TMW talks to actor, writer, director Tom McCarthy

By Tatiana Craine

Jack of all trades in the film industry, Tom McCarthy has just released his third directorial film, “Win Win.” With an all-star cast including Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, Bobby Cannavale and newcomer Alex Shaffer-“Win Win” follows a financially hard-up family man as he invites a troubled teen into his home and onto the struggling high school wrestling team. McCarthy, originally an actor, has branched over into writing and directing films within the last 10 years. He has starred in over 20 films and on numerous television shows. Perhaps most well-recognized for his role as a sleazy reporter on the HBO hit, “The Wire”, McCarthy’s filmography boasts titles like “Good Night. And Good Luck.”, “Syriana”, and “The Lovely Bones”.

McCarthy’s writing and directing credits also include his acclaimed debut “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor.”
TMW had the chance to sit down with McCarthy and talk about his latest film, his filmmaking process and his days in Minneapolis-which he once referred to as “his Paris.”

TMW: In the Q&A session at last night’s preview screening, you described yourself as more of an actor than a director. Do you consider yourself more of an actor’s director, and how does that change your process when you’re making a film?

Tom McCarthy:Probably more of an actor’s director, yeah. Just because I am an actor, I’ve worked with a lot of actors, I’ve worked with a lot of directors as an actor, so I’ve had that experience. And maybe it’s just part of the process that I love. I love that collaboration and pre-production production and even the edit process, that relationship you have with the actor. And performance, it’s just something that I just genuinely enjoy. But I think probably because I was an actor first and for a lot longer, I consider myself an actor first and obviously I’ve become a writer-director in the last 10 or 15 years.

TMW: What lead you to write and direct your films as opposed to just selling the film rights to your screenplays?

TM: Honestly, just because I felt like I could see them very clearly. As I was finishing the movie, I could see it, and the idea of turning it over just felt like abandoning a child, you know? You spend so much time. and you understand it in a very specific way, and there’s just a curiosity to see if I could do it for a first time. I thought, “If I do it and it’s horrible, then I’ll sell my script.” But even with this script, with “Win Win,” I thought I was writing a big, broad comedy that I was going to be able to sell to the studio for lots of money. And as I started to get more involved with it, it started to become more the type of movie that I like to direct, and as I started to write, I knew I was going to end up directing it. I had just fallen in love with the story and the project and the characters. I just can’t see turning it over in that situation.

TMW: Do you have a preference to working in front of or behind the camera? Have you ever considered acting in a film you’re directing?

TM: I don’t. I mean, I do love this opportunity rather to start a story, make up a story and see it realized on screen and get it out there. There’s something incredibly gratifying about that, and in large part because of the collaboration that goes into that, and the many facets of the job and who I get to work with. That arc of process is really fascinating to me. From being alone in an office to moving to a huge set to an edit room, to that final stage and putting the movie out there. I’ve been an actor for a long time, and I’ll do it as long as they let me and people are willing to hire me. One, it’s enjoyable. Two, it’s a good day job. Three, it allows me to work, like I was saying earlier, with other directors and there’s just no better learning ground than that. And to get inside other directors’ processes, and think “Huh, I like how he does this or I don’t like how he does this.”

TMW: What was your most memorable moment during the making of “Win Win”?

TM: My most memorable moment. there are so many. There are just so many moments, good and bad, highs and lows. That’s a good question. I don’t know. We had a lot of fun with the wrestler scenes. I think a couple of those big ones, we have a packed gym, and they’re all kind of watching the magic. They were shooting the regionals where Kyle loses. We kind of choreographed rehearsal, and then just kind of shot the rehearsal, which we’ll do sometimes when we have a big scene because you think, “Hey, who knows, maybe we’ll get it right.” We got it pretty right. The audience’s response to that scene where Kyle throws the kid into the table, we didn’t even have to tell them; they all just went, “OOOH.” It was like it was live, it was real, and we used elements of that. It’s just a cool moment, you’re just kicking back and like, this feels right, they’re responding, we don’t even have to direct them. We had a lot of fun on those scene on those days.

TMW: You lived in Minnesota when you were just starting out in the entertainment industry. How did having Minneapolis as your stomping grounds prepare you for your foray into the film business? Can you describe your time here?

