Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
Though Irish American actor Tom McCarthy has been in feature films since the early '90s, most audiences became familiar with him as a supporting player in several George Clooney starrers such as "Syriana" and "Michael Clayton." But for this New Jersey native, directing his own features was a goal he wanted to achieve as much a working actor in quality productions; So far that he has done that and been 2-for-2 in terms of respect and success.
McCarthy's "The Visitor" stands to become an even bigger success for the 42-year-old director/actor than his debut feature, 2003's "The Station Agent." This feature, a low-key film about disparate people (Peter Dinklage and Patricia Clarkson) who become an unusual surrogate family. It won all sorts of awards from the Audience favorite at Sundance to several Independent Spirit Awards.
Striving to have a sleeper hit, McCarthy lined up socially conscience production company, Participant Media, to get behind his story of Syrian musician (Haaz Sleiman) befriended by a college professor (Richard Jenkins) who is inadvertently swept up by U.S. immigration and deported. Starring longtime vet character actor Jenkins (with 75 roles since 1985 under his belt) his understated performance made him the perfect lead—and this his first leading role. The rest of the cast especially Hiam Abbass ("Munich," "Paradise Now," "The Syrian Bride") hits the right balance between tragedy and romance, political relevance and personal emotionality necessary to make the film a praiseworthy.
Surprisingly, though this story sympathizes with Middle Eastern immigrants once reviled as the enemy right after 9/11, this story caught the attention of audiences and critics and became an indie sleeper this summer. While McCarthy has two high profile pictures in the works—"Duplicity, "The Lovely Bones" and "2012"—in the works, he's surely cooking up his next intimate social portrait as well.
Q: How do you balance your work as an actor with your work as a director.
TM: It’s an evolving process. My agent jokes with me. She was watching the final "Wire" episodes and said, “every time I want to say, ‘just focus on writing and directing;’ then these great things come up.”
I was editing “The Visitor” when David Simon called and offered me that role [Scott Templeton] sight unseen and I had been a fan of the show and a fan of his. So it was a pretty brutal couple of months. When I wasn’t in the edit room I was in Baltimore, and visa versa, but it was worth it to be a part of the show.
I’m also working on Tony Gilroy’s new film here in New York ["Duplicity" starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen] when I’m not doing that, but they’ve been nice enough to work around my schedule. To work with Tony and Julia and Clive, and with Bob Elswit, Paul Giamatti, and Tom Wilkinson—both as an actor and as a writer/director—it would be foolish and almost irresponsible not to work with these guys.
So it’s a balancing act. You have to choose your jobs. With acting, you have to be incredibly picky. I won’t take a job just to take a job, even to generate money because I can generate money other ways. I’ll only do it if I really want to work with the people.
Q: Do you partly see doing these roles as a chance to meet people you can later cast?
TM: Totally. You spend a lot of time getting to know Tom Wilkinson, for instance, whose work I’ve admired forever and you think, “I like him and I like the way he works. He’s a pro and he’s damn good.” He’s someone I’ll keep in the back of my mind. As a director, I couldn’t think of anything better.
So It’s all starting to mesh in a nice way. There are times where it becomes difficult to manage just on a practical level and a time level so I’m trying to gauge that. Plus I think I’d like to make another movie quicker. I’d like to do that sooner than later. I’d like to not wait another four years.
Q: It took that long?
TM: "Station Agent" was [made from] 2003 to 2004. It’s funny how time just goes by. I was writing. I did some work with the guys at Pixar for a while and did some other writing projects—one for ["Austin Powers" director] Jay Roach, and one for some other friends. I enjoy doing that sometimes because it takes the pressure off.
When I’m working on my own material that I know I’m going to direct, the process becomes very insular. Sometimes when working for another director you sort of give up. You give up a bit. You say point me in another direction and I’ll write. I’m like a hunting dog and there’s something very freeing about that.
Q: Now, finally, your second directorial effort, "The Visitor" is out. Did longtime character actor Richard Jenkins come to mind for the role of Professor Walter Vale because you had worked together in some capacity?
TM: No, I never worked with Richard but I was a fan of his. I had an idea that I was going to have this sixty something year old man and I want an actor who can really disappear into the role. I’m a big believer in taking actors and using them in ways they haven’t been used before. I did that in “Station Agent” with almost all the characters. I had a short list and Richard was almost always on the top of it. By the time I actually began writing the script I knew it was going to be him.
I was actually in L.A. at the time, working on “Good Night and Good Luck” and staying in the same hotel as Richard, who was working on another movie there. I’m not sure which one. We had the same agent and I called her and said, “you think Richard and I could set up a dinner?” And she’s like, “I think you should call Richard.” And I did; it was like, “have you eaten?” He said he’d love to get dinner.
We had never really met before. I’ve been a fan of his. He’d seen the “Station Agent” and really enjoyed it. So we went and had dinner and by the end of that meal I had his voice in my head.
Q: Was there pressure to cast someone with more name recognition?
TM: Not really. One of my producers was saying that from the beginning of this project I never wavered on a lot of things and one those was Jenkins. They were like, “We love him, but can he do it and can we sell it?”
Now they couldn’t be prouder of the film and how it turned out. Specifically they like him in that role. So I don’t think I wavered on that. There was some concern. In fact, I had that dinner with Richard, and a year later I sent him that script through my agent Rhonda. A week later, he called and said he'd let her know that he’d love to do it. We had lunch where I officially offered him the role.
