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Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

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By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

Looking back on the making of "The Visitor," the sophomore offering from acclaimed writer-director Thomas McCarthy ("The Station Agent"), the filmmaker describes his new movie (see review on Page 37) as a product of his long-standing fascination with what he calls "characters that would fall between the cracks" and "the extraordinary lives of ordinary people."

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Of his decision to cast Richard Jenkins in the lead role of Walter, a sad-sack American academic whose life is upturned after befriending Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a young Syrian drummer living in New York, McCarthy says it all came down to a single word: "Mediocrity."

"I think that's where it started with Richard's character," says McCarthy, sitting on a hotel room couch next to his star, perhaps best known for playing such supporting characters as the dead father in "Six Feet Under."

Jenkins doesn't miss a beat, quickly turning McCarthy's mention of the M-word into a self-deprecating joke as he imitates the search for someone to embody the film's defiantly middle-of-the-road hero. "Hmmm," he says, stroking his chin in mock seriousness. "Who can we get to play . . . ?"

"Get me Jenkins!" McCarthy roars in response, doing his best impersonation of a cigar-chomping studio boss before both men break down in laughter.

But seriously, folks.

Casting Jenkins was a no-brainer, McCarthy says, but not for the reasons you might think. "I feel funny saying this in front of Richard," he says, "but a lot of people will say in interviews with me one-on-one, 'It's kind of brave for you to cast Richard Jenkins in this,' and almost always, in the same breath, will be like, 'Don't get me wrong. I've loved that guy forever.' And I'm like, 'Well, then, it's not that brave.' I have felt that way. Everyone who brings that point up feels that way. So I'm like, 'It's really maybe just obvious.' It was really maybe not such a brave choice. It was maybe just an overlooked choice."

High on McCarthy's list of attributes that suit the 60-year-old actor for the role is his Everyman demeanor, an ability to evoke the common schlub that belies his ubiquity in such films as the heavy 2005 drama "North Country" and the upcoming Will Ferrell farce "Step Brothers."

The association with ordinariness doesn't bother Jenkins. "You can say, 'Well, he used you because you wouldn't overwhelm the film with your fame,' " the actor says with a laugh. "And it's not insulting at all to me. It's true."

Although he may be the most recognizable face in the cast (which features Danai Gurira and Hiam Abbass in addition to Sleiman), Jenkins jokes that people are never really sure where they've seen him before. "We have four actors that, three of them, a lot of people haven't seen. And one of them they may have thought they went to school with him. I've had that a lot: 'We were in school together, weren't we?' "

McCarthy, 39, agrees. "I knew Richard wouldn't sort of lopside the script," he says. "I was putting an actor in there who I knew technically could carry the movie without any problem but at the same time would really disappear into the role, into the world of these other characters."

That world is one of undocumented immigrants, centering on the unlikely friendship between Walter and Tarek, who, like the younger man's mother (Abbass) and girlfriend (Gurira), is in the United States illegally. McCarthy says, however, that the film is not a message movie, despite the unavoidable associations people will draw between the film and the ongoing debate over illegal immigration.

" 'Unavoidable' is the right word," he says, "because first and foremost for me it was very much a character story."

The idea of making a movie about the relationship between an American and an Arab came, McCarthy says, not from having any political ax to grind, but from the "very generous, very enthusiastic, very open and funny and sincere spirit" of the people he met in Lebanon while touring with "The Station Agent." "I thought, 'I haven't seen this character. I haven't seen this type of Arab character portrayed recently in film.' "

Of his decision to keep his second film as intimate, and as devoid of big names, as his 2003 debut, McCarthy says it was not from lack of offers. "I was talking to another writer friend of mine about 'bigger canvases,' and how you arrive there, because people are always saying, 'When are you going to step up and work with more money and a bigger canvas?' And I hear it so much. Honestly, I have been offered ridiculous canvases and ridiculous money."

Really?

"Right after 'The Station Agent.' Sure. You make a movie that does really well, and people -- it is hilarious what people will send you. Like this French historical epic. I'm like, 'Did you see the movie? It was in Jersey.' You know? It was a one-room depot."


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