The Visitor - Thomas McCarthy interview

This article is from 2008.

The Visitor

Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass in The Visitor

Almost famous

Kaleem Aftab talks to Thomas McCarthy about The Visitor, a powerful drama about a bored academic who strikes up a friendship with a couple of squatters

Thomas McCarthy works as an actor or a writer or a director, but feels that to do all three jobs in one film would be a little too much for him to take. As an actor, despite turns in such stellar productions as Syriana, All The Kings Men and Flags of Our Fathers, even the most observant movie buffs would be hard pressed to recall them, not because they’re minor roles, but rather because McCarthy has a brilliant knack for becoming the very character he’s essaying. Indeed, it was only after recently appearing as an unscrupulous journalist in The Wire that people began stopping him on the street and asking, ‘Aren’t you that guy?’

Similarly as writer and director of 2003 indie comic-drama The Station Agent, McCarthy didn’t quite get the public plaudits his work merited. However, his sophomore film The Visitor is beginning to get McCarthy the attention he deserves.

The main character in The Visitor is a bored academic called Walter (Richard Jenkins), whose best days of research are behind him but whose reputation ensures that he’s still treated with a reverence that he no longer feels he merits. Persuaded to go to a conference in New York, he is shocked to discover that two immigrants, Syrian Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Senegalese beauty Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), are squatting in his city apartment. Taking pity on them, Walter lets them stay whilst they find somewhere else to reside and strikes up a particularly strong bond with Tarek, who begins to teach him the djembe drums.

It was while walking through New York’s Central Park that McCarthy fell in love with the African drum. The New Jersey-born star says, ‘I was inspired by the drum circle in Central Park. It was probably in 2004 or 2005 and I’d started taking a lot of pictures. I don’t normally take pictures of things in New York unless it’s something that I’m thinking about. I actually started taking some drum lessons myself, which was pretty embarrassing.’

Explaining his decision to feature the detention centres that hold illegal aliens ready for deportation in The Visitor, the 42-year-old says, ‘My research involves spending a lot of time reading and, as I started to think more about these characters, I began reading about these detention centres and specifically about a couple of Middle Eastern people who were detained and deported and I was interested to see one of these places.

‘The first time I went to visit one was via this social outreach organisation that you can join and the first place that I went to visit I just did it blindly, I knew nothing about them. I took a little van out to Queens, kind of in a similar industrial park that you see Walter visit, and I walked into this place and I was just blown away by it. As you look around, you think, “What is this place?” As soon as I walked out of there I felt compelled and excited about exploring it in a screenplay.’

In casting character actor Richard Jenkins in the lead role, McCarthy has chosen an actor who, like him, has a solid track record whilst retaining relative anonymity. ‘When you take someone like Richard, who’s done 60 films and worked with many directors and actors and is at the top of his game in terms of the craft, then you just think, “cool, I have the added benefit that not too many people know this guy; what he sounds like, looks like, his personality, or who he’s dating”. When you throw him into a movie, I think it makes it easier for the audience to get lost in the story.’

The Visitor, Cineworld, Edinburgh, Sat 21 Jun, 7.15pm; Sun 22 Jun, 2.30pm, £8 (£6.40).

The Visitor

  • 3 stars
  • 2007
  • US
  • 1h 43min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Tom McCarthy
  • Cast: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira

Widower Walter Vale (Jenkins) is a grouch. When work sends him to Manhattan, a series of misunderstandings lead him to form a friendship with Syrian drummer Tarek (Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Gurira). Underwritten and beautifully performed, The Visitor is a sentimental drama that manages to access a…

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