Exclusive: Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor

Thomas McCarthy is one of those actors whose name you may not know but who’ve you’ve undoubtedly seen in some of the many movies in which he’s appeared like Syriana, Good Night, And Good Luck, Meet the Parents and countless others.

Not surprisingly, McCarthy received a lot more attention for his first foray into filmmaking with The Station Agent in 2003, which helped draw attention to similar dayplayers like Peter Dinklage, Bobby Cannavale, and Patricia Clarkson, and his second movie The Visitor threatens to do the same for Richard Jenkins, although many people will remember him as the ghostly patriarch that haunted the HBO series “Six Feet Under.”

In The Visitor, Jenkins plays Walter Vale, an economics professor who comes to New York for a conference only to find two squatters living in his Manhattan apartment, Syrian percussionist Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira). Instead of throwing them out, Walter allows them to stay, quickly becoming friends with Tarek, who teaches him how to play the African drum. Walter learns that they’re living in the country illegally when Tarek is arrested, and Walter finds himself getting involved with the U.S. immigration process in ways he never imagined.

With a similar subdued vibe as The Station Agent, McCarthy’s follow-up film has already played well in front of enthusiastic audiences at the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals, and it’s finally getting a theatrical release in select cities through Overture Films.

ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with McCarthy and talk about the whys and wherefores of making such a second feature that’s likely to be as highly scrutinized as it is anticipated.

ComingSoon.net: I’m sure you’re asked this a lot, but how difficult was it to get going on a second movie after “The Station Agent” became such a beloved and popular indie hit, especially in terms of deciding what to do next?
Thomas McCarthy: I don’t know. I’m pretty patient with finding stories and telling stories, and obviously, I wasn’t in a real rush to direct right after that, just doing some acting and writing for other folks, but for me, it was always just about finding a story that I really felt was original. I think that’s what I’m normally setting out to do and some characters that were original, and that was difficult. I would say that was more difficult than overcoming the success of “The Station Agent” which really the way I took that was, “Oh, great. I have a lot of people who want to make a movie with me now because of the success of that,” and that’s sort of the way the industry works. I’m going to use that capitol to make exactly the kind of movie I want to make and not worry about making a commercial success or anything and tell the most interesting story I can, because I always believe if you do that, that’s your best shot that’s at success on some level. Really focus on the work and the story. I think probably the one thing that was more off-putting for me was just three or four years ago where this country was at, going into two wars, the politics, and I was having trouble with that and the deep division in the country, which affected everyone. In my case, it was right through my family, politics on both sides, and it wasn’t really putting me in the mood to write a personal story. That really derailed me, and I was surprised how much. It never had happened to me before as an adult where what was going on in the world. I felt like to just go off and write a story so detached from what was happening would be the equivalent of sticking my head in the sand.

CS: You said “finding stories” like you were literally walking around until you found one.
McCarthy: It’s exactly that. It almost feels more like journalism. For me, a lot of times, it’s looking at people, watching characters traveling is a great thing for me. It sort of opens my mind a little bit to a different way of looking even at my own place in the world, and I think it literally is that. A lot of times, I would just keep accumulating notes, just keep doing it, until I feel like I can weed through and see the story in there. Do I have enough clay to make something with? It’s that kind of feeling, so I do think that’s how, it’s almost like investigative journalism at the start for me.

CS: How did you end up at Walter as your main character? Being a professor from Connecticut who comes to New York and discovers people living in his apartment is a very specific person and story.
McCarthy: Yeah, I think with all these characters, that’s just the right word. I think you start with an idea of “what about this older guy who loses touch with his life?” And what is that guy like and then you get to “Well, where does he live? What does he do? What does he teach? How does he dress?” That’s the fun part and you really start to hyper-define this guy, and I will add, in that instance I did have Richard Jenkins in mind, so literally, I’m seeing the actor and the character and over the course of a couple of years, I just keep putting them together, and after two-and-a-half years of writing, then you start to work with Richard and start to hone the script and by the time you start to shoot the movie, you have a pretty well-defined character.

