The letter writer

Dolly Wells on Can You Ever Forgive Me?

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Dolly Wells on costume designer Arjun Bhasin: "I mean I had worked out Anna but once I was putting on his clothes, I thought, oh my god, this is so good."
Dolly Wells on costume designer Arjun Bhasin: "I mean I had worked out Anna but once I was putting on his clothes, I thought, oh my god, this is so good." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Dolly Wells, star of Doll & Em with Emily Mortimer (Isabel Coixet's The Bookshop) plays Anna, a bookshop owner in Marielle Heller's Can You Ever Forgive Me?, co-written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (original book for Michael Mayer's Head Over Heels and Tony winner for Avenue Q). Based on the book by Lee Israel, the film stars Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel with Richard E Grant as Jack Hock, Jane Curtin as her agent Marjorie, Anna Deavere Smith as Israel's ex Elaine, and bookstore owners Alan and Paul, played by Ben Falcone and Stephen Spinella.

Dolly Wells on her role as Anna with Melissa McCarthy's Lee Israel: "She instructs her, which is so ironic."
Dolly Wells on her role as Anna with Melissa McCarthy's Lee Israel: "She instructs her, which is so ironic."

At the Whitby hotel, I met with Dolly Wells for a conversation that started out with her stylist Kemal Harris, onto Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer, that led to Anna and her relationship to Melissa McCarthy's Lee Israel, costume designer Arjun Bhasin (Fabien Constant's Here And Now, Ang Lee's Life Of Pi), and the Katharine Hepburn and Fanny Brice letters.

Lee Israel, hard-drinking and down on her luck professionally as well as privately, has just been fired from her job. Her cat is sick, she is overdue with the rent for her Upper West Side apartment, and her agent (Jane Curtin) avoids her because she believes that a biography of Fanny Brice might not be such a hot seller. It is the early Nineties after all. In dire need of money, Lee decides to sell one of her prized possessions, a thank you letter from Katharine Hepburn she has framed on the wall.

Enter Anna (Dolly Wells), the proprietor of a bookshop inherited from her father. The shy woman happens to very much like Israel’s writing and is a bit star-struck when the writer enters her store in person, Hepburn letter in hand. The first sale is soon followed by two more letters by Fanny Brice that Lee “found” in a book in an archive, which sets in motion a career nobody could have predicted.

Dolly Wells on Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel: "It feels so hard for Lee to tell somebody like Anna, who, I think probably wouldn't steal a raisin."
Dolly Wells on Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel: "It feels so hard for Lee to tell somebody like Anna, who, I think probably wouldn't steal a raisin."

Suddenly, witty, smart letters and notes by the likes of Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward appear on the market. They sparkle with the grace of an era gone by and prove irresistible to collectors - for a while. Anna, who would like to get to know Lee better, doesn’t know what she is up against.

As I enter the room at the Whitby meeting Dolly Wells for the first time, she comments on my silk scarf and Burberry coat - it is the first really chilly autumn afternoon in New York.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I like what you are wearing also.

Dolly Wells: I've been styled by a very wonderful stylist, called Kemal Harris.

AKT: At Eye For Film we have something called the Nivola Files because every few months, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, I meet with Alessandro to discuss everything that's going on. You came up many times in connection to Doll & Em. So I'm very happy to finally meet you in person.

DW: Oh, yes, that's great.

AKT: There is a funny coincidence with Emily [Mortimer, Alessandro Nivola's wife] playing the owner of a bookshop in Isabel Coixet's The Bookshop.

Jack Hock (Richard E Grant) with Anna (Dolly Wells): "Everybody needs an Anna in their life, I think."
Jack Hock (Richard E Grant) with Anna (Dolly Wells): "Everybody needs an Anna in their life, I think."

DW: I know! How weird is that?

AKT: And you are the owner of a bookshop in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

DW laughing: I know! I only take roles that she's had.

AKT: Pure chance?

DW: Total chance, yeah. Total coincidence, absolutely. But it's so funny, I know.

AKT: I thought, what are you doing, the two of you? It's silly.

DW: I can't wait to see it, I have heard such lovely things about it.

AKT: She is wearing distinct costumes also. The Bookshop takes place in the Fifties England, this film is in the early Nineties and you are wearing some quite interesting outfits.

DW: They're really cool. Arjun [Bhasin], the costume designer I think is so talented. I mean I had worked out Anna but once I was putting on his clothes, I thought, oh my god, this is so good.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) with Jack Hock (Richard E Grant)
Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) with Jack Hock (Richard E Grant)

AKT: Any particular ones? You wear a lavender turtleneck.

DW: Yeah, that's so great. I also love the trousers that are a little bit too short. I think she [Anna] really cares about what she wears.

AKT: Yes, the brooch at the neck.

DW: That's so sweet, the brooch and the trousers being slightly too short and the little jacket when she goes out in the evening.

AKT: It's heartbreaking.

DW: It's really heartbreaking, she's so sweet. Everybody needs an Anna in their life, I think.

AKT: Well, there's the fact that they [Anna and Lee Israel] really can't get together.

DW: Maybe in the end they can. I think what's the saddest thing is that Anna is so accepting. Anna is judging Lee [Melissa McCarthy] exactly how Lee wants to be judged, which is just on her work. So she's read everything Lee has written and she lives in that world of mostly dead writers that she's looking after and curating.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) at work in her home in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) at work in her home in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

And suddenly this alive writer that she looks up to comes in [to the bookshop] and it's so exciting to her. So for Lee it finally is somebody accepting her, you know, being adoring of her. And that's almost what's too much.

Because she has lied to her. Because she has taken money from her for forged letters. It feels so hard for Lee to tell somebody like Anna, who, I think probably wouldn't steal a raisin.

AKT: Yes.

DW: She's such a sweet girl and I think that if she did tell Anna, Anna would totally forgive her. It would be like - "Lee, you do have to stop doing this."

AKT: Lee couldn't overcome it herself, I think.

DW: I don't think Lee thinks she deserves an Anna in her life.

AKT: I agree. Did Anna exist? Is she a composite?

Alessandro Nivola, Azazel Jacobs, Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells at the King Bee Productions Doll & Em première at MoMA
Alessandro Nivola, Azazel Jacobs, Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells at the King Bee Productions Doll & Em première at MoMA

DW: Anna is an amalgamation of lots of different characters.

AKT: She seemed to me like an invention that was necessary to get to ...

DW: To see the light side of Lee, also. Because you only see that with her cats.

AKT: And then the cat dies. The first letter she sells to Anna is the Katharine Hepburn letter.

DW: Yes, and that's a real letter.

AKT: The real Katharine Hepburn letter that she had on the wall, and then the two Fanny Brice letters, the stolen ones, she brings to you as well? Or are they to others?

DW: I can't remember. No, they are all to me at the beginning. The first three or four. And then she branches out. Probably because she's scared of getting caught but also because she feels bad. She doesn't want to take all of my money.

AKT: So Anna's commentary, really unwittingly sets up the whole operation. That lively, personal letters sell.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? poster - opens in the US on October 19
Can You Ever Forgive Me? poster - opens in the US on October 19 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

DW: She instructs her, which is so ironic. She is saying "Well, this one is a bit bland. I could give you more, but it's a little bit bland." So Lee thinks, okay, and puts a PS and writes something really funny. So yeah, Anna is sort of telling her - with absolutely no idea - how to sell these things.

AKT: She's the catalyst.

DW: And she's also so naïve when she says, "Oh my god, it's such a coincidence that you're writing about Fanny Brice and you've got these letters." She has no idea.

AKT: Is she so naïve because she is protecting herself from the world?

DW: Yes, I think she lives - it's like a little mausoleum or something - she lives in her father's world in that bookshop. It's like a ghost or something. And I think her job, she thinks, is to look after these brilliant writers and look after her father's legacy. In a way, it's a bit like Lee.

Lee hides behind the people she is writing these biographies about and Anna is hiding behind this world that her father created. She's not going to step out and change anything. She's just going to run the bookshop how her father ran it.

AKT: Well, she is writing too.

DW: That's what I was just about to say. You do have hope because she is writing and she shows it to Lee. And the fact that she shows it to Lee is so wonderful. And Lee can't quite start to read it because she feels guilty. She feels so like "I haven't earned this trust to read this because I've totally lied to her."

Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens in the US on October 19.

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