By Aaron Hillis
Though he’s the writer-director of the acclaimed 2003 dramedy “The Station Agent,” Tom McCarthy is probably not the first face you associate with the film (Peter Dinklage was the bigger breakout, no pun intended). But that doesn’t bother the New Jersey-born McCarthy, who has had his own share of on screen recognition (more on that later) since he began acting in film and television in the early ’90s. (If his name still doesn’t ring a bell, then you certainly didn’t watch the brilliant final season of HBO’s “The Wire,” in which he co-starred as the morally skewed Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Templeton.) McCarthy’s second feature behind the camera is “The Visitor,” a poignant and lightly funny drama about a widowed and utterly disillusioned economics professor named Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, “Six Feet Under”) who discovers, on a business trip from Connecticut, that a Syrian percussionist and his Senegalese girlfriend have been living in his New York apartment. Rather than kick them out, Walter allows them to stay, filling the void in his life through this act of kindness until a police encounter pulls the rug out from under them all. I spoke with McCarthy about his new film, liberal guilt, and why he’s incapable of acting and directing the same project. [Warning: Minor spoilers follow.]
There have been so many films about stolid white people brought out of their shells by spirited people of color. While writing the script, what were your intentions to avoid a rehash?
I think you’re always, at least I am, writing away from what would be considered a clichÃ©. At the same time, as you’ve pointed out, there are only so many stories. Eventually, you’re going to find yourself in the vicinity of a story that’s been told, or a clichÃ© that’s been overused. It’s always about getting back to the characters, trying to keep it as honest as possible, and not manipulating the story, characters’ actions, or the audience in a way for purposes of some emotional payoff. If you stay true to characters in that, you’re staying true to what happens in life.
I had a journey, an immigration stance on this movie, that’s not too different from Walter Vale’s. I stumbled into it as research, got very involved in the story of a Nigerian guy, became very close to him, and got emotionally connected to his fate. I think those kinds of things happen all the time. Unfortunately, for some stories, they get manipulated in a way that reeks of something not quite real.
What kind of research put you in the path of this Nigerian gentleman?
It was someone I met when I started visiting detention centers, more out of curiosity than research. I didn’t know necessarily that it was going to be a story point at that time. When you go to visit, you are assigned visitors. You don’t know these people, you just sit across from them much like Walter does with Tarek in the movie and have conversations. One time, I was assigned this Nigerian man, and we kind of hit it off, so each time I’d go back, I’d visit with him specifically. He was a guy who was in detention for three-and-a-half years and was really, at this point, just trying to get deported. He wanted to go back to Nigeria; he didn’t want to stay in this country any longer. He didn’t believe in it. He didn’t trust it. But he couldn’t get deported because they didn’t have all his paperwork, so it was one of those things where I kept visiting him, trying to do what I could with as little legal knowledge as I could, and you know, you get very involved. I’d find myself visiting him on holidays, or leaving Manhattan early from work situations to go see him. You know, it’s someone you care about.
Don’t shoot the messenger, but I thought a lot about something a colleague said after we saw “The Visitor” together. He called it a “liberal guilt” movie. Being a white man telling a story like this, are you damned if you do, damned if you don’t?
Yeah, I think you are damned either way. If people want to pigeonhole a movie like that, they can, but all I would say is, I’d like to have a conversation with that person. And not out of… look, it’s a movie. A lot of people have different opinions, but I don’t know what the “liberal guilt” is. I would offer, in fact, that by the end of the movie, we find out that the lovely Arab woman broke the law and did it knowingly. Her son should have, for every right, been deported. They don’t have a leg to stand on, and she admits that. Why does she do it? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves, and can we do a better job at how we’re handling these situations. So yeah, I understand immigration, and I would venture to guess more than most American citizens do right now, because I spent a couple years researching it and listening to case after case after case. Do I have liberal guilt? Yes, absolutely. Why do I feel guilty? Because I quite honestly don’t think our country is doing the best we could. I think liberal guilt leads to a lot of great change, whether it’s for race or sex or whatever. I’m all for liberal guilt, so I take that as a compliment. [laughs]
As an “actor’s director,” what do you bring to the table? How do you work with actors?
That’s a good question, and maybe my actors are better placed to answer that question. I would offer that one of the advantages of being an actor first more than I’ve been a director is that I’ve worked with a lot of directors. I’ve had an opportunity to test-drive directors and realize what works and what doesn’t. Quite honestly, it’s something actors talk about a lot: “Oh, how did you like working with that director? What’s he like? Oh, really, no kidding?” It’s common green room talk for actors. It’s water cooler talk about how certain directors operate. By the time I’m ready to work with my actors, I have at least a pretty good feel for what will help them and what might possibly not be able to help them.