CS: Had you worked with Richard before or did you just know him from his previous work?
McCarthy: No, I’d just been watching his movies and thought he was such a great character actor, and I think I had a sense that I wanted a guy that wasn’t like (putting on movie voice-over voice) “He was the best professor at Harvard.” This is an average American. This is a guy who was a professional, who was a career academic who was good but not great, and I didn’t want to cast a superstar in that role and be like, “Okay, I want you to play mediocre, so grow a moustache and gain 20 pounds then you’ll be like the rest of us.” I just don’t believe that. Richard has this amazing and wonderful everyman quality which is why he’s one of the most used and well versed character actors in the country, ’cause you really believe him when you see him as a coal miner or you see him as a shrink or you see him as this that or the other thing.

CS: His career is very similar to yours as an actor in that you’re both rarely billed so when you’re watching a movie and see one of you, it’s like, “Oh, it’s Tom McCarthy!” or “Oh, it’s Richard Jenkins!”
McCarthy: Yeah, Richard and I have been laughing because we’ve been traveling a lot on this junket (tour) and Richard now is certainly recognizable but still, people will look at us both and be like, “How do I know those two guys? Do they work at Dell? Are they teachers at…?” They can’t put it together. It’s really funny.

CS: But even more when you see the movies he’s in because you rarely will know he’s in it in advance.
McCarthy: Yeah, absolutely, and it happens to me, too, in that people don’t normally put Tom McCarthy the writer/director together with Tom McCarthy the actor. That’s a whole ‘nother thing.

CS: What made you think that Richard could sustain the movie being that he hasn’t done much if anything as a leading man?
McCarthy: Two things: I believe in an audience’s ability to relate to great performances, and not to need a star necessarily. Studios sometimes determine “Who’s going to be the leading man and who’s not?” I think that was an experiment that worked very well with “The Station Agent.” I don’t think Peter Dinklage was seen as the consummate leading man before we made that movie. We had a funny moment with Miramax and they were talking about putting Peter out front with the movie and they were literally saying, “I’m not sure America’s ready for a dwarf. How are they going to respond?” And literally, a week later, People magazine named him the new sexy, and I was like, “I think that would be an indication that they’re ready.” I think with Richard Jenkins, a very different situation obviously, but look, you’re dealing with one of our great character actors, and if you’re a great character actor, you’re a great actor and many people think it’s even a more difficult artform, because the whole story’s not there, so you’ve gotta come in and in one, two or five scenes and make your mark and you’ve gotta lock into the tone of the movie, you’ve gotta create your backstory, you’ve really gotta involve the audience, and Richard has done that time and time again. Being an actor, I know how difficult that is, and that’s why actors have such fondness for character actors, so to speak, so that was a no-brainer on that element.

CS: Can you talk about casting some of the other actors like Hiam Abbass as Tarek’s mother. She’s a well known Israeli actress who has been in a lot of movies, but one who people here might not necessarily know. Was that something deliberate?
McCarthy: Yeah, I think so, and I think it’s an advantage that a lot of foreign films have. We go to the theater, we sit down, the movie starts, and it could be Spanish or Chinese or Danish, and we’re watching these actors, but we don’t know they’re actors. We’re just watching these characters and these people are amazing, and we realize it’s because they’re some of the best actors in those countries, and we just don’t know who they are, and it just helps us suspend our disbelief that much further, and that’s what I always set out to do with Richard. That’s why I cast him, and I knew that the other three characters, because they were from foreign countries, would be a little less known to American audiences and in many cases, completely unknown. I couldn’t suddenly put a major movie star in that. I wanted to find a guy who would not tip the scale in that way. I didn’t want to have this extraordinary leading man and then say, “Okay, I want you to be really ordinary. Can you take all the shine off you?” Richard has a great way of avoiding the shine.

CS: This film is very much like a foreign film in that it focused on everyday life and can’t be lumped into one particular genre. Were European films a big influence on you when making this?
McCarthy: Yeah, definitely, I watch a lot of foreign films. I just had the chance as an actor to work with Lukas Moodyson out of Sweden, and he’s one of my favorite directors in the world, and some people here, some actors, don’t even know who he is. Literally, if you said, “Choose three guys you want to work with”, he would go in my Top 3 and that would include the masters that are working now, because I think he’s really a guy who’s really in his prime and is really making personal, intimate films, and they’re the type of movies I enjoy.

