Melissa McCarthy on playing a literary grifter

Melissa McCarthy on "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

At the Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood, California, you can find just about anything, including on this day actress Melissa McCarthy. She was buying actual books, with actual pages. (Tablets aren't her thing.)

"Every weekend, we try to go to a bookstore," she said. "Yeah, my husband's really good at it. I don't know, I need a real book, I need a tangible book."

Book are great, but she enjoys studying people even more.

Correspondent Lee Cowan said, "I've read somewhere that you have a real obsession with observing people who really just don't care – they don't care what they look like, they don't care what they say, they don't care what they eat, drink, whatever. It's almost like a hobby for you."

"It is a hobby. And it's gotten harder since I am a little more recognizable. My husband, many times, has been like, 'You cannot follow people!' Now you get caught more."

"And would some of those characters that you would stalk..."

"Lovingly admire!" she corrected.

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Correspondent Lee Cowan with actress Melissa McCarthy, at the Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood, Calif. CBS News

"Would they make it into some of your other characters? Like, parts of them?"

"Yeah. I think when I really see, like, a mannerism or just a way somebody carries themselves, I tend to keep playing it over and over."

McCarthy's characters, as cringe-worthy as they are lovable, are her collection of the bits and pieces of the people she's gathered along the way.

But for all her outrageous hilarity, McCarthy's is capable of some Oscar-worthy subtlety, too – a skill she shows off in her latest performance in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

McCarthy is up for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Lee Israel. It's the true story of a caustic bestselling biographer who in her later years typed her way into a life of petty crime.

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"Within the first 15 pages of the script, I just thought, oh, I like her quite a bit, I'm not sure why," McCarthy said. "And I thought, I don't know, but I'm fully rooting for her already."

Israel made a name for herself writing profiles of people like actress Tallulah Bankhead, and gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. But when her biography of make-up mogul Estee Lauder flopped, Israel found herself on welfare, and began fabricating letters from celebrities like Louise Brooks, Edna Ferber and Noel Coward – and then scammed New York City booksellers into buying them as the genuine article.

Cowan asked, "How many of her letters do you think are still out there?"

"I don't know. But God, I'd love to know,' McCarthy replied. "I think there's quite a bit of them hanging on people's walls, proudly, and no, maybe even strangely, it's like it could make them even a little better! It's like a story within a story."

Over the course of three years Israel carefully crafted more than 400 fakes, making her one of the most prolific literary forgers in history.

"She did do some damage to the literary community, even though she didn't see it that way," said Cowan.

"No, she didn't, and I guess I don't," said McCarthy. "I mean, I'm clearly on her side. She grifted people; I'm not saying it's okay what she did. But It's the gentlest grift I've ever heard of. People got conned and I don't take that lightly, but also she was in absolute desperation."

You'd never know it from her writing, though, which was desperately good. Take this letter Israel claimed was written by satirist Dorothy Parker:

"I have a hangover that is a real museum piece. I'm sure I must have said something terrible. To save me this kind of exertion in the future, I am thinking of having little letters run off saying 'Can you ever forgive me? Dorothy.' But until I do that, can you ever forgive me? Dorothy."

"Such an incredible writer, and so witty," McCarthy said. "She was conjuring these lines, and these incredibly funny replies, and she was really, really good."

And so was McCarthy's performance, if you go by the award recognition. In addition to her Oscar nod, she was also nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, all for a pretty dark role that some see as far different from her comedic bread and butter.

But, she says, "There's no difference, for me, in preparation, [between] a comedic role or a dramatic role. I still think you build them the same way, and even with all the comedies I've done, I spend more time thinking about what makes them scared or when they feel vulnerable than I ever do about, like, what makes them funny."

In fact, in the '90s, after a stint of doing standup in New York clubs, McCarthy actually found drama a refuge. "I really did all dramatic work on stage in New York for years and years, way off-Broadway," she said.

"And you said some of them were pretty grim?"

"They were pretty grim!" she laughed. "You mean, the theaters?"

"Yeah. Or even the plays themselves."

"Oh, it was like, the darker, the more macabre I could do, the more I just loved it. I mean, the interest was and is always someone who's much further from myself."

Lee Israel is light years away from the "Midwest nice" of McCarthy. She was an alcoholic, big city porcupine who died largely alone in 2014, after finally writing her own memoir detailing the gritty details of her literary larceny.

Cowan said, "At the end of the day, you read the book and she's not contrite, really, about what she did. She actually sounds like she's kinda bragging about it."

"She never, ever took back [that] the writing was good," McCarthy said. "Someone just recently sent me a letter that she'd written, and she mentions this: 'I've gotten myself into a bit of trouble with some writing.' And then there's some line after it basically saying, 'However, the writing was good and the letters are great.'"

McCarthy doesn't excuse Israel's crimes. But she hopes the movie might serve as a reminder that there is talent in all of us, and that even those who are unlikable, maybe even criminal, want what we all do – to be seen.

"I just want people to look up and notice people," she said. "I feel like we're so separate now, and I do think all the time, look up, anyone, you don't know who's passing you. You could be passing Lee Israel who is sure to gonna be more interesting and smarter and funnier than the average person. So, like, don't underestimate people."

      
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Story produced by Aria Shavelson.