He came down to New York and when I offered him the role, his first comment was, “I’d love to do it, but you’ll never get the money for it if I do it.” I remember I helped Tony out one night on “Michael Clayton.” I was there to be a voice on the phone for George Clooney.
I’ve known George for a while now and we were just hanging out and I said, “Let me ask you something. What do you think of Richard in this role?” I greatly respect George’s taste and business acumen. He said, “It’s such a great call,” because he loves Richard and has worked with him. He thought it might be hard to get the money I needed, but I didn’t need that much. I can make my movies in such a way that I don’t need that much money. He said, “If you can figure out a way to work it out where you don’t feel like you’re sacrificing than anything, go for it.”
Q: It’s better to make a low-budgeted movie than to not make it at all.
TM: Yeah, and it was difficult and it would be tough for me to make another movie at that budget to be quite honest because it would be such a struggle. When you’re working in New York, there’s a lot of huge movies shooting here and there just weren’t a whole lot of options in terms of man-power and equipment and stuff.
That’s the tricky thing about these movies. For them to work, you kind of have to play a perfect game and you’re doing so without the resources of a lot of the big films. It’s an uphill battle. I think the key for me has been original characters and that’s been my inroad into the script.
Q: People see that this story has all the right elements, but are concerned that it can’t sell. Do you push aside those concerns when you sit down to write?
TM: I do think you have to put aside those concerns when you approach a story, because to write the most interesting thing possible you should focus on one thing: the story. Let the marketing people worry about that stuff.
Overture Films has a crack team of people worrying about that. If you tell a good story that’s the best marketing device. It’s bigger than stars and bigger than having a huge company behind it. A good story sells itself and that’s our philosophy for this movie.
Q: Your film has a lot of integrity. Had you taken a different route, would it have significantly changed the shape of the story?
TM: My style is usually a bit more subtle and a bit more ordinary and about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. I did a Q&A after a screening recently where a gentleman stood up—an African man who lives here in New York and works in the Immigration Rights Council—and he said, “I spent time in this detention center, you could have a gone a lot further and blown the door off this thing. Why didn’t you?”
My answer was, that until I walked into one of these detention centers three years ago, I knew nothing about them and I guarantee, most Americans have never seen the inside of a detention center. Seeing this movie will be the first time they do. So that was an indication to me that we’re at point A with this. It’s not like everyone really knows about this. So this is subtle in the sense that it’s happening everyday and not in an extraordinary way, but in heartbreaking ways.
The best I can do is shed some light on [this situation] and let people know this is going on right now. Even on the most basic level, families are getting separated, people are getting sent out. There are people whose lives are at stake here and can we do it better. That’s where I start with this film.
Q: It’s not just Arabs and Africans being deported.
TM: Everything. Irish. I was talking to an immigration lawyer the other day who said one of her stories was that an Irishman she was defending was stopped, and this is the kind of thing that had I put it in my movie I would have been lampooned for, and he was arrested and he was checked for papers and pulled into detention. He was a painting a restaurant on Liberty Island at the base of the Statue of Liberty where they were renovating. The police did a sweep and picked him up. If there isn’t irony to that, than I don’t know what irony is.
Q: And you’re of Irish descent.
TM: My family's from Cork.
Q: I’m surprised you didn’t feature that kind of Irish story here as well.
TM: I heard it too late, but the reason I didn’t, honestly, is my stories always start with characters and Tarek was the character. In part, what I wanted to do with this movie was not shed light on immigration, but to put on the screen an Arab character that I haven’t seen in movies and television as of late. I knew I was on to something in the audition because I had so many Arab actors come in and say, “good luck and thank you for this, we haven’t seen this before.”
I knew then that they got what I was trying to do and it was only with that character and when I was developing that character’s storyline here in New York I realized that it would be irresponsible of me to ignore the immigration issue.
Q: What made you decide to shift the focus of the film to the romance half way through and introduce actress Hiam Abbass’s character, Mouna Khalil?
TM: For me, that was the biggest challenge of the script because basically I’m introducing a character 40 minutes into the movie that we haven’t seen. So the challenge was, as you say, to shift the storyline and then how to keep them all operating at the same time.
For me as a writer and as a filmmaker that was my most challenging obstacle. I think the reason I did it is because it feels organic to me. It doesn’t feel like I’m manipulating the plot in any way and I think in Hiam, who I wrote the part for, I had an actress who could pull that off, who could come in with such history and presence that she would immediately command the audience’s interest and take the story over.
Q: There wasn't a problem with having a romance with older characters?
TM: No; that actually never occurred to me until right now. I’m 41 and still single and I know there are 21-year-olds who are married. I don’t think about that. I think there’s something much more compelling in the romance that develops between those two [particular] characters.
Q: Did you learn any drumming?
TM: I took drumming lessons. When I was doing research on my character, I read a book called "The Prophet of Zongo Street," which was something I just picked up in a bookstore to get some background on West Africa. This was Ghana actually. I read this lovely story about a man retuning home from America to his land and it was written by a guy named Mohammad Ali. I flipped over the cover and it said, "Mohammad now lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and he plays the djembe in a jazz trio" and I was like, "That’s weird."
So I had my agent contact him. It turns out he went to Bennington College and knew Peter Dinklage very well. He said, “What do you want from me.” I said, “first of all, I just want to congratulate you, and second, will you give me djembe lessons.” So I took lessons from Mohammad through the winter.
Q: You could have learned Irish drumming too.
TM: I realized I didn’t have a future in drumming after the first couple lessons.