CS: How much research did you have to do into the immigration process or the immigrant experience? There was a really good doc a few years ago called “Persons of Interest” which the festival circuit about three or four years ago after 9/11. Did you happen to see that?
McCarthy: I may have seen that, because three or four years ago was when I was writing this. I was just sort of seeing everything that I could get my hands on. I don’t specifically remember seeing that but I saw so many things on it that kind of inspired me. Actually, I don’t think I did, because I don’t think I saw anything on detentions really. Again, this story really started with characters. It started with Tarek, the character of Walter, the Syrian musician and this burnt-out college economics professor. I had these two characters and I really liked these guys, “Where am I going to make them meet?” and I was like, “Ah, I’ll make him go down to New York and that’ll be an in because he’s this musician, he’s gotta have a girlfriend and she’s probably from another country” and this is how I pieced together the story. It’s during that period that I started spending a lot of time in the Arab community here in New York and just hanging out, other artists like myself, the film groups, academics, wherever I could just be the only white guy hanging out and listening to people. There was even an Arab-American comedy festival here, anything just to surround myself and listened to people talk and how they deal. It was around that time that I stumbled upon the stories of these detention centers. I never knew they existed, and quite honestly, no one I knew was really aware of these places and I discovered a way I could go visit them was through an organization out of the Riverside Church, this organization of sojourners, so I went up there and joined them, and then I could start visiting these facilities, both in Queens and out in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and it was the first time I’d walked into one of these places. I did that for about a year on and off with a lot of different detainees, one or two I started visiting over a period of time, and you just get really involved emotionally and their stories, if it’s one visit or a hundred visits, you almost immediately realize that you are that detainees window to the outside world literally.

CS: And many of them are kept in those places for months.
McCarthy: Years! I was visiting a Nigerian guy who had been there for three and a half years, hadn’t had a lawyer in three years. Three or four people came up to me last night after seeing the movie and asked, “Why aren’t these people just getting deported?” For instance, the guy I was meeting, the Nigerian, he said to me in no uncertain times, “I just want to be deported. Get me out of here! Anywhere is better than this. I’ll go back to Nigeria, I’ll figure it out. It wasn’t great when I left, but I can’t stay here another day” very much like Tarek does in the movie. if you are not used to being incarcerated, it’s a very difficult thing to deal with, especially if you have no real connection to the outside world and no information coming in.

CS: I never really saw the connection until you talked about your research for the movie, so did you see Walter as some part of yourself even though he has a different background as a college professor?
McCarthy: Definitely, and it’s funny because I see with my first film “The Station Agent,” I see a lot of myself in Finn, and with “The Visitor,” I see a lot of myself in Walter Vale. It’s funny you mentioned “you guys are both similar character actors who’ve done a lot of things and no one knows who you are really,” well there you go. It’s with both kind of. I think that’s a fine line, and I think for instance, I think Walter Vale, for a lot of this movie is very voyeuristic, he’s very passive at the beginning of the movie, and he’s kind of pulled into it in a sense. I think that’s how I was. I’m sort of investigating and I’m just putting myself in circles and watching and listening. Sometimes people would be like, “Who are you? You’re just always hanging out without saying anything” and I think there’s similarities there.

CS: When you decided to set the movie in New York, obviously there were going to be a lot more challenges filming here than in the New Jersey suburbs. It must have been harder with so many locations…
McCarthy: Brutal.

CS:… but it’s still an indie movie.
McCarthy: Totally, and we had I don’t know half a million on “Station Agent” and 4 million on this one. Wow, big jump. It was nothing. It really felt like we had less money on this movie, because we’re shooting in New York City, because we’re dealing with everything here, and shooting a movie here is like living here. You know, you have those days where you’re like, “I’m the king of the world. This is the greatest place ever and I’m shooting here and this feels great. I’m so lucky.” And then literally an hour later, you’re like, “I want to shut down production. I want to take it to Pennsylvania, to horse country, and I don’t want to deal with this anymore,” because it can be a brutal place to work.

