Interview with Tom McCarthy for WIN WIN

Tom McCarthy is always drawn

Tom McCarthy is one of those actors that you know you know but, dammit, you can’t quite place him.

Maybe you’re thinking of his duplicitous Baltimore Sun journalist Scott Templeton in the fifth and final season of The Wire? Or Principal Caden in The Lovely Bones? Dr. Bob in the Meet The Parents franchise? Jeff in Fair Game, Gordon in 2012, James Bradley in Flags Of Our Fathers or Palmer Williams in Good Night, And Good Luck?
And if you’re a fan of Law & Order, you would have seen him as Donald in 2002’s The Ring, Lambert in 2003’s Bodies, and John in 2008’s Darkness.

“Yeah, that’s how memorable I am,” laughs the 45-year old, New Jersey born McCarthy. “I can pop up in one series as three different people, and there are no letters of complaint. Even the producers know, hey, this guy won’t be remembered from the last time…”

Then again, that’s pretty much what most actors dream of – anonymity. It’s what drove Robert De Niro to such great heights back in the beginning, back when celebrity culture was omnipresent, and a leading man could avoid the press if he wanted to. Back then, it was all about the work, not the fame.

McCarthy isn’t just a forgettable face who just happens to be a fine actor though. He’s a fine filmmaker too, both as a writer (working on the likes of Pixar’s Up) and as a director (helming the recent HBO hit Game Of Thrones).
Combine those two talents, and McCarthy has come up with the Peter Dinklage-led The Station Agent (2003), Richard Jenkins tackling America’s immigration laws in The Visitor (’08) and now, Paul Giamatti playing a smalltown attorney raging against the dying of his jaded life and fading practice in Win Win.

With your own films, and in some of your acting jobs, you seem to be drawn to beautiful losers. Are you working out some issues here?
THOMAS MCCARTHY: Aren’t we all [laughs]? I think everyday people are the most fascinating, and most people have struggles, quiet battles that don’t exactly make the local news. I’m certainly drawn to the little guy that you don’t really notice, because, truth is, we all have a story to tell. Whether you’re the guy who drives an articulated lorry all day, or you handle small claims, or make balloons, there are universal truths in every life.

The universal truth in Win Win seems to be, hey, it’s okay to lie a little every now and then, if your intentions are good. So, when Paul Giamatti’s Mike Flaherty becomes a guardian to an elderly client ostensibly to save him from being taken into care but also for the much-needed money, there’s a blurred line there…
Absolutely. There are blurred lines all over our lives, where we’re not being completely and utterly selfless, and just helping others all the time and never helping ourselves. It’s a decision most people face every day, in one way or another – do I buy the organic, free range or save $3 and buy the factory-produced eggs? There are many parts of our lives that are out-of-sight and therefore out-of-mind. Guilty pleasures, compromises, little white lies…

Giamatti wears these kinds of roles well – he has the hunched shoulders of a beautiful loser. He’s basically Eeyore, partly shaven, and trained how to walk just about upright…
That’s exactly who he is [laughs]. Actually, Paul is deceptively shambolic in his work, to the point where you think, well, you forget he’s acting. He just becomes this guy in front of your eyes. I think it’s because the characters he likes to play often exist below the radar, so audiences quickly forget about the artifice, and therefore don’t really think about the acting involved. Which is what every actor dreams of, of course…

You pulled together a damn fine supporting cast – fellow Wire and current Office cast member Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Bobby Cannavale, and a find in young Alex Shaffer. Find him through his wrestling success, winning the New Jersey State Wrestling Championship at 17…?
Yeah, Alex was an incredible find. His skills as a wrestler were crucial here, given that his character is pretty skilled as a wrestler, but the ability to act was more important. And Alex just held his own, beautifully, alongside all these seasoned pros. In casting, you really do look out for people who are right for the role, and Alex was perfect.

Fox Searchlight have a reputation for turning small American indie films with a black heart into box-office giants – thinking about Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno…
Yeah, Fox Searchlight have been great. They know how to market a film, and how to find the right audience. I don’t think we’ve got a Sideways on our hands here, but it’s comforting to know that Win Win is getting out there. The fact that I’m talking to a journalist in Ireland about it is a good feeling. You guys make up about fifty-percent of the European market, right?

It’s actually fifty-five-percent. Finally, you’re a fine actor too, but like all actors, sometimes, you have to take the money and run. Feel ready to apologise for Little Fockers yet?
I would never apologise for a film [laughs] – especially someone else’s. I think audiences know what they’re going to get with certain franchises, and there’s no harm in that. It was pretty standard back in the early days of cinema, when you’d have the Road To… series with Bing and Bob, or the Thin Man franchise. No one got hurt, and there were a few laughs along the way, so, what’s to apologise for…?

Words – Paul Byrne

Win Win is in cinemas from May 20th