How about any specific techniques, though? I ask this as I’ve often had a difficult time interviewing actors about what they do beyond process, process, process.
I hear you. I think to address what you just said, actors who work a lot and are pretty good, the more years they work, they start to let go more and more of their process, right? I mean, a guy like Richard Jenkins is just so damn good, or I was just working on a film with Tom Wilkinson. Both of these guys, you don’t think they’re doing anything. You’re watching them, and you’re like, “They’re not even acting.” [laughs] Then you watch them on film, and they’re some of the most compelling actors working today. That’s just because their craft, or whatever word you want to assign to that, has become second nature. It’s not something that they’ll readily talk about because it’s diffusing that in some weird way.
But to that end, so many directors out there who go to film school and learn all the tricks and trades of the camera they aren’t used to communicating with actors in a way that actors learn. Many actors are trained, right? They spend their lives working with coaches in a way that they develop a language, that doesn’t just say, “Okay, do it this way. I’m going to demonstrate how you should act in this moment,” because then you’re sort of playing a quality. But maybe it’s reminding them, “Hey, remember where you’re at right now. Remember that you’re a guy who, in the first 10 minutes of this movie, wants nothing to do with anybody. And right now you’re asking these people to stay in your apartment. That’s probably not the easiest thing, and you better have a reason for wanting to do that.” If anything, it gets the actor thinking, and a camera picks that up. A camera picks up an actor processing information and making a decision, and that’s the beauty of film. That’s something you don’t see on a stage quite as easily.
You have yet to act in a project that you’ve directed. You haven’t felt capable of doing both, why not?
Actors have a reputation for being coddled on-set, because if you’re a director or producer worth your salt, you want the actor to be thinking about nothing else but the role. You want them to be in a little bubble and when the camera starts rolling, they stay in that bubble. [laughs] You don’t want them thinking about money, food, lunch or getting home. You just want them to be gliding in and out. You want that effortlessness to the performance. I think I understand and appreciate that. Quite honestly, I’m a mess when I’m directing. My mind is going in a million directions. I’m thinking ten steps ahead, ten steps behind. I am the writer, I’m constantly evaluating the script and the dialogue, and to shut all that down and try to find this calm place to act… I really just marvel at the people who do it, and do it well. That said, I don’t think there are many who do it well.
Since one of your greatest advantages as a filmmaker is your ability to work with actors, how would you describe your directorial style? What do you think makes a Tom McCarthy film, even three films from now that you haven’t yet made?
[laughs] I don’t know, because I hope it will continue to evolve. Not to dodge the question, but I’d almost hesitate to answer that. You know, in interviews we were just talking about this last night you have to provide answers. Sometimes in doing so, it’s not like you’re manipulating the truth or anything, but you’re providing sound bites, and I’d never want to start believing those sound bites about any part of the process. Whether it’s acting, writing, or directing, it’s ultimately much more complex than what you can boil down to three- or four-sentence answers.
So I don’t know if I have a style yet. I’m anxious to make three more films, look back on it, and say, “Ah, there’s my style.” It’s like careers, right? People are like, “How did you forge this career?” You don’t forge a career, you look for the next job. You scrap and you scrape, and if you’re lucky enough, you have a career to look back on, and then you can say, “There it is.” [laughs] I think my style is something I’m still developing with the cinematographer and production designer, people I’ve worked with on the first two films. I will refrain to answer that question until after film number five.
Now that the series has ended, what was it like acting in the greatest television drama in history?
You mean “Boston Public”? [laughs] Yeah, it was great. It’s funny, David Simon called while I was editing my movie and offered me the role. I couldn’t resist because I loved “The Wire” so much, but I remember my agent and I thinking, “Oh, this could not come at a worse time.” It may have been a little bit grueling, but it was such a pleasure to work on that show, and when you’re working with writing of that caliber, you just have to show up and participate; the rest takes care of itself. It was a hell of a job, and I was really proud to be a part of that show.
As a director, you have so much more artistic input on a project, but you’re far more identifiable as an actor. Is it strange being more widely recognized for “The Wire” than say, writing and directing “The Station Agent”?
It’s great, I love it. The thing I like about my career comes from not being famous. I usually get stopped by people who think I work at their company, or we went to school together, or I mowed their lawn when I was younger. They rarely put it together that they’ve seen me on television or a film. I don’t mind that, actually. Especially as a writer, when I’m doing my thing there, or researching, it allows me to disappear a little bit more. But it’s always fun when people appreciate your work and let you know.
]Photos: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman and Thomas McCarthy on set; Jenkins and Sleiman; Danai Jekesai Gurira and Hiam Abbass – “The Visitor,” Overture Films, 2008]
“The Visitor” opens in limited release on April 11th.