Sunday, April 20, 2008

Tom McCarthy on The Visitor

Tom McCarthy may be one of your favorite actors and you don’t realize it. Take a look at his credits – Syriana, Flags of Our Fathers, Good Night and Good Luck, the reporter from season five of The Wire – and a sense of recognition awakens.
Then McCarthy blindsides you by also being the writer-director of The Station Agent and now The Visitor. The Station Agent (well reviewed in 2003) showed that McCarthy understands pacing and character and the film boosted the career of Peter Dinklage playing the moody lead character. For The Visitor McCarthy took another veteran supporting actor, one that everyone would remember, Richard Jenkins, and put him up front, playing a moody New England professor who befriends a Syrian man about to be deported.
Jenkins plays Walter Vale. “He’s worldly, a guy who’s derailed in life,” McCarthy tells FPH in a phone interview. “He makes no apologies and is a tough teacher.”
Vale’s such a prig he nearly makes one student cry and you begin to feel a kind of hatred for his character no matter what the cause of his pessimism. When Vale has to go to New York City to deliver a paper a series of events team him up with an immigrant couple. Given his previous behavior you expect Vale to have a glass of wine and forget about them, but a spark of humanity can be seen flickering in his heart. The glow of The Visitor shows people becoming true friends in a place away from borders. McCarthy spent time in the Middle East (Lebanon in particular) and researched the ramped up immigration policies in place since the end of 2001.
Vale tries to help the couple find an apartment when Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) gets picked up by INS. At this point Vale makes it a kind of mission to get Tarek a lawyer and deal with his detention. Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) shows up out of the blue and the sub-text seems to suggest that Vale might emerge from his self-imposed isolation.
McCarthy was clear to the actors on “understanding the boundaries,” between Vale and Mouna and their relation grows stronger even as Tarek’s case looks bleaker.
“Being a character actor is hard work,” notes McCarthy about Jenkins an actor who has constant credits in television and film going back to the 70s. Yes, trained actors know how to properly hit their cues but as McCarthy points out “they command respect from other actors.”
For McCarthy the process of writing is “creating the tempo on the page.” Then when shooting McCarthy intuitively knew when to “play out the scene in a two-shot.” Partially shot in New York the film captures a drum circle in Central Park that plays into the story. Like the beat that Vale and Tarek pound on the djembe, The Visitor moves at its own tempo.

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