Tom McCarthy talks about writing and directing his latest comedy-drama Win Win, his passion for high school wrestling, and deciding to work with an untrained actor for one of the lead roles.
Win Win features a set of people coming together as a kind of surrogate family, much in the same way as your previous works The Station Agent and The Visitor did. What is it that appeals to you about that kind of story dynamic?
Tom McCarthy: I don't actually know [laughs]. It's funny, but on some level I thought I was getting away from that with this one because at the start of the movie, Paul [Giamatti]'s character is a man who already has a family and who is happy. So, I was kind of getting a little bit away from the disconnected male but then, low and behold, we introduce Kyle [played by Alex Shaffer] into the movie and there you have it! But on some level, I think almost every story has that element to it about people coming together and forming a bond on some level. I don't do it consciously. I don't start out by thinking: "What's the unlikely bond going to be this time?" It must be something personal that I've not recognised yet.
At the same time it makes your characters very easy to relate to, simply because they share the same emotions and struggles and joys we all have as viewers...
Tom McCarthy: Absolutely. What I try to do is never have it [the story] be too extraordinary or manipulative emotionally. So, while this may be a bit unusual, it could happen, and you can then see how it grows from there. I think I'm always exploring the ordinary side of relationships, if you know what I mean.
Win Win also stemmed from your childhood love of high school wrestling...
Tom McCarthy: That was the first seed. Every movie has that seed that doesn't always become the dominant gene, but this it did. I was sat at home thinking about it and then I decided to call one of my dear old friends, Joe Tiboni, who happens to be a lawyer and who happens to live in New Jersey [where the film is set]. We started reminiscing about our pathetic days spent in the high school wrestling squad... neither of us were very good! But by the end of that conversation, I decided to ask Joe to come on board and help develop the story. And that was a pretty interesting experience unto itself... working with an old friend. I'd never experienced that process before.
Another unique aspect to this was casting an unknown in the key role of Kyle. Alex Shaffer is a nationally ranked teen wrestler but came to this with no acting experience... Is that exhilarating as a film-maker or the risk that could backfire?
Tom McCarthy: Exhilarating is one word, scary is another [laughs]. But I felt early on that I wanted to have a wrestler, rather than an actor, play Kyle. I saw some actors early on in the process and thought: "No, we need a wrestler for this." So, I made decision and stuck to it. From then on it was about trying to find the right guy. I also felt this was a role that leant itself to the actor being a newcomer. And I also thought that I had a lot of strength working with actors - it's something I feel I do well and would play to my strengths, so it was a wonderful opportunity to find a kid no one had seen before, as well as bringing the world and skill of wrestling to the big screen, because you hardly ever see a movie about it. I didn't want to portray Kyle as one of those Łuber-sensitive teens we see in so many films now, who are far beyond their years emotionally and who have this incredible ability to articulate their feelings. I mean I still can't do that at my age. So, keeping Kyle real and making him a believable, normal teenager was also one of the goals.
Was it your idea to make him listen to Eminem in order to find the anger inherent in his character?
Tom McCarthy: Good question! We did a lot of work in helping him find that anger and I'm not quite sure who exactly pushed him to listen to Eminemn. I mean, I think he knew who he was already. But certainly his acting coach felt that he needed to find something that would get him to that darker place. He's an athlete, though, and a great athlete at that, so he would always be listening to music on his headphones before a fight. I think he always uses music to motivate him, much like a lot of athletes do.
Conversely, as an actor yourself, how much fun do you have directing the likes of Paul Giamatti and Burt Young?
Tom McCarthy: Well, first of all Paul and Burt are very different... very different indeed. With Paul and Bobby [Cannavale] they're both dear friends and they're both ridiculously talented. So, to be at a point in your career where you can decide to work with such good friends, you've got to consider yourself pretty fortunate. And it was fun to watch them. This production was fun, whereas usually a production can be pretty gruelling. But both Paul and Bobby were a real joy. They hadn't met before but my gut told me they'd get on and it worked out great. I'll always remember that about this shoot because there were times when we'd just look at each other and start laughing. Burt, however, was really fascinating because he had such a different approach - if anything he was the other side of the spectrum from Alex. He'd give you something different every time and they'd all be usable in some bizarro reality. He's one of those actors who just goes to any place you care to send him and always comes back with something and he was a pleasure to be able to work with.
You constantly seem to be busy - whether acting in films like 2012, co-writing Up with Pixar or writing, directing and producing the likes of The Station Agent and Win Win. How do you decide on what you're doing next?
Tom McCarthy: It always comes down to finding a project that gets me excited... sometimes you have to make concessions, sometimes you have to give things up and say "no" and some of it is a learning process. I mean, when it comes to balancing all these things, there's no road map and it's always tricky in this field of work. But I don't think it's specific to this profession... I think life is always about decisions. It's just with these kind of choices, you might miss out on something fun! I just got offered an acting job I had to say "no" to because I'm shortly going to India to work on something for Disney and I have another project I'm completing. If I was just an actor, I could have said "yes" to the role. But if I'd committed to it, the acting would have taken too much time, so it's all about finding a way to balance those things. I think it always comes down to priorities and what projects I get the most excited about right now.
Interview: Rob Carnevale† Photo: Fox Searchlight