So why did it get made?
Because Fox Searchlight had faith in actor-turned-writer-director Tom McCarthy on the basis of his first two films, The Station Agent and The Visitor. They were right. While his actors admit that he’s tough on them, McCarthy pulled superb performances from a top-flight ensemble led by Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan as a New Jersey couple trying to cope with financial stress and the arrival of a teenager on their doorstep (star wrestler Alex Shaffer) whose mom (Melanie Lynskey) eventually turns up fresh out of drug rehab. A hit at Sundance and SXSW, this movie is a must-see.
Here’s the Q & A that I did with McCarthy and Jeffrey “Stephen Vigman” Tambor.
So Tom, the wrestling comes from real life? You started back in New Jersey and got your high school wrestling bud, Joe Tiboni, to help you write this?
McCarthy: Yeah, I used to be a wrestler, as you can probably tell, and I had an old friend who I used to wrestle with on The Pioneers, the team you see depicted in the movie. And I called my old friend and we started laughing about our days on the wrestling team and by the end of the conversation I just thought, I hadn’t seen it depicted really since Vision Quest, even though other movies touched on it gently, I thought Vision Quest was the one movie that really embraced it. So we decided to attack that, and I asked my friend to come on board and develop the story with me.
And he is a family man who still lives in your home town. Was he the model for Paul Giamatti’s character?
McCarthy: Yeah, a little bit. It started out as ‘Hey, let’s write this funny movie about wrestling’ and then as I started to work with him and I set it in New Providence, and Joe Tiboni, who was credited with the story with me, is actually is an elder law attorney, he is married with two children. He does have an office that looks like that and a house that look a lot like that, and there was a point in the development, I was writing and he was watching me and he was like, ‘This is getting kinda weird right?’ And I was like, ‘No, no, this is totally natural, this is how it happens.’ Then we laughed about it, but there was a funny quality about it, where we were kind of cherry picking from his life, although this character doesn’t really represent him in any particular way.
How did you work out, with the characters played by Jeffrey, Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent), and Paul, this wrestling coach trio which functions as light relief? It was necessary to leaven some of the serious stuff, right?
McCarthy: When I had the idea of these three guys coaching, I think Joe and I drew a lot from our relationship for Mike and Terry, and then I had a wrestling coach that reminded me a lot of Jeffrey, and so we knew when we had those three actors that there was going to be fun.
Tambor: One reason nice people are saying nice things about the three of us, as well as the film: this director lets things go. You can tell in the editing, where a lot of people would cut and clean it up, he has the taste to let it go and see what will happen. And I find that remarkable. When I saw the film I just thought, ‘Oh my god, he just lets it go beyond that moment, and that is so, so great.’ I was just blown away by it.
Are you talking about improvising?
Tambor: Well that too, he lets that happen on the set, and he’s a wonderful actor himself and he knows what actors do, and so he would let us go, he would reign us back, but I’m talking about the actual editing where he lets it go past that moment where people would say “cut that” — he lets it go and he always gets that smile or that little tick or that little piece of behavior. There’s this image in the film that stays with me, where Paul is smoking, you know, he goes outside, that first time he has a cigarette, that we all hope we’re not going to have, and then he finally does that and then he does it again, and I just find that image so incredible in this film, it just to me is how serious – as funny as this film is – how serious this writer and this director are about the state that we’re in, and I find that great. [Aside] So can I be in all your films now?
You and Paul Giamatti met at Yale Drama School and have been friends ever since. Was it weird to finally work together?
McCarthy: I’m sure a lot of people in whatever capacity when they start working with their friends — there’s always that nano-second of “Can we do this?” –for Paul and I it was very effortless in many ways. Most great actors I know like to be directed, they do, because it takes the onus off them. Suddenly they can just be present in this scene and if they get too far off they know someone is going to guide them back to the storyline. But I think they enjoy that, and I’m not a very hands-on director. I tend to lay back and let an actor do his thing.
I hear you’re pretty tough. Tell me Jeffrey, is he demanding? Does he ask a lot of his actors?
Tambor: No, I don’t think so. I mean, he knows what’s bullshit, he knows, ‘ok, we did that on one leg,’ you know, because he’s an actor, but no, he doesn’t. Bobby and I had a fight one day and that was the only thing, he called us over to the video screen and said, ‘What are you guys fighting about, you’re bigger than this?!’ And I still can’t remember what the argument was about.
McCarthy: OK, that was fascinating, because we’re shooting a scene in a high school about two characters who didn’t get along and they started to not get along and I could tell and I was like ‘what are you guys doing?’ I said, ‘Bobby, come over here,’ and Bobby came over, and I said, ‘Jeffrey, come over here,’ and Jeffrey goes [makes a face, audience laughs] and I was like “Jeffrey, come over here” and all the high school kids are like “Oh my god, Jeffrey’s in trouble.” It was total high school. And then he came over and we laughed it off.
