By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Though the multitalented Tom McCarthy, 45, made his acting debut in Mike Binder's Crossing the Bridge (1992), the nineties gave him very little follow-up work. But in the 2000s things began to happen for him, including small parts in movies like Meet the Parents (2000), The Guru (2002), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Syriana (2005), and Flags of Our Fathers (2006). However, McCarthy answered his true calling when he was able to write and direct his first film, The Station Agent (2003).
That film may have seemed on the surface a slight, indie comedy, but had subtle depth of character in addition to sharp writing, clever casting, and strong performances, and it was a modest success story. The same thing happened with McCarthy's second film, The Visitor (2008), which still serves as a model for cross-cultural Hollywood tales. An achingly good Richard Jenkins earned an Oscar nomination for his lead performance. McCarthy himself earned an Oscar nomination the following year for contributing to the screenplay of Pixar's Up (2009). Now comes McCarthy's third movie, Win Win (opening today in select theaters), which is a good deal messier, but perhaps even deeper than his previous works.
In Win Win, Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey lawyer who makes his meager living helping old folks and coaches high school wrestling in the afternoons. He lives with his wife Jackie (the wonderful Amy Ryan) and two kids, and goes jogging with his best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale). His worries include an old dead tree that may fall on his house, and an old clanky boiler that may blow up all over the basement of his office building. One of Mike's clients is the wealthy Leo (veteran character actor Burt Young), who is beginning to battle dementia. Ignoring the moral implications of his act, Mike decides to become Leo's guardian, collect a much-needed $1500 monthly check, and stick Leo in a rest home. Unfortunately, Leo's grandson, Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer) turns up. He's a sullen, monosyllabic teen with bleached hair, and also a champion wrestler.
McCarthy, in San Francisco to promote the new film, sat down with me for a chat.
Your first two movies are about the meeting of two different worlds... this one isn't quite so obvious, but I think it does fit.
TM: It's funny. When you draw parallels, it's all about the wording of the parallel. It comes down to semantics. I was doing a roundtable and a young man said to me, "I don't understand the parallel between Mike's family life and wrestling. Could you explain that to me?" And at first I said, "I don't know. I don't think there is one." And then I felt bad because I hurt his feelings. And then I said, "What I mean was if you're going to draw a parallel, it's between wrestling and Mike grappling with what's right and wrong." And he was like, "Interesting!"
I do agree that sometimes it's different worlds. All three movies fall under "the family you make" kind of thing, and maybe a little bit about community, and the clans that are formed within communities. There's something very clan-like about Mike, especially with his wife. You're not in until you're in and when you're in, I'm going to protect you with my life.
In this movie I was dealing with a man who's very involved in his life. I never had that before. I always have people who are very disconnected, either by choice or without realizing it. With Finn (Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent), it's by choice, and with Walter (in The Visitor), it just happened. I think with Mike, I think we got a guy who's connected to his family, to his friends, to his community, to his church, to his wrestling. He's probably over-connected. And within that, he's finding it really hard to re-capture what he had.
I didn't question it... like Jeffrey Tambor's character, Vigman. He's a wrestling coach, even though he has no connection to the sport at all. It just evolved that way.
TM: So much of that evolved from real life. We followed one guy, who was a psychologist. He set his hours, and then during wrestling season, between 3 and 5, you plan your day. In the scene in the movie where Mike calls for overflow work, he's clearly back at the office after wrestling practice.
I'll call [co-story writer] Joe [Tiboni] on a Saturday or a Sunday, and he's at the office. I'll call him at midnight, and "I'm at the office." He lives five minutes away, so he does that all the time. Honestly, I think part of it is his "man cave." Get out of the house with the wife and the two kids. I think we can all relate to that.
Another thing I loved about this is the fact that Mike is a wrestling coach, and here comes Kyle who is this champion wrestler. It's a huge coincidence, but there's one line, from Bobby Cannavale, that ties it altogether: "It's a sign!" That makes it okay.
TM: There's two ways to look at it. It is a sign, and it's okay to take advantage of a good situation, which is the mentality that got us into a lot of trouble. "Come on! It's right there for the taking!" It's like what Mike does with Leo. If Mike doesn't take Leo, the State's going to take him and do the exact same thing and get that money: they're going to move him into Oak Knoll. So it's like, "I'll take it off the table." The problem is that you're not supposed to do that. It gets blurry. And it makes sense that Bobby's character works in a hedge fund. He's very good at making that sell.
I have this whole thing with my money manager. DO you want to put money back into BP. Now's a good time to buy? And I'm like, "I don't think so!" I don't think much about money, and I don't particularly have a lot, but sometimes you look at a situation and it doesn't feel right. It is that simple.
How did you go about casting young Alex Shaffer?
TM: He auditioned, and he showed up looking and talking like that. We did very little to change him. Strangely enough, he injured his back after we wrapped, and now he's thinking of transitioning into acting.
He broke his back?
TM: He was wrestling with it for a while. He told me, "It was hurting a lot, and I saw a doctor finally." Most sixteen year-olds I know are like that. All those kids go through that period, where it's just kind of: [imitates Shaffer] "hey... what... huh?"
Is this a generational thing? I don't remember being like that.
TM: I don't either. But I also had parents who were very honest. They told us to "look them in the eye!" Which is why were all annoyingly articulate at this point in our lives. We can't wait to speak. My brother's wife said that to me recently, she said, "Do you wake up talking? Because he does, and it's really annoying!"
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