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Thursday, April 21, 2011 03:21 pm

Illinois Times talks to Thomas McCarthy

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Win Win director Thomas McCarthy talks over a scene with actor Clare Foley.

Chances are, though you probably don’t know his name, you recognize Thomas McCarthy when he pops up on the screen. Having key supporting roles in HBO’s The Wire and feature films such as Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, Flags of our Fathers and Meet the Fockers, among others, the actor prompts mental recognition (“Oh, that guy.”) even if his name doesn’t come readily to mind. However, McCarthy’s greatest achievements have come as a writer and director. He received an Oscar nomination as one of the co-authors of Pixar’s Up, and he’s carved out an impressive niche in the independent film scene with his movies The Station Agent and The Visitor. Though neither set box office records, they both did quite well on the art house circuit while actor Richard Jenkins scored an Oscar nomination for his performance in the latter film.

Both of these movies were successful enough for Fox Searchlight to take notice and finance his latest feature, Win Win, a heartfelt film about an attorney (Paul Giamatti) who has compromised himself for financial gain but finds a chance at redemption through his relationship with a displaced teenage boy named Kyle (Alex Shaffer). On the surface, the movie tackles many of the themes McCarthy has touched on before, namely the crippling effects of self-isolation and how salvation is attainable through simple acts of kindness. However, when I spoke to the director recently in Chicago, he took exception to this observation.

“Actually, I think this film is about people trying to find a place to land,” he said, “especially where Alex’s character Kyle is concerned. He’s looking for stability and desperately seeking a place to settle and, though Mike (Giamatti) might not realize it, he’s looking for the same thing as his life is spiraling out of control. I wouldn’t say he’s isolated himself, but circumstances and perhaps his ego have driven him to the point where he thinks he can’t be honest with his wife or himself.”

There’s a refreshing, intimate quality to McCarthy’s films and this feature is the first in which he examines a traditional marriage. Giamatti and actress Amy Ryan (The Office) give this relationship a genuine, lived-in feel, which proves invaluable as far as having the audience accept them and their problems. “I think it’s important that a film take its time so that we can get to know the characters and come to some conclusions about them. Are they good people? Are they bad? We can’t help but judge them and if the audience comes to the conclusion that they are good, then, when they make a questionable decision, it makes a greater impact.”

Mike’s decision to act as guardian for a client suffering from dementia, which will bring in an extra $1,500 a month is the act that sets into motion a series of events that yields unexpected complications and a very personal act of redemption. Other than the marriage at the center of the film, the relationship between Mike and Kyle drives the film in unexpected and rewarding directions. In keeping with his desire to create something as genuine as possible, McCarthy went out on a limb and cast Shaffer, a non-actor, in this pivotal role. “I just wasn’t getting what I wanted from the actors we saw for the role of Kyle,” recounts McCarthy. “So, we cast a wide net and we worked very hard to get lucky and it all paid off when we found Alex.” Known more for pinning opponents than emoting dramatically, Shaffer proved eager and open to proving himself on screen.

“The kid is an incredible wrestler. He went 36-0 during his last season and won his state’s wrestling championship two weeks after we wrapped the film. We had to find a way to get him to bring the intensity he shows on the mat to the screen but not overwhelm him. He had an acting coach on set and we kept the atmosphere as light as possible. Paul did a great job of generating a sense of play while we filmed and that helped a great deal.”

McCarthy’s films deal with relationships and the unintentional harm we sometimes inflict on others, as well as the sense of satisfaction that comes in simply following The Golden Rule. The latter is often easier said than done and McCarthy knows this as his characters often struggle to follow their own moral compass. He knows audiences can relate to these intimate dilemmas and if he can hook them, the experience of watching his films will be meaningful. “When audiences relate to characters, they’re willing to go on a journey with them and be able to relate to their faults as well as their triumphs. In the end, that makes watching a movie more meaningful and worthwhile, and that’s how it should be.” In following this philosophy, McCarthy provides a win-win situation for everyone who takes a chance on his films.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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