But you know, I think if Paul said I was tough, it was because all the actors I work with are so committed that they’ll just commit to a text. The kind of actor I never want to work with is the actor who looks at something and goes, ‘Oh, I’m going to do it this way,’ without trying it. Because that to me, is just a chicken shit actor who has to do it his way or it doesn’t work. What I like is an actor who totally commits and then we’ll all know if it doesn’t work. And I’ll be the first to say, ‘my writing is not holding up,’ or ‘how you’re approaching it isn’t holding up.’
But these guys would all commit, and Paul and Amy and Bobby and Jeffrey, I would demand that if it wasn’t working on some level, if they weren’t connecting, don’t just make it up, don’t make it work — because you’re all good enough to do that — let me know, and let me come up with a suggestion. So it was a little bit like homework, so maybe in that way I was challenging them a little bit, but noting beyond what you would expect from an intelligent collaborator.
So back to the cigarette. We like Paul Giamatti’s character, even though he makes a big mistake. And that’s what’s great about this movie. He really messes up, and yet you carry it all the way through and you care about him.
Tambor: He’s us. That’s what’s so cool. They’re all us. There’s a line in this film that I just love, where Amy says, ‘Hey, Kyle, Um, I just want to say one thing,’ and she’s going down the stairs or up the stairs, and she goes ‘We love you.’ And it’s delivered so — there’s no other actress that can deliver the line that way and in that context, and that’s a dangerous line, a real dangerous line. But this director has a sensibility for human beings and that actress, who is so great, she just delivers it flatline, like New Jersey, and you just say, ‘That’s my family, that’s me!’
How did you find the kid, Alex Shaffer, the non-pro, real wrestler?
McCarthy: I made a call early on, I love sports and I hate when I see sports movies and I know the guy doesn’t know how to dribble a basketball or throw a football or throw a baseball — it just drives me crazy. It takes me out of the movie and so I made maybe a naive call that I would start with a wrestler and make him an actor and we saw a lot of wrestlers and we realize most high school wrestlers aren’t actors, and you realize why actors are so great.
But this kid walked in who connected with it in a really subtle way, and it wasn’t immediate, it wasn’t like, find an actor at the five and dime store, it was he kind of got it, he was really unique and he had that hair, he came to us with that hair. His whole team died his hair that color. As he said, he goes “yeah, we were trying to psych out this other team.” And so I was like, ‘so you all died your hair?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah. We thought it would really freak them out.’ And I was like, ‘So how did that happen?’ He says, ‘Well, we were all over at a buddy’s house, and he’s like ‘We should all die our hair and freak them out.’ And I was like, ‘So you had a hair party at some guy’s house?’ And he’s like ‘No, it wasn’t a hair party.’ And I was like ‘But you kinda did. You were all at his house and you died your hair: You had a hair party.’ And he’s like ‘I guess it was.’ [laughter]
And it was great because I could see that he was thinking about it. He just had this unique quality, and we had him come in seven or eight times for this role. So I really had to vet him, we’d bring him in with the other actors and had him read with Paul and Amy, and suddenly the kid just started to connect with it in a way that became very obvious to us all. As written, the kid was very mono-syllabic, very reserved, very shut down, very much like many of the sixteen year olds I know. The question was could this kid make it active and engaging and charming, otherwise an audience would just shut him out. And for a very experienced actor that’s hard.
And he also turned out to be the state champion of New Jersey?
McCarthy: Two weeks after we cast him he won the state championship. So it was crazy, in two weeks this kid — Paul and Jeffrey and Bobby and I were like, ‘Wow, in two weeks he had like a better career than any of us, ever,’ [laughter]. He just totally blew us away. I think his high school career at that point was like 64-1; he had lost once. So what you’re seeing on that screen is a truly superior athlete; everything he does it what he does. It was always like, ‘here’s the choreography, now make it yours.’ And the thing I loved about him was that everything about him is very un-jock-like. All the jocks I knew in wrestling were really specific types of guys and this kid defied that but he brought this sort of artistry to the sport which was really unique.
What’s become of him since?
McCarthy: Sadly and happily, he got very into acting because of the movie and he’s just a super great kid, but then the summer after we shot the movie, he was at the Nationals and he had a lot of back pain and he saw a doctor and they realized they’d cracked his L5 in his back. So, in essence, his career is over. Which is weird, because as a sophomore winning a state champion title and in New Jersey, you’re almost guaranteed a full ride anywhere you want to go. But this kid is now — talk about one door closing and another one opening — he’s totally turned his passion to acting. I was talking with his father one night and — his parents are great, so supportive, as all parents have to be when you’re a child actor, and he was like “I can’t imagine what would have happened with Alex,” whose been wrestling since he was five or six, you know, that’s all he knows. And now he’s so turned on to acting, and I think a lot of it is the relationship with Paul and Amy and Bobby and Jeffrey, and like watching these kids — I say kids because it feels like he was learning on a playground, he was watching them and being like, ‘wow, I kinda want to be like them.’
