Interview Thomas McCarthy

Actor-director Tom McCarthy chats to us about his second feature film ‘The Visitor’.

It sounds like a horror film, I say to Tom McCarthy as he visits Dublin for the release of his new film ‘The Visitor’. Laughing he concedes the point. Fortunately, ‘The Visitor’ is no run of the mill horror; indeed it’s not even horror. Instead we watch the deeply personable tale of Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a widowed college professor who finds a path to renew his soul through the unexpected relationships he forms with several illegal immigrants. Here, we chat to the equally personable actor-director Tom McCarthy (from films such as Syriana, Good Night, And Good Luck, Meet the Parents) about the film.

Q: Why did you decide to follow your
first feature ‘The Station Agent’ with ‘The Visitor’?

I don’t
know actually, that’s a good question. I knew I wanted to write my next
project. So, I started putting together pieces and characters and it slowly
developed into a storyline- including the immigration angle, which came a bit
later in the process. And it fit together; I felt tonally and thematically it’s
similar to ‘The Station Agent’ but than structurally it was more challenging.
It picked up where I left off as a writer-director and also pushed me forward in a
new direction. That felt like where I wanted to be at this stage in my career.


Q: The two storylines are distinct in
many ways. Is this a story of immigration or more a character driven narrative?

I think it
was a question of marrying the storylines. I stumbled into the immigration
storyline but when it came to me it was very organic. In fact, it was difficult
for me to avoid it; it would be almost irresponsible to avoid the subject.  I was very conscious of not letting it
overwhelm the story and that was difficult because there is so much information
that goes with it. So it was a balancing act with those two tracks so to
speak.  Then, at a certain point, it
started resonating with me…


Q: How

Well, you start to realise, there
are places in the world were terrible things are happening but, at the same
time, life goes on during these times. People fall in love, people fall out of
love, people form friendships and I think these periods of are important for self-discovery. That’s what I found interesting to explore in ‘The


Q: You say you stumbled on the
immigration storyline; how did that come about?

I read
about the detention centres and for about a year I visited one centre in Queens. Let me tell you, my first visit was as eye opening for me as it was for Walter…


Q: Given
their sensitive nature, was there a lot of red tape getting into these places?

No, not
really. I read about an organisation that you could sign up to as a social
worker for the detainees. It was kind of like a bedside chat. Much of the
immigration story is based on an amalgam of different conversations I had when
I visited.  I often heard 
people saying  “ there are no terrorists
in here” and “I don’t understand”. It was just that sense of frustration at the
lack of respect that I wanted to convey.  

Q: I read elsewhere you tend to do
casting and writing at the same time, what’s your process there.

I think it might be because I’m an actor
myself. I believe a lot in the specificity of a voice.  So when I’m writing I’m very aware of who
I’m writing for. For Walter I definitely had Richard in mind. I’d never worked
with him but I arranged a dinner to discuss it.  Before we had sat down he was high on my list and after that he
was my list. I also think I’m starting to believe in my own process more and
more.  I tend to go to an actor with a
strong draft I believe in, sign them, lock them in and that’s when I start
writing, writing, rewriting and writing again.


Q: Where
you ever nervous about casting Richard in a lead role?

No, there
was never a moment in my mind. He’s just great actor. One thing good and bad
actors alike know is good acting.  Every
actor friend I talked to just agreed Richard was a great call. I think its
imperative in projects like this to work with people you are interested in and
want to work with.


Q: Did
you ever consider casting yourself in the film?

To be
honest, there really wasn’t a part for me in this project. But
generally, I don’t really see the need; so few directors do it well. I think
Cassavetes is an example of how to do it, but at the same time, you have to say to yourself “to what end?”

Q: Where
did you think you are in your career?

I think I’m
still trying to establish myself in everything I do. I have a good foothold in
all my areas – acting, directing and writing but at the same time, I’m still


Q:  Are you recognised much?

More and
more, just because I’m starting to work on bigger projects. I get a lot of “do
you go to Boston University” or “do you work for dell?” Honestly I
quite like that. It can be easier when research for a film; not to be impeded by a
sense of celebrity.


Q: Would
you consider directing a blockbuster?

At the moment
I’m interested in stories I feel connected to. With smaller budgets, you have a
freer reign- for better or worse. With both films I’ve directed I got to tell the
story I was interested and work with actors I wanted to. I feel lucky to have
gotten that opportunity – directing, after all, is a very expensive learning
experience. Would I consider directing on a bigger scale? Sure, many directors
start off on smaller more personal scale and expand. Look at Ang Lee. His first
two or three movies were relatively small, he stepped it up with Ice Storm,
went temporarily insane with the Hulk and after that produced ‘Brokeback
Mountain’, you don’t get more personal than that.


You’re signed on to Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lovely Bones’. When are you doing

I’ve done
my part. It was very brief for me. It was just two weeks; it’s a small role I
probably wouldn’t have done, but for the fact it’s Peter Jackson and this was a
great chance to see how he works on set.  He’s such a bright and intense man to work with.


Q:  And you were recently confirmed for Roland
Emmerich’s ‘2012’; what can you tell us about the film?

Wow I
didn’t know that was announced yet (laughs). Yeah, it’s starting in September.
It’s a great part, its one of seven leading roles in the film with some
spectacular talent. Again, I’ve never done a big movie like this before; it’ll
be a cool new acting experience for me. It promises to be all the things you
expect from a Roland Emmerich film.


Q: So
CGI and more CGI?

You bet!


Q: How
long will you be shooting on that?

A while – long enough that my dog is coming
with me to Canada.

The Visitor is in Irish cinemas now.