Tom McCarthy doesn’t need fame, or as he puts it, “any more patting on the back.” He’s concerned only about ”the work,” not with becoming a New Jersey filmmaking representative à la Kevin Smith or John Sayles. He insists there was no preordained route, or boyish vision of cinematic immortality that compelled him. ”I really worry about the work, and that’s really all I’m focused on. If anything happens and people become more aware of who I am or where I’m from, great,” says McCarthy, 43, who was born in Summit and raised in New Providence.
“From a young age, outside of coming in to [Manhattan] to see a lot of Broadway plays, I didn’t even conceive of a career like this,” he says. “I didn’t even know such a thing really existed. It was always for other people.”
As the writer/director of two gems—The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2008)—McCarthy is living this career of ”others,” while establishing himself as a first-rate filmmaker. The Station Agent, his directorial debut, was shot in New Jersey and tells the story of a dwarf who inherits a rural train depot and finds friendship. It won a small mountain of festival awards and earned critical raves. The Visitor, a surprise box-office hit, landed unconventional leading man Richard Jenkins an Oscar nomination.
“I think he’s definitely a director to watch,” says Stephen Whitty, longtime film critic at the Star-Ledger, who calls McCarthy’s first movies “a great start to a career.”
McCarthy maintains a busy second career as an actor, a classic “that guy,” who you may remember from Duplicity as Julia Roberts’ corporate security colleague. You’ll soon see him in 2012 (due in November) and The Lovely Bones (December), star-driven multiplex heavyweights apparently at odds with McCarthy’s developing directing oeuvre. Still, more is coming. He’s working on a script for his third movie, based his experiences growing up in New Jersey. (That’s all you’re getting about it from McCarthy, who never talks about scripts until they’re “done, done.” They change too much, he says. All he will say is, “I’d really love to shoot it in New Jersey.”) He’s also directing an HBO pilot, Game of Thrones, based on a fantasy series by George L.L. Martin, and will act in Fair Game, starring Sean Penn, and scheduled for release next year.
“It all feels very comfortable,” says McCarthy. The myriad projects, he says, “feed each other in a strange way, a really wonderful way.” Besides, “I get such a charge out of what I do.”
The trips to Broadway came from a similar comfort zone—family—and were a way for the McCarthy kids to enjoy the arts, not as a career suggestion. The family, (his parents, three brothers, and a sister) “deals more in the professional world.” And, at first he followed suit, attending Boston College’s School of Management. “That’s what everyone did in my family. It seemed like the right thing, but very quickly I realized it wasn’t for me. They were a little caught off guard when I first said [the arts] was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Once I made the decision and they saw my commitment to it and that I was serious about it, they came around very quickly.”
At BC, he performed in the improv group My Mother’s Fleabag, which later relocated to Minneapolis. He attended Yale Drama School, acted in plays, and early in his career acted on an array of TV shows (notably Boston Public) and movies (Meet the Parents). Then about a decade ago, while driving to visit his brother at Green Pond—a private lakeside community in Morris County—he passed a beautiful train depot.
”I was out with my mother. My brother had just bought a lake house in the area and we were going out to see it. We were just kind of taking the afternoon off and taking a drive to see the house, and on the way I passed that beautiful depot and thought, What an amazing place,” he says. McCarthy had written steadily since college, but was revisiting writing to kill time between acting jobs. ”That depot was really the inspiration for [The Station Agent]. It’s funny how little things like that can change your career, but that certainly did. Halfway through the script I’m like, I can really see this, and if I finish it, maybe I’ll try to direct it. That’s my humble beginnings.”
One reason for the gap in jobs behind the camera, McCarthy says, was to spend more time in front of it. Since 2003, he’s strung together a series of supporting roles in acclaimed fare like Good Night, and Good Luck; Flags of Our Fathers; and HBO’s universally lauded drama The Wire. He loves to act, plus it’s like attending a never-ending film school, only with esteemed directors like Clint Eastwood as instructors.
“[You get] great opportunities to work with really creative and generous people,” McCarthy says. If there is any downside to taking on more acting, it is the double-edged sword of visibility. ”I like being an anonymous person,” he says. ”It allows me to just do what I like to do, which is observe people and watch and study, and kind of disappear and not have to worry about being noticed and singled out.”
Mary Jane Skalski, a producer on The Station Agent and The Visitor, compares McCarthy to a sponge. “He’s so relaxed, he can absorb everything, and he can pick and choose what lessons can be valuable to him later,” she says. “You really feel that when you’re talking to him, he’s listening. He brings that to every situation. He’s so curious about so many things. That’s a great gift.”
McCarthy’s natural talent is enhanced by the fact that he is a keen observer of life. His creative process isn’t like a 9-to-5 job, but rather a gradual unfolding. He carries a pad everywhere, and takes notes on anything that strikes a chord.”I’m accused of being a bit distracted,” he says. ”Because [inspiration] might be from something you see reading the paper, walking down the street, listening to the radio. It might be a song lyric, it could be a train depot. You never know when something is going to strike you, and you’re like, Wow, that’s really interesting, I wonder what the story is behind that. Or you think of something from your past, which is kind of what I’m working on now—growing up in New Jersey. You sort of think: I keep thinking about this, I wonder if there’s a story there. It’s an amorphous process.”
Creative absorption aside, the art house crowd may worry that the director devoted to small moments (“I think that’s what life is comprised of…”) is working on big movies.
McCarthy dismisses that concern; ultimately the story is what gets any actor excited, he says, citing Duplicity star Julia Roberts. “There’s a reason Julia’s been working for so long. She’s immensely talented, but she’s always seeking new challenges and new material,” says McCarthy. “And I think that’s what I’m doing with my work.”
McCarthy believes it’s the story that also resonates most with audiences, which explains the popularity of The Visitor. His portrait of a defeated economics professor (Jenkins) who unexpectedly bonds with a Syrian musician (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Gurira), unveils big emotions naturally. Its power sneaks up on you. “I’ve somehow been able to achieve telling a story that people seem to connect with in a personal way, in an emotional way,” McCarthy explains.
“I think that’s why people go to movies—they go to be moved either in a dramatic way or a funny way, or if you can get a little of both in there, then usually audiences are pretty satisfied,” he says.
There’s a tendency for independent film directors to drift toward bigger stars and budgets, and McCarthy figures he’ll someday head that way—if the story justifies it. “Whether it’s big or small, I’m always just looking for an authentic and, in some way, original approach to these emotions,” he says.
For now, McCarthy is focused on the present, and why not? It’s pretty good. “I use that term lucky. I’ve taken a lot of chances and I’ve made my sacrifices along the way. I’ve done a lot of things that afforded me this opportunity, so I don’t mean lucky in the sense that, ’I got lucky, look where I ended up.’” Perhaps, he says, the better word is ”fortunate.” We’d add hard-working, talented, and insightful.