And now he’s got this new passion and we’ve been talking a lot, traveling around, usually Alex is with me. He couldn’t be here in LA this weekend. But I’ve been traveling around with him a lot and the young man has grown exponentially. And he’s opened up and he’s talking in a way, that jump from 16 to 17 kind of thing, and it’s been fascinating to see him embrace this.
There’s lots of R-rated stuff in this, in terms of language. Do you feel conflicted about people not being able to see it because of that?
McCarthy: Of course, I get that there’s rules set up so that if you have ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ in your movie, that’s it, ‘I’m now R-rated.’ I get that. It is frustrating because I think this movie is a very good family movie outside of that and I just have to accept it. I think it’s too bad but it’s funny because we all grew up on the playground and heard much worse. I think someone said to me the other day, ‘It’s too bad, I want to bring my kids to this,’ and I was like, ‘Well, you can bring your kids to this, you can actually just have a conversation on the way home and say that language doesn’t make you a smarter or better person.’
Was it written with Paul in mind, and did you consider anyone else?
McCarthy: I’ve known Paul and wanted to work with him for a long time, we went to drama school together twenty years ago, something crazy like that, and I always had him in mind but I couldn’t commit to him until I finished the script. And I did have other actors in mind, but when I really sat with it he felt most right for the role. And that was that. The guy’s a national treasure. What fascinates me about this role is that it’s so reserved for him, and he’s so subdued in it, and he’s so convincing, he’s such a team player.
Talk about the bonding over Jackie and Kyle’s tattoos.
McCarthy: A lot of the state wrestlers, and going back following New Jersey state wrestling again, a lot of those young men are tattooed. It’s hilarious, they’re just these little warriors. And you’re watching thinking that kid is so cool, he’s so tough, and he walks by and he’s 101 lbs and 4’8″ and you’re like, ‘wow, there he goes!’ And then he turns around and he’s got like a dagger tattoo across his back, and it’s like he’s a convict, they’re just so badass. But they’re just regular high school students. And so I wanted that for Kyle. And when I thought about their bond, it just made so much sense to see. I see so many women and men with their one tells on their ankle or back or wrist and you’re like ‘oh, really?’ and I just thought it was a good insight into Jackie. I thought she’s a little more of a wild child than Mike.
Having Giamatti tending bar at the end, how did you make that turn?
McCarthy: It felt like the right arc, emotionally in the storyline for that character. You think a lot about it and part of me would love to have that Rocky ending with Kyle winning the states but it didn’t seem like that was what the story was about. And ultimately I think we’re living in a time where people have to possibly re-evaluate their lives and what they’re doing and how they are approaching their lives and how they how they need to live their lives both responsibly and gracefully. And I think that will continue for the next ten, fifteen, twenty years. I think, unless we start to do that, we are going to get ourselves into a lot of trouble.
Thompson: Well one thing in the movie: he’s withholding information from his wife. That was a big decision for him not to do that. She couldn’t have handled it?
McCarthy: She could have handled it actually, she shows that by the end of the movie when she doesn’t run out of the house. It’s a lot more about his male ego. And for me it’s a weakness on his part, not on her part. It’s tough for us to turn to that partner, whether man or woman, and say, ‘Hey, the plan we had set up – I’m not holding up my end.’ Even if it’s beyond his control. I think that’s a very difficult thing for us to admit and I think we’ve all been in that situation in some form or another.
The characters are very relatable, but you make it unpredictable. Do the ideas come to you, or do you need to workshop it to get the details?
McCarthy: Yeah, I think making the ordinary extraordinary is something that is really fascinating to me. Because so many times I’m just sitting at a bus stop or a store and I’m like, ‘What does that guy do? What is his story?’ And I think sometimes writers reach so far for these extraordinary stories that we get beyond ourselves. And for me, I just — how many times have you talked to one person and they’re like, “Oh my god, I just talked to this lady on the corner, I can’t believe it,” you know, being in New York there’s a big part of that, because you’re so – you’re bumping into people all the time, and everyone, from the taxi cab driver to the door man to your neighbor, to the guy you see at the deli – everyone has an interesting story, and I feel sometimes you can exploit that, there’s just no way to predict that story. There just isn’t.
Did you shoot in New Jersey?
McCarthy: No. My biggest disappointment. It’s set in the town, it’s about the town that I grew up in – New Providence – but New Jersey cut their tax incentives so we had to go to Long Island [laughter]…so weird, right? So we went over there and kind of recreated New Jersey in Long Island and we were very happy there.