Interview: Actor/Director Tom McCarthy on his new film, “Win Win”

Tom McCarthy, director of Win Win, talks about casting the film, hiring a non-actor in a lead role and how he decides whether he’s going to act or direct

Win Win, directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy, is easily my favorite film of the year.

The story is touching and funny and the cast – Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Melanie Lynskey, Bobby Cannavale and newcomer Alex Shaffer – are just fantastic.

You might recognize McCarthy from Meet the Parents, The Lovely Bones and my favorite show, The Wire, but he’s also an incredibly talented director. His last two films, The Station Agent and The Visitor were in dozens of Top 10 list’s for Best Film of the year, with The Visitor giving Richard Jenkins a Best Actor nomination.

I talked with Tom about casting the film, hiring a non-actor in a lead role and how he decides whether he’s going to act or direct.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

When you’re writing, do you envision the perfect cast in your head?

Tom McCarthy: Yeah. Usually about the time I’m writing, I have a very good idea of the cast. There’s also those roles, I purposely don’t decide on, like Burt Young and Melanie Lynskey and Margo Martindale and even Jeffrey Tambor are kinda roles where, “I don’t know yet.” Or I had someone in mind that wasn’t available maybe or just someone in mind I thought, “Ah, I’m kinda writing for that person but we’ll see.” So I enjoy both parts. I enjoy writing with specific characters in mind, especially many of the central characters; Paul, Amy and Bobby. Then of course I knew there’s gonna be a big job in finding Alex Shaffer.

Where you nervous about casting a non-actor?

Tom McCarthy: Yeah. I think everybody was. I know the studio was. It’s a scary thing. Paul and Bobby, they were like, “Dude, sure about this kid?” Like, “I don’t know, he’s never done it before. What do you think?” But it came quickly apparently that the kid was connecting with the role in a really natural way. He had a quiet confidence to his approach to it and I think that made us all rest a little bit easier. And I was checking with my editor, who’s constantly working as soon as we start shooting the movie, he’s putting stuff together. Specifically, I’ll say keep an eye on certain performances. Well, that is the performance we’re keeping eye on. He said, “Yeah, I think it’s working. It’s interesting but it’s working.”

Where did you start with him? Was there any acting coaching going on?

Tom McCarthy: Yeah, I mean, like, look we had the kid in probably 6 or 7 times. Really put him to the mill. And credit to his parents who kept driving him in from New Jersey. But I also have a collaborator, Jackie Brogan, who’s a woman who’s a dear friend of mine, has worked on the last two movies with me, I’ve known her for 25 years, we went to college together. She’s an acting coach in New York and she started working really closely with him. And her would I communicate daily about his progress and where we needed to push him and where he needs to get him to, knowing that we couldn’t rush it. It was a process. We can’t expect results from a non-actor overnight, We pushed some of the more difficult scenes till the end of the shoot.

What is it about films about humanity that appeal to you?

Tom McCarthy: I just find it very compelling. I think when you go back and you look at the great writers of any time, I’m far from a great writer, but we all aspire to be and reach for those heights, they’re men who really – and women – who really took the time to investigate the nuance of, and explore the nuance of human nature. And how wonderfully unpredictable it can be and inconsistent and exciting, even when it, on the surface appears to be ordinary. And that is always very compelling to me.

How is it that your films are successful? What do you do right?

Tom McCarthy: [laughs] I work with a lot of very good people. I’m very good at picking teammates. It’s come down to that. It’s a collaborative effort. I have a good team, we’ve worked on all 3 films together, there’s a shorthand, there’s a trust. I push the hell out of my team, I really work them hard. I demand the most of them. If I feel like they’re slacking off, I’ll be the first to tell them. We only get so many shots at these movies and I think these movies, for everyone involved, have a positive effect on our careers in some way, and I think one thing we don’t get is rich making these movies. But there’s a lot of other benefits. And I think, probably first and foremost is there’s a tremendous pride in doing good work and I think we’re all striving for that on every movie.

The casting on your films I think perfect. How hard is it for you to assemble a cast?

Tom McCarthy: I don’t know if hard is the right word. I think it is tricky work and I think it is difficult, but I enjoy it so much.

Even like the smaller characters.

