Spinning Platters Interview: Tom McCarthy on “Win Win”

by Jason LeRoy on March 25, 2011

Tom McCarthy directing Paul Giamatti on the set of WIN WIN. © 2011 - Fox Searchlight

As an actor, Tom McCarthy is that guy you know you’ve seen somewhere. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but he was definitely a cop/lawyer/scientist/reporter in something. And in his 20 years as a screen actor, McCarthy has indeed worked with an impressive roster of directors, including George Clooney (Good Night and Good Luck), Peter Jackson (The Lovely Bones), and Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers). He also had key arcs on acclaimed TV series Boston Public and, perhaps most notably, the final season of The Wire. But it is McCarthy’s work as a writer and director which has earned him the greatest praise.

After breaking out with the 2003 Sundance favorite The Station Agent, in which Michelle Williams took one of her first major steps toward becoming the indie queen she is today, McCarthy directed the celebrated drama The Visitor, which scored an Oscar nomination for lead actor Richard Jenkins. And now, after receiving his own Oscar nomination for co-writing Up, McCarthy is back with the highly anticipated Win Win, the crowd-pleasing tale of a down-on-his-luck high school wrestling coach (Paul Giamatti) who unwittingly discovers a talented young wrestler (newcomer Alex Shaffer) while engaged in some shady business dealings. McCarthy recently sat down with Spinning Platters to discuss the plight of wrestling in New Jersey, how he nearly turned down The Wire, and the creative liberation of costarring in 2012.

So, why make a movie about high school wrestling set in New Jersey?

Nothing says “big box office” like Jersey and high school wrestling, I think we can all agree on that. It’s also a very romantic place to shoot a movie, you know, high schools in the greater Tri-State area. [laughs] I actually grew up in the town where the film takes place, and I was a high school wrestler. So it started more as a joke, like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be funny to make a movie about this?” But then I started to think, “Am I really gonna spend two years making this, then a year talking about it?” Even though I grew up there and had a good upbringing, I couldn’t wait to get out and never go back. So there was something perversely challenging about going back there to make a movie that would actually be compelling to watch. That was enough of a hook for me.

Win Win has some of the DNA of an underdog sports movie, but it doesn’t end with a climactic wrestling match. Was there the temptation to write it that way?

We did early on, and it kept haunting us, because the big wrestling match would have happened in Atlantic City where the state finals are, and I thought visually that would be really cool. As a writer, I kept trying to get it there. I literally wrote hundreds of pages on how to get it there, but it just never worked. It’s just not what the story is about. Every time I’d go there, it just didn’t seem honest for the emotional life of the characters. For me, [the scene toward the end of the film] when Mike [Giamatti] pulls into his driveway and sees his kids playing on the front lawn and connecting with each other, that’s the win. That’s what we all want, whether we have kids or not. You all want your kids to be safe in your community. I mean, we’re all gonna be fucked up and do our things, but if we can just let the kids enjoy their first 15 years without that, we might actually come up with some decent leaders. [pause] That got dark. [laughs]

Kyle [Shaffer] is such a strange and unique character, physically [tattooed, bleach-blond] and otherwise. Did you have a clear vision of him from the beginning?

It came out over time. Joe [Tiboni, who co-wrote the story with McCarthy] and I were like, “If we’re gonna do this, let’s do this.” So we started going to all these high school wrestling matches. We started with the early practices, then on through the tournaments, then districts, regionals, states. And you start locking in on certain kids, like, “Look at that dude, he’s bad-ass!” A lot of the kids were tatted, which is just cool, because they’re like 15 and from nice suburbs, and here they are, just going for it. And at states, we saw a bunch of kids with dyed hair, just circling each other like gladiators.

But beyond that, I didn’t want this kid to look like an athlete, and Alex doesn’t. If he walked in here, you would never guess that he’s literally a world-class athlete. Three of the kids he beat when he won State last year all won state titles this year, and two of them are ranked among the top five in the nation. And he beat them — handily. The sad thing is that he can’t wrestle now because he broke a bone in his back, but he’s gotten totally hooked on acting. It’s been really neat to witness his world opening up, because he is such a sweet kid. I mean, I stopped wrestling because all the wrestlers I knew were blockheads. I just didn’t like them. So it’s great to see a kid who can be such a great athlete but also have such great dimension. But I like that when the audience sees him, they don’t see athlete. He looks and acts like a surfer burnout.

Wrestling is a blue-collar sport, plain and simple. It has a different vibe than soccer of basketball. You’re watching your son go out there and hopefully beat the shit out of another kid. And I think there’s a reason a lot of the kids come from certain backgrounds. Tougher communities turn out tougher athletes. And the character of Kyle comes from that. Here he is in this soft upper-middle class community looking around at all these other kids, and he’s got a lot to draw on personally and emotionally. There’s an anger there, and it’s every bit as important as the moves.

How do you find time for screenwriting while also working regularly as an actor?

Screenwriting actually works very well with acting. I started to write Win Win very seriously when I was filming 2012 up in Vancouver. Because it’s a huge movie, and I had a lot of free time.

It was too bad about your character’s demise.

