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett and Joy’s own Lawrence, she thinks this will be a great fashion year for the Globes.)
So, Melissa Rivers, in the famous words of your mother, can we talk? She tells us how her part in Joy came to be, and why it’s such a good tribute to her mom.
The first obvious question is, how did this all come about?
I got a call saying that David wanted to meet me. That was not normally something that I encountered (laughs). I went and met him and [producer] John Davis, who is someone I’ve known for a long time, and it went from there. David was like, “This is what I’d like to do…” I didn’t even know what they were really asking me at the moment.
Were you at all hesitant?
Oh, extremely hesitant. Extremely hesitant. It was not the automatic “yes” by any stretch of the imagination. It was a discussion and a back-and-forth and finally John said to me, “I will be there. I will protect you. I will be there every step of the way with you.” And God bless him, he was.
What were your hesitations?
This was shot back in the beginning of last year, and I just lost my mom. I just didn’t know if it was the right thing, or what I wanted. I was very hesitant. They talked me into it—not talked me into it, that sounds awful. They discussed everything with me and got me to a place where I thought, OK, I can do this. It was an amazing, amazing experience.
Are you surprised that they asked you to do it instead of a comedian or a character actor?
I was surprised. But I also don’t think they wanted an impression, or a caricature. That was my thing. I didn’t want it to come off as an imitation. And I don’t think that’s what they wanted either.
They thought you’d bring more humanity to her, then, than an impressionist?
Why didn’t they get someone else? I don’t know. I really think they felt it was the right thing to do. When I met David, it turned out that when he was growing up, he worked at the Mamaroneck Country Club as a busboy for like a summer job. And I guess that our grandparents belonged. So he actually remembers seeing my mom there once. There was a sort of strange connection.
Everyone in Hollywood has their own take on Joan, their imitation. It could’ve easily gone that way.
Exactly. You don’t want the female impersonator version. Which, by the way, some of them are genius.
Watching Joy, it’s touching and poignant to see your mom as a character in a film anyway, but having you play her adds an extra layer to that.
Again, I don’t know what goes through anybody’s head. I have a 15-year-old and when you think they’re unhappy they’re happy and when you think they’re happy they’re not, so I’ve stopped guessing what people are thinking. Everyone keeps saying, “Wow, what a great idea. What a great idea.” For me, once I committed to it I just got very focused. And here we are! I’m completely blown away by the response.
What it was like when they transformed you into Joan with the hair and makeup and costume, and you saw yourself?
The first time I went and did the hair and makeup test, that’s when I was a little flipped out. By the time I got to set, I had already taken that leap. Honestly, I was so focused on making sure the jewelry was correct and the clothing was right that it was hard to look at. I stopped looking in the mirror, to be honest.
What it did feel like, though? Did you feel like you were channeling her?
I felt terrified. Walking onto a set with David O. Russell, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence? That’s what I was concerned about. Everyone could not have been nicer and lovelier and more supportive.
Were people sharing their memories of your mom with you?
The first thing Jennifer did was say a couple of my mom’s jokes back to me. Until I got home I don’t think I realized—everyone was very aware that it was a very emotional risk. I didn’t go there in my mind until I got home and was like, “Oh my god, what did I do? Oh my god.”
What were you feeling when that hit you?
It has been so overwhelming with so many different emotions. My mom only died—it was a year in a September. It felt so fresh at the time that everything was bittersweet. Everything was painful. It was like, Oh wow, I just did that. There’s no way to describe it.
What does it mean to you now to have this as an homage?
That’s what David was always clear that he wanted. He didn’t want an impersonation. For me, the most rewarding thing, and honestly that’s why I always sound tongue-tied in interviews about it, is the response it’s gotten has been lovely and kind and wonderful and people saying “You did a good job.”
Would your mother have been among those people?
I can hear my mom going, “See, I told you you needed to do that.” People are like, “Do you hear your mother saying yes?” I was like, I hear my mother all the time, usually saying, “Get your bangs out of your eyes.” My mother would’ve said, “You’ve got a chance to work with these people? Run, don’t walk.”
I love that one of the scenes you’re in is your mom telling Jennifer’s character to wear a skirt because she has great legs.
That was completely improvised.
They said, “What would your mom say? Then say it.”
It perfectly captures what people think of your mom.
He was like, “Say it!” I was like, “OK.” So we shot the scene with me tossing that over my shoulder, and that’s the one they used.
So not only are you on a David O. Russell film set, you’re improv-ing, too.
And we talked about it obviously, but yeah. He goes, “What would you say?” That’s what she would say. “Then say it.” OK! Jennifer’s reaction is perfect, too.
Do you think she would like the film?
Yes, I do. She had a wild crush on Bradley Cooper, so… She would’ve loved it. My mom was a total film person. She would wait every year for the screeners to come and be super excited.
Is this something you would ever do again?
This is going to be it. This is definitely going to be it. It was one of those serendipitous things where it was all the right people in all the right place in the right time. Where it was a producer who I was very comfortable with and gave me his word that he would protect me. It was a director that I was a huge fan of. Amazing actors. It was one of those moments that everything lined up, and I felt that the one and only time I was going to do it was with this group. If you’re going to do it, this is the group.
What is it like to not only have done this, but now to be talking about doing this and talking about your mom with people like me, who are strangers.
Well, I don’t think of The Daily Beast as a stranger. It’s one of my news sources! This is the part that I’m finding emotionally difficult. It’s sort of dredging up, thinking about what did I feel like in the moment, what was the process. In my family we’re such workers and believers in moving forward.
I’m sure you can tell by the response that people are happy that you did this.
And that is the biggest reward of all. Honestly, the outpouring of support is really the biggest gratification and saying that you did the right thing.