Tom McCarthy's own past inspired 'Win Win'

Win Win
In "Win Win," Paul Giamatti (left) plays a struggling suburban lawyer who does something unethical which results in several unforeseen circumstances including having to deal with a troubled high schooler played by Alex Schaffer.
Image courtesy Fox Searchlight

Writer, director, and actor Tom McCarthy leads a bifurcated life. To indie film fans he's known as the director of three acclaimed movies: "The Station Agent," "The Visitor," and now "Win Win," which opens in Minnesota this week.

McCarthy, who began his career as an actor in the Twin Cities, is still better known for his role in the HBO series "The Wire."

McCarthy says "Win-Win" grew out of a conversation with an old high school pal.

"I used to wrestle, back in New Jersey, high school wrestler. My friend was a high school wrestler. We were both quite bad. And we just started reliving it a little bit, over the phone. And it turned into a very funny conversation, and I thought, 'You know, there's a movie in here somewhere,'" he recalled.

McCarthy's friend is a lawyer in suburban New Jersey. Yet he still coaches high school wrestlers. His stories got McCarthy thinking about suburban family life in these tough economic times.

"Wrestling, and coaching wrestling, became a great metaphor for the movie," McCarthy said.

In "Win Win," Paul Giamatti plays a struggling lawyer named Mike Flaherty who does something unethical. He makes himself legal guardian of an elderly client. He says he's doing it for the old man, but doesn't mention the $1,000-per-month stipend he gets.

Tom McCarthy
Tom McCarthy has now made three hit movies, "The Station Agent," The Visitor" and "Win Win." However he says he is most recognized, and most regulaly abused for his role as a crooked journalist in the final series of "The Wire."
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

All goes well until his client's troubled teenage grandson Kyle turns up. Kyle has run away from his mother, and Flaherty wants to send him back. But his wife Jackie, played by Amy Ryan, takes Kyle's side.

The ripples from Mike's ethical lapse keep spreading. It turns out Kyle is an ace wrestler, and could be a huge boost for Mike's hapless high school team. Somehow he has to keep Kyle in New Jersey, against the wishes of Kyle's mother. She also has questionable motives.

The result is comical on one level, but, McCarthy hopes, thought-provoking on another. He says he wanted to tell a story about regular people who are struggling.

"[They] love their lives, and they are willing to do just about anything to maintain those lives. And in doing so, find that kind of mixture of drama and comedy that exists," he said.

"Win Win" sports a high-powered cast of old friends. McCarthy met Giamatti in college, and Ryan soon after. He says they made his job as a director much easier.

On set
Tom McCarthy (left) on set with Paul Giamatti and Alex Schaffer in "Win Win."
Image courtesy Fox Searchlight

His challenge was finding the right person to play Kyle, the wrestling phenom. McCarthy knew he either had to find an actor who could wrestle, or a wrestler who could act.

"I made the call early on that I had to have a wrestler," he said. "I love sports. I can't stand a sports movie when I don't believe that actor can play that sport. Especially if they are meant to be very good. And wrestling is a tough thing to fake."

Luckily they found Alex Schaffer, who won the New Jersey state wrestling championship in his weight class a few weeks after he got the role. McCarthy believes Schaffer's ability to focus as an athlete makes him believable on screen.

Reviews for "Win Win" have been very strong, and McCarthy's been travelling the country meeting audiences. He still gets recognized more for his acting, but says that's changing.

"For a long time it was a very firm separation of church and state in terms of my career, in that people couldn't put it together," he said. "A lot of times I would walk into an interview and there would be like 'Oh, God! You're that horrible person from The Wire. I didn't realize I was interviewing you. I hate you.'"

In "The Wire," McCarthy played Scott Templeton, a journalist who didn't let facts get in the way of a good story. For a show filled with murderers, drug dealers and crooked politicians, McCarthy says his character seems to have stuck with people.

"I might be the most despised character on that show, which is pretty hilarious. And people are very vocal about it," he said. "I walk down the street and people just yell at me. One guy was like, 'I'm gonna punch you!' And I was like, 'That's not nice.' It freaks people out when they are with me, because they are like, 'Why does that guy want to punch you?'"

McCarthy hopes with "Win Win," that might just change. Funny thing though -- after our interview, as McCarthy walked through the MPR newsroom, someone came up and jokingly called him a weasel.

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