Actor Tom McCarthy does it all
You might not recognize the name, but you’ll certainly recognize the face of Tom McCarthy, the much-sought-after character actor whose boyishly handsome face belies his often sinister roles.
Name a crime, and there’s a good chance that one of McCarthy’s array of miscreants has committed it. Let’s see, he slept with a student while teaching on “Boston Public,” he committed treasonous acts of betrayal in “Syriana,” and most memorably, he played a Mike Barnicle-type journalist who regularly fabricated stories on “The Wire.”
“The last really decent character I played was in ‘Good Night, and Good Luck,’ then I went on a string of playing nothing but creeps,” the always jovial McCarthy said with a laugh during a recent stop in Boston.
His latest endeavor, a legal/wrestling movie titled “Win Win,” also involves moral turpitude in the form of a cash-strapped elder-law attorney nefariously raiding the pockets of a dementia patient in order to keep his own family fed. It’s a part McCarthy was born to play, except he passed it up. Not because he was interested in altering his image, but because he was too busy writing and directing the dark, but often sentimental, comedy opening Friday.
It’s the third go-round for McCarthy as a filmmaker, whose previous contributions were the critically acclaimed “The Station Agent” and the Oscar-nominated “The Visitor.” That’s a tough act even for McCarthy to follow, but if he’s feeling any pressure to top himself, he’s not showing it. In fact, you get the sense the only opinion he cares about is his own, and possibly that of his childhood friend and “Win Win” collaborator, Joe Tiboni.
“If anything, this one was more fun to write because I had Joe around and he was a good stress release because we would just laugh and talk about things,” McCarthy said. “That was really cool.”
What’s even cooler is “Win Win,” a movie that’s small in scope, as well as budget, but big with ideas about what it means to be human, especially when it comes to making bad mistakes for good reasons.
“I really wanted to have some fun with this movie,” said the 44-year-old Boston College grad. “I wanted to tell a story that had some heart and meant something. I wanted to play with the sports genre.”
But why wrestling? McCarthy said it was because he fondly remembered the days when he slipped on a singlet while growing up in a close-knit New Jersey suburb not unlike the one depicted in the film.
“I think what I was really interested in exploring was to what lengths people will go to protect their family,” McCarthy said of his protagonist, played with hang-dog wit by Paul Giamatti. “He’s not acting out of greed or desire; it’s really about trying to sustain his lifestyle. He’s a provider, and he’s driven by that.
“I think sometimes people couch their missteps, qualifying them by saying ‘I was trying to do what’s best for my family.’ So that, too, was interesting to explore, especially in these trying financial times. They can cause you to make poor choices.”
Although McCarthy will steadfastly deny it, his own choices, career-wise, have been exemplary. Whether it’s acting, writing (he also co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Up”) or directing, everything McCarthy touches seems to turn to gold. But he’s not about to rest on his lofty laurels.
“I think I still have a long way to go as a filmmaker,” McCarthy said modestly. “I think I’m just starting to understand the process. And that’s a big part of it, because once you begin to understand the process you can start to build on that, break it down, make it your own. It’s just like acting: there are lots of elements to it that over time you begin to control. This is my third film and I think I’ve made some good choices and ... I have made some mistakes, but I’ve learned from them.”
As much as he loves writing and directing, McCarthy insists that he’s not about to quit his day job.
“I love acting,” he said. “It’s just fun. Flat out fun. I get to work with a lot of talented people and watch how they work and see how they talk about their work. As a director, a lot of times you’re in your own world, same with writing.
“I was just out in L.A. and I had dinner with two very talented directors ... and it was so refreshing. There’s not that many people you can bounce ideas off, share thoughts with. We spent about a half-hour just talking about A.D.s (assistant directors) and line producers and how they relate to each other. It was just so specific, and really helpful. But acting allows me a sort of free pass.”
Acting also has allowed him to befriend heavyweights like his good pals George Clooney and Richard Jenkins, the Oscar-nominated star of “The Visitor.” That clout no doubt also played a hand in helping him land an actor as talented as Giamatti for the lead in “Win Win.”
“I didn’t write it with Paul in mind. He doesn’t need any help with his career in that way,” McCarthy said with a laugh. “But I think in the writing of it, I kept hearing his voice. We just knew he could bring a soulful quality to the character.”
McCarthy said much thought also went into casting the supporting roles ably filled by Bobby Cannavale as Giamatti’s best pal, Terry; Burt Young as the dementia patient being fleeced; and newcomer Alex Shaffer as Young’s troubled grandson, Kyle, a high school wrestling protege who cuts bait with his substance-abusing mother (Melanie Lynskey) and flees to New Providence, N.J., to reconnect with his gramps.
He also soon finds a surrogate dad in Giamatti’s Mike Flaherty, who doubles as the high school wrestling coach. The movie’s title comes from Mike reaping the benefits off both the boy’s athletic skills and his grandpa’s pension checks, a scam he works feverishly to keep from his adoring wife, played by Amy Ryan, McCarthy’s co-star on “The Wire.”
“I was tremendously proud to be a part of that show,” McCarthy said of the much-beloved HBO series. “Of all the things I’ve done, the response to that show is by far the most rabid.”
And to think, it almost didn’t happen.
“I wasn’t going to do it because when they first asked me I was editing ‘The Visitor’ and didn’t have time for both,” McCarthy said. “It literally took a call from (series creator) David Simon to convince me to do it.”
McCarthy said that during his sales pitch, Simon failed to mention that his character, Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Templeton, was a total sleaze ball.
“That’s not how I saw him at all – at first,” McCarthy said. “I didn’t get to see a script, nor was I told what direction the story was taking. David just old me I was ‘right for the role.’
“Then, as the season started to unwind, I realized, ‘Wow! I’m a scumbag.’ He really thought of me for this. What does that say about me?
“It was funny, when I flew down to Baltimore to shoot my scenes every week, I’d go to the make-up trailer and everybody was going like ‘Wooooh.” And I’d say, ‘What? What happened?’ And they were going like ‘Oh, man!’ And I’d say, ‘No, what did I do now?’ And I’m like ‘Oh, no, it keeps getting worse.’ But it was really a fun part to play simply because I was always just playing what was in front of me. David kept telling me ‘You’re not doing anything wrong. You’re just doing your job.’ And I’d be like, ‘got it.’
“He didn’t want any mustache twirling. He just wanted a guy who was a committed journalist who was committed more to his career than journalism.”
One of the hallmarks of the show was how accurately it captured both the procedures and politics that are as much a part of a daily rag as paper and ink.
“David kept having journalists come in to play secondary characters and I’d be talking on the set to a guy who I thought was an extra, and I’d say, ‘You’re the smartest extra I’ve ever met.’ And they’d say, ‘Actually, I’m a columnist for The Washington Post.’ Of course, you are. Will someone please tell me when these guys are on set.”
Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.