Writer/Director Thomas McCarthy and Actor Haaz Sleiman Interview – THE VISITOR

     April 9, 2008



Written by Brian Orndorf



Opening in limited release on April 11th is the tender drama “The Visitor.” Starring Richard Jenkins, the film is a warm evocation of multicultural friendship, brought together by the rhythms of life. Here’s a synopsis:



Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a widowed college professor trying to connect with his late wife through failed piano lessons. Sent to live for a short time at his neglected New York City apartment for a conference, Walter finds Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesa Gurira) have already made a home there. At first startled, Walter soon reaches out to the frightened couple and allows them to stay. During this time, Walter expresses curiosity with Tarek’s skills playing an African drum. Tarek, surprised by Walter’s offer of friendship, begins to teach the shy professor the concept of rhythm and the joy of performance. However, the relationship is cut short when Tarek is arrested and revealed to be an illegal, locked away in a detention center while Walter and Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) hope to find a way to free him.



Recently,Collider sat down with writer/director Thomas McCarthy and actor Haaz Sleiman to discuss the making of the film.



Question: What was the seed for this story?



Thomas McCarthy: It started with characters. It was that simple. It started with the character of Tarek, who I felt I hadn’t seen before. Same with Walter, and I had that kickin’ around for a long time. It started with these two characters and how would they meet? Then it was just natural extensions. It was really putting pieces of a puzzle together. That’s one of the fun parts about writing is to have this central relationship. Then Mouna comes in and that becomes the central relationship. It’s character driven.



Question: “Visitor” is your second directorial outing. What did you learn from your experience making “The Station Agent” that you brought to “Visitor?”



McCarthy: Lots. Your first film is a massive learning curve. The second time, you sort of know all the steps. With your first film, you’re stepping into each new phase of the operation; it’s like “oh!” So I learned a lot. I also worked with a lot of the same people on the technical side: the cinematographer, my editor, my production designer. We had a shorthand with our history together. That made the process move a little quicker.



Question: Did you enjoy a larger budget?



McCarthy: We did, though I will say by Hollywood standards it was a very small budget. Also, being in New York, it sucked up a lot of the budget.



Question: You’ve also maintained a successful acting career over the years. At this point which do you prefer: acting or directing?



McCarthy: I really, truly enjoy them both. The logical answer is that if I didn’t enjoy one I would just stop doing it. There’s no reason to do both. Really, I enjoy the hell out of both, and the both complement each other. I learned a lot in my acting about directing, and when I direct I learn a lot about acting.



Question: Would you want to act in something you direct?



McCarthy: Only if I felt there was no one else who could play the role. I’m not sure that’s the case. It would be one too many hats to wear. I don’t think I need to do it. I certainly don’t think I’m a big enough name where it helps to do both.



Question: Did you have any experience with drumming before the movie?



Haaz Sleiman: No. None whatsoever. I had to practice for a month and a half, every day for three hours. When we started shooting, I prayed to God that I could pull it off, and thank God for editors, you know?



Question: Where did you find inspiration for the character?



Sleiman: The story itself was an inspiration for me. From that point it was a natural evolution of that character for me. And, you know, from my own personal life.



Question: How did Richard Jenkins come to be in the film?



McCarthy: I wrote it with Richard in mind. I love his work and thought he would be totally right for this picture. I felt the essence was right. When I finished the script I sent it right to his agent and we soon had lunch. He said yes. It was a painless process.



Question: Had you worked with him before?



McCarthy: No. never did.



Question: What was the collaborative process between you and Jenkins?



Sleiman: It was really great. I think Tom allowed for that to grow during the rehearsal time – we had a really nice two-week rehearsal time. And that process, whether it was working on the script or connecting with Richard, it was just so essential before we started shooting the film. He’s a tremendous actor, so I learned a lot from him as a person, and on top of that there was something really beautiful happening as we were rehearsing; a simple unforced connection. And we fell in love (laughs).



Question: 9/11 fingerprints are plentiful in the movie. What mood were you intending with these visual stamps?



McCarthy: I think if you live in New York or if you’re telling a story about New York, 9/11 is there. I don’t think it’s looming over this movie in such a way that the film is compelled by the events of 9/11. I live there, and it does come up. I think there’s one reference to the towers, and even that’s from a historical perspective. 9/11 certainly had an impact on immigration policy; profiling basically became legalized. I think it’s there because it’s a part of New York. That tragic, horrible event has become part of New York.



Question: What’s coming up next for you?



Sleiman: Working on a one-man show, workshopping it right now



McCarthy: Working on a movie in New York, acting again. Tony Gilroy’s movie “Duplicity,” it’s a great script.



Question: Do you plan to direct again in the future?



McCarthy: Not the near-future, but yes. I do plan to direct again.





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