Tom McCarthy: Yeah. Well, I think that’s was so important because you can put together a great ensemble and your lead characters could be really solid, but if you’re suddenly in a scene and Mike’s secretary doesn’t ring true, then you go get this young actress Nina Arianda who you might not know yet but you’re about to know. She’ll be sitting where I am in the next year. She’s done 4 movies and she’s starring in Broadway right now in a new play. But terrific young actress and she came in and killed the role. And I didn’t see Shelly as that hot of an assistant to be quite honest, I was like, “Well this is a new spin on Shelly.”

Amy Ryan was great too. She had that push-pull personality that worked with everybody and the story.

Tom McCarthy: Yeah, I just knew she was gonna connect with this to be quite honest. That character reminds me a lot of the women in my life; mother, sister, Jo’s wife a little bit – Joe Tiboni who developed the story with me – and some of the other women in my life who can be really strong, really opinionated, really sort of spontaneously direct but have an incredible heart and a capacity for family and for an extended family and are very loyal. So, I really enjoyed writing that character and just had a feeling that Amy would connect with it and she did.

You got a lot of comedy in the movie, also, especially with Amy, but a lot of really strong dramatic moments. Is it hard to balance that?

Tom McCarthy: It’s certainly a concern. It’s certainly something I think about a lot. Especially in this movie, I really want the audience to have fun. I wanna reach a wider audience and comedy’s one way of doing that. I wanted the story to sneak up and hit ‘em a little bit and I’ve had that response a lot from people, “I was laughing so hard and I’ve kind of teared up a little bit is that ok?” I’m like, “That’s great.”

I think comedy is great way of a pulling an audience in, gaining their confidence, their trust, making them care about these characters. Especially if the characters aren’t just comical characters, but their comedy is coming from a place of real need and vulnerability and I think that’s what you’re seeing a lot on this one.

You write, you act and direct. How do you decide which you’re gonna do at any point? How far ahead is your schedule booked?

Tom McCarthy: It always feels like I have something to do. It doesn’t mean I always have something lined up. I don’t like the line-up movies. You know, with acting sometimes and I have to blackout dates or whatever but when I’m not, I’m just in a constant state of thinking about what’s next, creating something. I enjoy it. I like being in that early stage of spending time with ideas and getting to know them and sort of vetting them in my own way…and going away. I have an idea I’ve been developing for the last 4 or 5 months with another writer, we’re just talking about it blah, blah, blah and getting away and this press junket, it gives me a little bit of space. And I’ll go back, “Ah, I still like that” or “ehhh.” You know? And we’ll think about it.

I’m writing something for Disney now too in the last two or three, it’s been impossible to write with the movie opening and this real press surge. But I did a lot of work on it before this and I’ll pick it up where I left off and I look forward to that too. So, there was a few things happening in the hopper. Of course, I have an acting agent out there who keeps trying to push me into the jobs, I’m like, “Can’t do it yet, can’t do it yet.” But I look forward to doing that when this all dies down a bit.

How did you choose your acting roles then?

Tom McCarthy: There’s a lot of variable based on that. Sometimes it’s money. I’m just like, “Ah, I’m making a pay check here.” Usually it’s a good project, a good script or a good director. One of those two things that really detracts me or just a role I haven’t done before. So role, script, director. And sometimes there’s that other interest of just working with a great director, being on another set. I like being on sets now, knowing what I know. It’s like I speak a different language having done this 3 times, I’m starting to really understand it. And with that in mind, on set you learn a lot, you pick up a lot. That can mean sitting there and talking to the sound guy for an hour. “What do you use booms instead of lav’s?” “How do you do this?” “Why are you doing this?” “What don’t you like about this job?”. You get to hear all of this. When you’re the director, everyone’s not gonna give you a straight answer because you’re kinda the boss, you’re like, “How you doin’ today?”, “Great sir, how you doin?” Occasionally with me they’ll open up ‘cause I work a lot with these guys but it is a chance to really work in the kitchen and really learn what’s going on out there.

And as a director on set, do you ever do your own re-writes and say, “Oh this doesn’t really work here”?

Tom McCarthy: Yeah, of course, yeah. Sometimes, I have to do that. Sometimes when you get to the location something’s not working, a scene’s not working, I’ve done that certainly. And it’s hard, because then you really got pressure on you. Things are being set up and I’m like give me a room… I’ll literally have a table and a chair set up in a room where we’re at and no one bother me for half hour and don’t knock unless you have to and let me just focus on this. And sometimes I’ll just pull the actors in, I’ll pull one of my producers in and say just here this out with me and say, “Just hear this out with me.” You’re moving fast. What you do is gonna be what it is, you gotta kinda be fearless in the approach but understand that you’ve got to make it work.

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