Thomas McCarthy Goes for the Win Win

Win Win (2011) An Interview With Director Thomas McCarthyThomas McCarthy is a man who likes to wear different hats.

As a busy character actor, McCarthy has appeared in films like  Meet the Fockers, 2012, Flag of Our Fathers and Good Night, and Good Luck and in such TV series as Law & Order, Boston Public and a year-long stint as a reporter in the last season of The Wire.

As a writer, McCarthy has done uncredited rewrites and polishes for several films, and shared an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for 2009’s Disney/Pixar animated smash Up.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, McCarthy has helmed such high-profile independent movies as 2003’s The Station Agent and 2007’s The Visitor.

Now, McCarthy has a new film to add to his writing and directing resume: Win Win, a comedy with serious concerns involving a high school wrestling coach grappling with his own conscience over an uncharacteristic deed done out of desperation.

The film stars Paul Giamatti as a small-town New Jersey lawyer who also coaches the local high school wrestling team. He’s got a wife (Amy Ryan) and kids and lots of bills. So, in order to get a much needed financial boost, Giamatti becomes guardian of an elderly man (Burt Young) in the early stages of dementia. Giamatti’s plan is to take the monthly check that the man is given to pay his own bills, while the man is sent to a nursing home to live. But Giamatti didn’t bargain for the man’s troubled teenage grandson or drug-addicted daughter to arrive from out of town, throwing a wrench in his plan.

Despite all the hats he’s been wearing, McCarthy, 44, keeps things in perspective.

“I was always an actor first, so that’s how I always define myself,” says the graduate of Boston College and School of Drama at Yale University. “I am a big believer that the three things work in harmony. Certainly they work for me and help in how I work with actors.

“I find it incredibly helpful that I act as well as do the other things. As a director who also acts, I have access to a lot of sets and I am able to watch other directors. It’s much more helpful being inside the process, and I can track what works for different actors and directors. ‘This works for Jack, that doesn’t.’ That’s a really great opportunity.”

Win Win is set in New Providence, New Jersey where McCarthy, a one-time high school wrestler, was born and raised. It is the film that hit closest to home to him, although he didn’t realize it at first. “I didn’t realize it was the most personal film until I finished writing it,” claims McCarthy. “I was writing about people with whom I grew up, and I knew these people inside and out. I am so close to them, it’s so immediate to me.”

Win Win, which was made on a lengthier schedule and higher budget than McCarthy’s past directorial efforts, is different in tone than his other films.

“I wanted to have a little more fun with this movie,” McCarthy confesses during a stop at a Philadelphia hotel.  “After The Visitor and The Station Agent, which are more delicate and dramatic, I wanted to swing the other way. Just by having wrestling alone, it was going to have its own adrenaline kick and more humor, thanks to the roles of the coaches (Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale), so something funny had to happen. I was fine with the movie being more rough-and-tumble, but I also wanted it to have a heart and have a theme to it.

“And, I wanted it to have a sense of self-awareness and responsibility involving the kid,” adds McCarthy referring to the part played by Alex Shaffer, a real-life high school wrestler. “Intellectually, I connected with that.”

A big challenge for McCarthy was the setting of the film. “My final thought is that I was setting it in a ridiculously conventional place, which you had to make cinematic to have a movie. How do you make the suburbs interesting to people who have no interest in them? How do you get away from that place? I spent my life in that place. For me, I had to go back and see the beauty in it.”

McCarthy mentions a friend he grew up with who moved back to his New Providence home after going away to college. He says that while he has no interest in living back in that setting, he understands what it offers and how it appeals to other people.

One thing that McCarthy isn‘t really aware of is that is the fact that all of the films he has directed so far  deal with people in search of someone to connect with, who form a surrogate family with strangers in some way during the course of the movie.

His take on that?

“I don’t over-intellectualize the (filmmaking) process when I start,” McCarthy says. “I’m not very reflective as a filmmaker. It’s basically something that grabs me at that moment. Sometimes, after that, I may go over this or that after the first couple of drafts and maybe go even so far as write away from something because I am afraid of repeating myself.  If they (the themes) are there, they are there. I don’t know the answer why that appeals to me. I don’t know if it is something that affected me as a kid. Right now, though, I can’t deny there is that theme in my work.”

McCarthy, who carries a notebook around with to take notes and says writing a script for him involves “trying to piece things together” that he has collected, has had the good fortune to work with some terrific actors in the three films he’s directed. In The Station Agent, about an unlikely trio of friends—the owner of a train station who happens to be a dwarf, an emotionally damaged artist and a loquacious hot dog vendor—McCarthy had Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale, respectively, in his cast. In The Visitor, Richard Jenkins gave a Best Actor Oscar-nominated performance as a lonely college professor who discovers a Syrian jazz musician and Senegalese street vendor living in his New York apartment. And, now, he has a superlative group of players, led by Giamatti, for Win Win.

Does McCarthy notice any similarities between these character actors, say between the leads in his last two films, Jenkins and Giamatti?

“I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question,” responds McCarthy as he ponders the query. “I guess both come from the theater with long backgrounds. And I think ‘character actor’ is a great compliment. It just means range—you see them in movie after movie, and they bring something new to their role each time. It’s what we’re all striving for as actors.

“They both have a quiet sense of leadership. They are incredibly workmanlike. On the set, they take things seriously, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. They have a real process, but at this part in their careers, it’s hard to see. Just like a great athlete who says, ‘I think I can hit a fastball like that.’ Both are very good at direction. They don’t need a lot. But they respond to it very, very well. They don’t miss much, but when they miss it’s all usable. Those guys are always giving you something on target.”

McCarthy says getting Win Win produced was easier than his other films. Part of the financing was supplied by Fox Searchlight, who is distributing it, so there was no need to scramble to get it financed and distributed like his other efforts. But Win Win still received exposure at the most recent Sundance Film Festival. “Sundance,” he says, “was a great place to watch it. You want to feel secure when you make an arthouse film. (At Sundance) people love movies that don’t match the mainstream audiences. I still make the films for that audience.”

But McCarthy he could be adding another hat to his repertoire that is not independently-oriented. He is currently working on a true-life script for Walt Disney Pictures called Million Dollar Arm, about two young Indian men who parlayed their reality game show pitching performances into pro contracts from the Pittsburgh Pirates. It will be produced by the same folks who made The Rookie, Invincible, Miracle and Secretariat.

Right now, McCarthy is just scripting, but there’s a chance he will direct the project. In which case, he will add “studio director” to his resume.

One wonders, then, if Thomas McCarthy would like to tackle something bigger, something that the studios are used to, like a big, expensive action movie?

“It’s not within me,” McCarthy says. “I don’t see myself making a 2012. I had a great time making that and I have a lot of respect for (director) Roland Emmerich. He makes popcorn movies and they are cool. It’s just not my thing.”

Here’s Irv’s review of Win Win: