Tom McCarthy has appeared as an actor in movies like “Duplicity” and “Baby Mama” but it is his writing and directing the acclaimed films “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor.” His new film “Win Win,” stars newcomer Alex Shaffer as a teenage wrestling champ who ends up staying with a lawyer/coach played by Paul Giamatti when his grandfather, who is in the early stages of dementia, is placed by Giamtti’s character into a nursing home. I spoke to both of them about wrestling, writing, what it feels like to be good at both, and doing whatever it takes.
I don’t know much about wrestling so I was surprised by how fast you moved.
TM: Especially the lighter weights. They are really exciting. The lighter weights it’s just wicked to watch. That match that I went to at your school – even the refs couldn’t keep up.
AS: Over 130 or 140 it’s more about strength.
One of the key moments in the film has Paul Giamatti’s character asking your character, Kyle, what it feels like to be that good at something. Kyle says it feels like being in control. Is that how it feels?
AS: For Kyle, for me it just feels good to be that good. It’s a very comforting feeling.
TM: That would have been a good answer for Kyle, too.
What makes you feel that good?
TM: I like being immersed in work. I like it when I’m in a sweet spot in the work. When I’m writing I have a ritual or a regimen and I get really lost in it, get out of my own head and follow an idea, or a story, or a character. I really like being in that space.
What was the beginning of the idea of this movie for you?
TM: I have this mental folder that I drop things into and when they feel like they’re of the same world I start to put together the movie. It certainly was the wrestling at the beginning. I called Joe [Tiboni], my co-writer, and said, “Have you ever seen a movie about high school wrestling?” We started to joke about our own bad experiences and then talked about the good ones, the world in general, how unique a world it was, looking back on it 20 years later.
And the other idea was about where we are in society, the title, “Win Win,” like “Oh, you can have a mortgage and pay nothing and a car and put no money down” and we all believed it for a while. Oh, that’s great, why wouldn’t you do that! It will cost nothing! The other idea that aligned with that thought was that we are polarized in society. The bad bankers did bad things – but those people are our neighbors. We ride the train, the bus with them. They’re not bad people; they just made some bad choices.
So wrestling with that part of our human condition – we all have that aptitude, to so surprisingly and sometimes shockingly bad things in certain scenarios. Mike is confronted with that and that I felt very interested in. It’s not enough to say, “I have a family, I have a good job, I’m a good person.” That is not an excuse or a guarantee. That I found interesting.
Alex, you went from doing something that you knew very well and were very good at to something that was completely new to you, and you were surrounded by some of the most experienced and talented actors in movies. What was that like for you?
AS: I wasn’t nervous because it was something I didn’t care about that much. Sorry, Tom! Halfways, no more like one-third of the way through, I began to think, “I really want to do good. I like this guy, I don’t want to ruin the movie for him.”
TM: I think that’s a good way to go into it! I think that’s a problem for a lot of actors who go into an audition wanting it so badly, they sabotage themselves because they’re so anxious. I think when I stopped caring about acting quite so much, when I got more involved in writing and directing, either I’m right for it or not, I started getting more jobs.
How did you like being a blonde for the filming?
AS: I was a blonde before the filming.
TM: He came to us like that!
AS: It wasn’t my idea for the movie. Our team before we wrestled Phillipsburg, not every year but when the team’s good, we want to psych them out, so that year the whole team bleached our hair blonde.
I thought it was very funny that Amy Ryan’s character Jackie called you Eminem.
TM: We got a studio note about that: “Emeneim, isn’t he a little bit past now?” I don’t think Jackie’s cutting edge! And besides, now he won the Grammy!
AS: He’s amazing! He will never be gone!
Alex, how did you help out with the wrestling scenes?
AS: Only if I noticed something off or if Tom asked me, I would give him the best advice I could.
Your character doesn’t say much about himself. We never find out the story behind his black eye, though we can guess. Did you try to make up a background for him to help you play the role?
AS: I kind of had to. If I was going to act as Kyle I had to give him a whole story, a whole thought process.
You also had to interact with Burt Young (“Rocky”), playing a man with early dementia. Did you talk with him about how to respond to what he was – and was not – doing?
AS: I’ve never talked to someone with dementia but my best friend’s grandfather had dementia. Burt did such a good job of acting that it helped me to respond to him.
How have audiences responded to the movie?
TM: It’s been really good. Just the first couple of cities we have felt the audience connecting to the characters and the world. Real audiences don’t have a filter – they let you know. They aren’t writing in a notepad.
Audiences are just audiences. It’s been really exciting to see them connect to the characters and the humor and by virtue of that to the deeper elements. Some like Kyle or Paul and Amy’s relationship or the humor with Bobby. My job is to entertain and tell the story. It was like “The Station Agent” there are two different reactions – “aw, it crushed me” or “it was hilarious.” That’s good. Both are in there.
When did you begin to think about becoming a film-maker, doing both writing and directing? Did you watch movies from writer-directors and get inspired?
TM: If I did, it was not growing up. I always loved movies but I didn’t really start to study and pay attention until I was in my late 20’s. I came to acting late. I didn’t know anyone who did it. I don’t come from that at all. And I felt, “Wow, I’m really doing this. This is my community.” And I started writing and I thought “I’m weirdly kind of good at this and don’t know why.” I didn’t know when I was writing “The Station Agent” that I would also direct it. I could see the movie, so I thought, “I’m going to direct this.” It wasn’t really pre-meditated.
You’re very good as an actor at showing two emotions at once and I noticed that there’s a lot of that in the movie.
TM: Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan are both incredibly good at that. Paul is very intellectual. A lot of actors have an emotional life that is very active. Paul also has this intellectual life simultaneously and it says a lot about who he is. The man just devours information. You can really see that in his acting. Even if he’s just eating a sandwich or reading the paper, there is so much there.
Tell me a little about what you wanted from the costume and set design.
TM: I want him to have the best gear. He can afford it. Bobby’s character updates; he wants the best, like “This is the most breathable.” Paul’s character doesn’t spend money. He wears the same sweats all the time. Bobby and I had the idea of straightening his hair. And then the headband, the way it made his hair a pom-pom – I just loved that, to see him jogging with his hair bouncing.
But Paul was that thing where we didn’t want to make him to schulmpy. We wanted “casual country doctor,” nice khakis, tweed jacket. Constantly walking that line of real without condescending, without patronizing, not just the costumes but the whole design. The basement in the house is like an explosion of pink and yellow, the weirdest things piled on top of each other – it is a little girl’s basement, and you put this little warrior burnout down there.