CS: You also included a lot of the street music that as a New Yorker, is a big part of living in the city, almost a daily thing.
McCarthy: Yeah, I wasn’t setting out like “Oh, I’ve gotta tell my New York story.” In fact, I was very intimidated once I finished the first draft, I was like, “I’m making a movie in New York, everyone does it, it’s so hard to be original” then I thought all I can do is not treat New York like a postcard or romanticize it in any way, but just sort of an insiders’ guide as I see the city. We really try to do that a lot, almost to the point in moments of being mundane, because your life in New York can become very mundane. It’s got a lot of color, but it can become very systematic and very ritualistic and you lock into your world. I think that’s what we try to do with this movie. My cinematographer, Oliver Bokelberg, and myself spent a lot of time just walking around downtown, just watching, just looking, taking pictures, talking, pointing things out. I think that’s pretty well represented in the film.

(Note: The next two paragraphs deal with the film’s ending and while we tried keeping spoilers to a minimum. You might want to skip ahead if you’re not interested.)

CS: I don’t want to spoil the ending or what happens but there’s something about how the movie ends that leaves you feeling that Walter is powerless. Is there anything more he could have done for Tarek, did he do as much as he could? How do you feel about where things leave off for the characters?
McCarthy: You know, I thought a lot about that, but I also wasn’t going to try to tie things up in a really positive way. If anyone’s had to deal with immigration or with bureaucracy or with big government situations, it is paralyzing. Do I think the fight’s done? Do I think those relationships are severed and connections are lost? No, and I think therein lies the hope in the movie, and many people have told me they feel that ultimately it feels like a hopeful movie and that last moment in many ways a hopeful moment. I think it’s this sort of cathartic release for this guy, who is now going to forge a new life. Do I think it’s tragic one of the events that happens in the movie? Absolutely, but quite honestly, that happens every day to people with great lawyers, to very intelligent Americans. They’re celebrity causes and they still can’t stop it.. All these politicians get involved, and they still can’t stop it. And that’s one of the messages. The system is now set-up and we now have to keep an eye on it, because it works, and we have to make sure it’s working correctly.

CS: When you make a movie like this, you must have a background for all your characters, but do you also look ahead and figure where there might be in the future, or do you just end the story where you do and try not to think about that stuff?
McCarthy: I do, and I have several scenarios. A lot of people want to know. I think it’s a great thing, and the same thing with the “Station Agent.” You want to know what happens tomorrow to those characters, and I get a lot of that. At the end of every movie, everyone’s like, “Do these people end up together? Do they see each other again? What happens with her? Do they become friends?” Like what happens with Zainab and Walter’s relationship? Could I have tied that up in some way? I could have, but in many cases, like a good book, there’s going to be a life well after the movie.

CS: Do you have another film you want to start working on right away? You seem to be balancing the filmmaking and acting fairly well.
McCarthy: Yeah, I’m actually acting in a movie right now that Tony Gilroy is directing here in New York, and usually, after a film and spending a couple of months talking about that movie for a while, usually I want to get away from that process a little bit, but yeah, it’s getting to the point now where I usually have a couple of things going on at once. It’s rare in my life right now where I have any straight-out downtime. I’m developing something for HBO right now. I’m doing a rewrite for Fox, I’m acting and promoting this movie, so it’s a pretty full schedule for me right now.

CS: You’ve also had to revisit this movie every few months between Toronto, then Sundance and now the actual release.
McCarthy: Yeah, but it’s also the advantage of my career at this point, because as soon as they say you don’t have to do anything with the movie for a couple months, I take a writing job and I go off and do a couple movies, and then by the time this starts up, I’m ready to go. I’m very excited to get this movie out there and share it with audiences.

If that wasn’t enough for you, here’s a bit more with McCarthy from a roundtable shortly afterwards.