Unbelievable! It was unbelievable how quickly the family moved on! He was dead, and now they were all just so happy together? When I finally saw the movie, I was like, “What the fuck? Emmerich!” [laughs] So there I am on a massive-budget movie, staying in a beautiful apartment, with a trailer bigger than my New York apartment, and it was just really conducive to writing. What else am I gonna do in Vancouver? You’re shooting half a scene a day. So I had a lot of time to write. Joe visited me on set and we banged out an outline. But then, when I lock into a movie and really get serious about making it, the acting has to go away. My agent will be like, “Let’s get one more job in!” And I’m like, “No, I’m done. We have to be done.” But I love doing it, and I’ll always do it. Simply put, it’s a great job. Great money. You got to great places, work with great people… I’ve learned a lot about filmmaking as an actor on other directors’ sets.

Not only was Alex a minor, but he was also a first-time actor. What was it like directing him, particularly in the scene where he becomes physically aggressive with his mother (played by Melanie Lynskey)?

Alex was a great kid and great to work with, but it was just a lot for him. We were lucky because he was generally so unflappable. But he’s a teenager, so he’d do teenager things like just space out. You’d say, “What are you doing?” And he’d be like, “Huh? What?”

The Melanie scene was especially difficult for him. It was a late night, we filmed it in a tight cut. I think emotionally it was hard to get him there. The idea of physically attacking a woman… something in the kid’s DNA wouldn’t allow him to do that. Melanie was telling him, “You gotta do it, it’s okay.” I almost wish I could have pushed that scene a week or two later in the process. Eventually he got there, but it was like breaking him down to get there. It was hard as a director, seeing this young man struggling with something, not quite understanding that it’s just acting. And then Melanie, as an actress, was putting herself through it take after take. And it’s like, Ugggggghhhh. Some directors, Kubrick for example, like doing 50 takes and breaking actors down. But I’m not a fan of that. I don’t believe it’s necessary. For a man who could make such great movies… it’s his call, I’ll leave it at that. [laughs]

How did you cast Alex? Also, Melanie seemed like an unlikely choice for this role. What drew you to her?

Alex came from a good old-fashioned casting call. We put out a notice for actors 125 pounds and under, and only wrestlers need apply. I didn’t want to see actors who said they could learn wrestling. As for Melanie, I’d had someone else in mind when I finished the script. But she wasn’t available, and my agent suggested Melanie. I wasn’t sure she was right at first, but then I saw The Informant and thought, wow, this is a really good actress. Then I saw her in a few other things, like Up in the Air, and started to realize what a chameleon she is. And then she put herself on tape and sent it to me, and that was really smart, because she just killed it. I’d been reading other actresses, but she won it.

What I liked is that she brought a sense of otherness to it automatically, just based on where she’s from [Lynksey was born in New Zealand]. And I liked that she wasn’t exactly what you’d expect to see from this kind of role [a recovering junkie]. Maybe you’d be expecting something more like what Melissa Leo portrays so well, but I didn’t want to put the blame there visually. I wanted it to be someone who still plays on her sexuality, someone who’s confused, vulnerable, open. Someone young, so you’d know she’d had Kyle at a younger age. I really wanted to surprise and challenge the audience with this character, and Melanie brings so much nuance to it.

I have to ask you about your experience on The Wire. What are your recollections of it? Did you feel any pressure joining the final season of such a beloved show as a new character?

It was a no-brainer, that job. But I almost didn’t do it. That was almost the job I turned down. You know how you always hear actors saying something like, “Oh, I turned down Star Wars!” And I think The Wire was like the Star Wars of television. It was revolutionary and left an indelible mark. I was finishing The Visitor when I was first offered the role, and it’s hard to think about anything else when you’re finishing a movie. I’d auditioned four years earlier for a role when I was only acting, but then The Station Agent happened, and now things were different. So I went back and forth with them, and eventually [series creator] David Simon called me himself and said, “How can I talk you into doing this, other than I wrote it and I think you’d be great in it?” And that was enough. [laughs] It’s like, “Alright, the Pope called, so we’re gonna do this.” And looking back, I’m like, “What an idiot.” I can’t believe I was so torn.

But my gut was right, because the next three months were hell. I was still finishing The Visitor while traveling back and forth to film in Baltimore, and I didn’t feel so lucky at the time. My relationship fell apart, and I got to the point where I was just telling myself, “I know there are good things…” [laughs] But once I was finished with The Visitor and could just be an actor, doing The Wire was so enjoyable. Snapping into the show was like plug-and-play. There was no pressure whatsoever, because they had such a smooth machine. It was David’s show, period. That’s what made it so good. It was a singular vision, and he had full reign over everything. You’d just go and say these amazing words, and the rest took care of itself. It was a great experience.

Between acting, writing, and directing, which job would you choose to do if you could only pick one?

If someone put a gun to my head, I’d pick writer/director. But no one’s going to do that. They’ll just stop hiring me, probably, which could happen. I’ve had to pass up a few acting opportunities because of writing and directing, and that’s too bad, because I don’t get that many offers. But they all work really well together. Acting gives me a mental break from writing and directing. And I’d rather sustain a career than burn myself out.

Win Win opens in Bay Area theaters today.

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