Actor-writer-director Tom McCarthy (who played the ambitious young reporter on The Wire), took some time after his last film, The Station Agent, to travel in the Mideast with the film–sponsored by the U.S. State Dept. Inspired by some of the people he met in Beirut and Oman, he started writing a script with two main characters, a closed-down professor and a Syrian illegal alien who plays African drums. “I leave time for writing to develop organically,” McCarthy says. “I start with characters first, who I haven’t seen before.”
Needless to say the quiet immigration drama The Visitor, which is ripped from headlines but is far from a strident message movie, is an actors’ piece. Indies Participant and Groundswell funded the film.
From the start McCarthy wanted character actor Richard Jenkins (the father in Six Feet Under and North Country) to disappear into the role of average American Walter Vale, “instead of finding a glamorous movie star and saying, ‘I want you to be really average,'” says McCarthy. “He’s everyman. He has the right spirit. He has such range as an actor, from intense dramas to broad comedy. A lot of people recognize him but can’t always place him.”
During his time in the Middle East, McCarthy discovered Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass in the films Satin Rouge, Syrian Bride and Paradise Now. He did an all-out casting search for Tarek the drummer and his Senegalese wife. Now living in Los Angeles, Haaz Sleiman is Lebanese and had an “openness and vulnerability and generosity that rang true,” says McCarthy. He also felt that actress Danai Gurira was right as his guarded and angry wife.
The four actors rehearsed for two weeks to “fine tune the script and settle into the skin of the characters,” says McCarthy.
The audience begins to root for Walter to open up over the course of the movie. We like him, and get caught up in the lives of the two emigres who are living in his vacant New York apartment. Abbass plays Tarek’s mother who arrives on the scene after her son is arrested and placed in detention. She and Walter start a romance of sorts, although gratifying the viewer is not what McCarthy is after here.
When Walter exploded at in a key scene near the end of the shoot, a key grip came up to McCarthy and said, “Now I get it.”
“I try to give the audience an emotional reality,” says McCarthy, “so that everyone can realize there’s a lot of truth to that. I wonder if there is a place for movies like this?” Overture, which picked up the film in Toronto last fall–sending a message of interest in quality smart-films for adults– will soon find out.
And here’s an exclusive clip from the film, a scene in a detention center between Walter and Tarek:
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]