FILM Is Tom McCarthy the most versatile guy in Hollywood? He’s a successful character actor (in big-budget movies like 2009’s 2012; smaller-scale pictures like 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck; and the final season of The Wire). He’s an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (2009’s Up). And he’s the writer-director of two highly acclaimed indie dramas, The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2007).
Clearly, McCarthy must not sleep much, though he was perky on a recent visit to San Francisco to discuss Win Win, a comedy set in his hometown of New Providence, N.J. Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a lawyer who’s feeling the economic pinch. Betraying his own basic good-guy-ness, he takes advantage of a senile client, Leo (Burt Young), when he spots the opportunity to pull in some badly-needed extra cash.
Matters complicate with the appearance of Leo’s grandson, Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer), a runaway from Ohio. Though Mike’s wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), is suspicious of the taciturn teen, she allows Kyle to crash with the Flaherty family. As luck would have it, Kyle is a superstar wrestler — and Mike happens to coach the local high school team. Things are going well until Kyle’s greedy mother (Melanie Lynskey) turns up and starts sniffing around her father’s finances. Lessons are learned, sure, but the script delivers more genuine laughs than you’d expect from a movie that’s essentially about the recession.
SFBG You were a high school wrestler. Did you always want to make a movie about your experiences?
Tom McCarthy I don’t think when I was [wrestling] I ever thought I would be doing this. But one day I was thinking about high school wrestling — that it would be a funny thing that’s not touched on very much in movies, not since [1985’s] Vision Quest, really. I’m always looking for something that I can connect with that I haven’t seen before, however simple that thing might be. So I called Joe [Tiboni], who developed the story with me. He used to wrestle with me, and we had a really funny conversation about how weird the sport is and what our memories were. When I decided to do that [for my next film], I brought him on, because I thought it would be a really fun experiment working with an old friend like that. Our lives are so different now, but we’re still very connected.
SFBG Obviously you had to cast a kid to play Kyle who could wrestle first, and act second. Was that tough?
TM Wrestling is a really tough sport to fake. So I just made a gut call: “Let’s get a wrestler.” I think the dialogue, and the way I crafted the script, lent itself to it. I said, “Let’s go find the right kid.” And we did. He just had a unique sensibility about him, and I knew he had such a great group of actors around him that it felt right. When we got to the wrestling sequences, they were a joy to shoot. What you see there is real.
SFBG Did you see the wrestling theme as a metaphor for Mike’s struggles?
TM It certainly presented itself to that. I think it’s gonna be hard for a lot of people for a long time. Decent people, like Mike Flaherty, will find short cuts, and those shortcuts might not always be, morally or legally, the right way to go. My philosophy is that’s how we got into this mess: a lot of pretty good people made a lot of bad choices. Selfish decisions. That, to me, is more interesting that this idea of, like, the hundred evil men of Wall Street who pulled these strings and put us all in this situation.
SFBG Gotta ask, since you’re from New Jersey and you use one of the band’s songs in the film. Are you a Bon Jovi fan?
TM Who isn’t? [Laughs.] I actually wasn’t a huge Bon Jovi fan, but whenever it’s on, how can you not rock out? And I gotta say, [Jon Bon Jovi] was awesome. He gave us the song for a bargain-basement price. And it felt really right for Jackie’s character — it felt like it was coming directly from that world.
WIN WIN opens Fri/25 in Bay Area theaters.