CS: Can you talk about the subtle, naturalistic tone of your movies and how you manage that? Does it involve a lot of rehearsal to keep things that subdued?
McCarthy: I had another actor come up to me last night after the movie and he said, “It’s like American neo-realism or something.” I was like, “Cool! Can I somehow be associated with that?” I thought there was something weirdly apt about that. I never thought about it. Tone is very important to me and ultimately, I know there is going to be a silence in the movie and room for the actors to just be, that that’s important. The trick is how to keep that engaging and moving and I really credit my editor with that to some degree, Tom McCardle. We talk a lot about it. Tom, he edited “The Station Agent,” and I had Tom read an early draft of “The Visitor,” before we even thought about production. I don’t know how many directors do that, I’d be curious to know, but I just had the idea. “Hey, I’m in L.A. Read this, and let’s talk about it.” And got his feedback on it. It’s fascinating to get an editor’s notes before you start shooting, get an editor’s thoughts, but it also puts Tom in the frame of mind. It was really interesting, too, because he was reading some things as dramatic when I meant them as funny and funny when I meant them as dramatic, and he was like “The piano teacher, will that be really funny?” I’m like, “No, it will be kind of creepy and kind of funny, but I won’t do this goofy caricature.” I wanted a woman who really teaches piano and takes it very seriously, and we see that character. I just love starting the movie with her.

CS: I was thinking specifically of the humor in the movie, because even things like Richard nodding his head to the music gets a lot of laughs even though it’s very subtle.
McCarthy: Yeah, and it’s amazing watching it now with audiences how I literally sit in my seat—and I don’t watch the movie a lot anymore but I did last night and I did at Sundance—and audiences will just pick up on subtle moments so during Richard’s burgeoning interest in the drum and then we just cut to this one scene where he’s back at the guy’s playing stick drums in the park, and he just sort of starts kicking his feet and people just start cracking up. “Oh, no. The guy’s getting his mojo on.” There’s little moments like that where I find that if you let the audience come to you, they’ll really start to pick up on things, and to me, that’s really exciting to watch happen.

CS: Going back to your acting, how did you end up with a role in Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones”?
McCarthy: I literally knew Peter and Fran and those guys from when I was touring with “Station Agent” and they were doing “Lord of the Rings” and we were at a lot of the same junkets. We got to know each other, and they were considering me for another role in that movie and then it went to a wonderful actor and not to me—but therein lies my career… and all careers, I should say. No matter who you are, you’re always losing that role to that person. And then they called one day and said, “Hey, will you do this smaller roles as the principal at the school” and it was like working a week but it was the perfect example of where normally as an actor, I would have said “Hmm” because it wasn’t on the page that interesting to me, but it was like, “It’s Peter Jackson and those guys and Fran” and I was like, “Of course, I’ll come down.” So I went down to Pennsylvania and worked with them and ended up having a lot of fun, and it was just great to watch him.

CS: How do you think that movie is going to come out since it’s such a strange novel.
McCarthy: I think he’s got a fascinating take on it and I think he’s getting back to reminding me a little what he did with his first movie “Heavenly Creatures” and I just think he’s a talented guy, so I’m looking forward to seeing that.

CS: Is that coming out this year?
McCarthy: No, I think they’re going to CGI the crap out of it.

CS: And you’re already shooting the Tony Gilroy movie?
McCarthy: Yeah, that we’re also shooting and that’s also a great script, great cast, Julia and Giamatti and Clive Owen and Tom Wilkinson and Dennis O’Hare, just really great actors and I’m so proud to be a part of that, and I have a really juicy fun role in that.

CS: That’s his second movie, too, so I guess you have that in common in terms of second movie “jitters.”
McCarthy: I didn’t have second movie jitters in this other than it’s hard to make a movie. How it’s ultimately going to get received, you don’t know. I didn’t have first movie jitters other than I didn’t know what I was doing, so when that all happens, it’s like happy accident, happy surprise and we’re all happy. I think he’s smart enough and Tony’s been around long enough to just focus on what you can focus on, which is “Damn, it’s hard to make a movie!”

The Visitor opens in select cities on Friday, April 11 and then expands next Friday.

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