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By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Files: Tops in His Division: An Interview with Win Win Director Tom McCarthy

By Andrea Gronvall

Who says you can’t go home again? Actor/writer/director Tom McCarthy, inspired by his memories as a high school wrestler in his hometown of New Providence, New Jersey, collaborated with his close friend and former wrestling teammate Joe Tiboni, a lawyer and first-time screenwriter, to create the funny and heartwarming new indie feature Win Win.

Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a financially strapped New Providence eldercare lawyer who, needing extra cash, becomes the court-appointed guardian of one of his addled clients. When shortly afterwards the client’s teenage runaway grandson Kyle (amateur athlete Alex Shaffer in his movie debut) resurfaces, Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) invite the kid to stay with them and their two young girls, not imagining that Kyle will turn out to be the star the high school wrestling team that Mike coaches so desperately needs. Under distributor Fox Searchlight’s expert guidance, the film tripled its gross in just its second weekend of release.

Win Win has the intimate scale of the first two films McCarthy wrote and directed, The Station Agent and The Visitor, as well as the disarming intergenerational vibe of Pixar’s Up, which he co-wrote. The actors, both professional and non-pro, shine under the filmmaker’s direction; McCarthy is an accomplished actor himself, having appeared in such notable films as Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, Flags of Our Fathers, The Lovely Bones, and Fair Game.

The 45-year-old New Yorker stopped in Chicago recently to talk up his latest film; casually but smartly dressed, and radiating health, energy, and enthusiasm, he didn’t seem that far removed from his own high school days.

Andrea Gronvall: During your Q&A the other night, you said that when you were a kid you couldn’t wait to get out of New Providence.

Tom McCarthy: Yeah, most of us—no, some of us; I think Joe always wanted to go back there. I could not get far enough, and that’s just part of life and growing up, and trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do. It’s funny, because Joe Timoni, who I wrote this screenplay with, is, like the Mike Flaherty character, a lawyer and married, has two little girls, lives in New Providence. And he’s one of my oldest, best friends—I’ve known him since fourth grade, and he’s one of the only guys I really keep in touch with from that period of my life.

AG: But unlike him, you chose professions that made you kind of a nomad.

TM: I come from a big family, and three of my siblings are now married with kids–two of them live back in the town we grew up in, one lives in Minneapolis. And then I have another, older brother who’s not married and has lived in Asia for 20 years. I have been a nomad, and that’s probably why I don’t have kids yet. Probably also I hadn’t found the right woman, which I think I’ve found now.

I don’t think I could have made Win Win two or three movies ago. I had to be a little older and have more perspective to go back and see the poetry in a lifestyle that doesn’t promote poetry, that is by design very conventional and consistent, so that people can bring up kids and lead their lives, and focus on other things.

AG: Speaking of focus, in the movie both Paul Giamatti’s character Mike and Alex Shaffer’s character Kyle, are at a defining point in their lives. When you and Joe were writing, did you consciously choose wrestling as a metaphor for Mike and Kyle’s personal struggles?

TM: It wasn’t such an intellectual decision. The real seed of this venture was my calling Joe about making a wrestling movie, and then our laughing hysterically over reliving our wrestling stories. And Joe said, “You should do it. No one’s ever done it, not since Vision Quest. It’d be really cool to see your take on it.” And I said, “Why don’t you help me? I’m busy as hell, and you get this, and I’ve been telling you that you should write.” And he said okay; it was that arbitrary of a decision, in a sense.

We were having so much fun, Joe would say, “I would do this for free,” to which I replied, “Well, we kind of are. You have a law practice. I, on the other hand, am really doing it for free.” But eventually it became clear that it could be a project, and I let some of the people closest to me read it; there comes a point where you’ve got to commit, and you hopefully do that getting honest feedback. So, we had the idea, wrote the idea, sold the idea, made the idea, and one year later—we started shooting on March 15, 2010—the idea is in theatres. I’ve got to give Joe credit: he works really hard. He put his nose to the grindstone, and got it done.

AG: The Mike Flaherty character is very well articulated; it’s nice to see Giamatti in a role where he’s not playing a basket case.

TM: I’ve been hearing that consistently now, and I’m so happy because my fear with this was that both his and Amy Ryan’s performances are so seamless that it’s almost easy to overlook [their craft]. Their characters are not sensational in any way, they’re just real people.

AG: It was also really interesting how throughout the film Mike’s always fixing something. Part of that is because he’s struggling through this recession, trying to cut costs. We see the toll on him in the movie’s very first scene, where he suffers an anxiety attack when he’s running with his pal Terry (Bobby Cannavale), and so has to level with him about the stress he’s been under. Right there you clue us in that Win Win is about male friendship, because to everyone else in the movie, Flaherty presents quite a different face.

TM: Guys have a different way of communicating; I joke about that with my girlfriend a lot. She can spend five minutes with someone new, and come away with so much information. That would take me a lot longer: you know, a fishing trip. I think women are really precise sometimes, and really listen, and I think guys sometimes take a while to get there. Now, Terry and Mike have known each other for a long time, so there is that friendship—like Joe and I. But I do think there’s something about that relationship in the movie that I found really interesting, and my interactions with Joe are certainly something I drew on a lot.

AG: Well, I think you’re being a little self-deprecating when you say that you don’t necessarily pick up on information that quickly. As an actor and a director by trade you have to be highly observant to begin with, because you absorb all this stuff from all sorts of people, and you shape it into something else—which may be fiction, but at the same time, feels authentic.

TM: I would agree, but I’m not always the information gatherer on a practical level that some people are. I’d much rather just watch someone talk than ask him a million questions. Sometimes I’m in a conversation and I realize that’s all I’m doing, is watching how they express themselves, and I’m not always so concerned with content. I think that’s actually reflected in my movies, because I’m not a huge content writer, I don’t write long skeins of dialogue. It’s more about people—like you pointed out with Paul’s character, it’s what he’s not saying, it’s the face he is putting on, And he can be really convincing about it, but then you find out he’s not okay, he’s really trying to hold it together and keep up a good front, because he sees that as his job. That’s of more interest to me, on some level.

AG: I love the kids in Win Win; they’re real finds. I mean, Alex, with that face! He reminds me a little of Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. And David Thompson, who plays his wrestling teammate Stemler: he looks like a stem, like a twig. He’s perfect!

TM: You know David’s right because the first time the audience sees him in his singlet they all just start to giggle, because he’s got such a boy body, and such a concave kind of [silhouette]—as opposed to Alex, who’s also really small, but you see this sort of taut racehorse in him. You see a real athlete’s body, all 119 pounds.

AG: You cast real wrestlers and a real wrestling coach, and you and Joe were wrestlers in high school. But I’ve never watched much wrestling, so I have to ask: are wrestlers truly such a motley crew?

TM:
Yeah!

AG: These look like guys who couldn’t get into any other sport.

TM: Oh, it’s hilarious. Most of those guys, they’re all from their weights on a team, so we just got a team together. They’re all pretty tough kids—I’ve got to say, they’re all kind of weird kids—but when they’re sitting around [in a gym or locker room], they’re sort of lounging, they’re always hanging on each other. They wouldn’t do that in public; they’d be much more like guys. But in that room, they’re just so used to that physical connection, they’re like puppies, they’re hanging all over you.

AG: They’re sort of in their big lug phase.

TM: Yes, like the runts in the litter who all got stuck in one room.

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