TM: It was because I came out here with a group of people mostly from the east coast. None of us came from really creative backgrounds or saw a future in any creative industry, so when we came here, we were able to sort of disassociate with our pasts and kind of reinvent ourselves. That was huge for that reason. That woman last night had an embarassing quote about something I said about this place that made me laugh, but there’s definitely truth to that. What I probably meant by that was that you used to have a lot of artists go to places like Paris. Why? So they could just completely disconnect and reinvent themselves and creatively free themselves up. It’s hard to do that when you’re in an environment where everyone defines you because they’ve known you for twenty years. There’s that weight of that. When you’re in a place where no one knows you, you’re like, “I can be whoever the hell I want.” That’s incredibly freeing. That’s why I think Minneapolis was our launching pad into most of our careers. We can do what we want, we just have to do it.

TMW: You said you modeled the protagonist, Mike, after your friend. Who in the story is most like you?
TM: No one, really. We’d take elements of each person. There’s a lot of me in Mike Flaherty, and sometimes our relationships go back and forth. Joe and I were interviewing someone one night when Joe brought up the “man strength” thing. You know, he said that line. That’s where that joke came from. He was like, “Yeah, the kid has man strength.” And I was like, “Dude, man strength?” And he was like, “Yeah, you know, not kid strength.” And I was like, “No, dude, not in public.” And we kind of laughed about that, and we kind of flopped that and gave Terry that line. So there’s a lot of trade off. But I think the important thing is the spirit of that relationship. It’s really what was personified between Joe and I and Mike and Terry. Two guys who live very different lives, approach their lives differently, have different sets of values, but at the core are very dear friends who share a sensibility that can’t quite be defined or explained. It just is, and I think Joe and I are like that.

TMW: You’ve acted in a lot of dramas, like “Michael Clayton” and “Syriana”, but you’ve also done comedic turns in the “Meet the Parents” series and “Baby Mama”. Has this in any way shaped how you put comedy and drama into your films?
TM: Yeah, I just respect actors that can pop back and forth. I respect stories and films that can hold both. I love a great drama, I love a great genre, I love anything that’s done well. But I’ve always had a special affinity for films that can kind of move you and make you laugh along the way. That share both those things. I think tonally, it’s really difficult to do. It feels closer to life for me in some ways, because that’s what our lives are like. We’re having a
shitty day and then you walk by some guy on the street, he says something to you and you just start laughing. It happens all the time in New York. I think that’s why I live there. I try to capture that in my movies.

TMW: How have you stayed optimistic when accomplishing just what you want onscreen?

TM: I haven’t had a lot of down time in the last ten years. It’s been pretty consistent work for me, since it’s self-generated. I always put a lot of pressure on myself to keep moving. There’s always something to be done. And it’s got to be about the work. Too many people waste too much time getting caught up in one thing or one project or waiting for someone else to give them permission. I’m a big believer in just keep moving things forward; it’ll find a home, you’ll find and outlet. I’ll be the first to acknowledge I’ve been very fortunate that a lot of things have come together for me in that way. But I think luck comes from hard work, quite honestly. I think I can at least say I’ve done that, I’ve worked hard. In terms of when you get to taking something to the screen and sharing your vision, you’ve just got to have fight. You have to be willing to be open minded and collaborative and communicate well, and you have to be willing to fight for what you believe in-and not everybody is. You have to do it in a way where you don’t alienate the people around you, where you don’t make enemies of people because you need those people because you need those people financially or artistically or practically. One, you’ve made your mind up, and you gotta stick with it. Be incredibly protective of your work. It’s just how to do that gracefully is the trick.

TMW: You just mentioned the East Coast. With the community aspect of your circle in New York, including Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan, how would you describe that atmosphere on set or in the creative collaboration process when your group works together?

TM: It’s very collegial. There’s a playfulness to it. We’re all pretty confident in what we do. There’s a mutual respect. I think we all look at each other like, “Hey, this is a good group of people we’re working with.” That’s a great place to nurse a sense of trust. And then it’s like, “Now let’s have fun. Let’s keep this fun.” You know? We’re not solving a world crisis here. We’re trying to tell a story, and tell it well, and we’ll all be better served if we’re enjoying that process. So try to keep it as enjoyable and light as possible, and focused. We’re all professionals, and we all know what we have to do.

TMW: What’s next for you?
TM: I’m writing a movie right now for Disney based on a true story on a contest called “The Million Dollar Arm.” And I’ve been developing something with a friend over the past three to six months, just fleshing out an idea which I think will be my next movie. But I need to get a little more information on that before I can commit to that. Every time I’m back in New York, he’s busy on a film, and we’ll steal two hours here and there. Sometimes you just gotta do that, you know? I’m just going to find two hours. We do it and we have a great time, and it feels like we’re having some sort of illicit affair. “Okay, I’ve seen enough. Hold on to the idea for me.” But we’re getting there, and it’s fun.