Hip audiences may recognize Tom McCarthy only as weaselly Sun reporter Scott Templeton in the final season of The Wire. And more people may see McCarthy's deft cameo as Tina Fey's disastrous first date in today's big-studio comedy release, Baby Mama, than will catch the marvelous independent film he wrote and directed, The Visitor.
Yet with The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor, McCarthy has made films whose size expands in a viewer's heart, mind and memory - and whose influence travels across the globe.
This movie about a prematurely aged college professor, Walter Vale, who befriends a youthful Syrian, Tarek, his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab, and, later, his mother, Mouna, has a topicality and political content that can't be denied.
But it's actually a lyric plea for intelligent openness as a source of renewal in anyone's life - and that's part of what links it to The Station Agent, that disarming, funny-moving tale about a dynamic little person who inherits a dilapidated rail depot in New Jersey and befriends a reclusive artist and a man who runs a Cuban coffee truck.
McCarthy's first movie proved decisive in fueling inspiration for The Visitor. McCarthy says that after The Station Agent garnered prizes like the Best First Screenplay Award at the Independent Spirits, the State Department called, inviting him to take it to the Middle East. "After hanging up once or twice - I honestly thought it was a friend pulling my leg - I said, yeah, of course. So they sent me to Muscat, Oman, and to Beirut, Lebanon."
McCarthy, who lives in New York, had an "amazing time in Beirut. I found it to be very alive, the people were amazing, the spirit, the art scene. So much so that I went back again to work with young filmmakers and help them tell stories for the first time."
That's when he met two young men who coalesced into the character of Tarek. "That's where I like to start, with characters that I haven't seen before."
The aspiring cineastes of Beirut were as ardent in their filmmaking as Tarek is in playing the African drum. But McCarthy says, "In many ways, Tarek is doing what every American kid does - leave home, first Syria, then Michigan, and go to New York and try to make his way, usually against the wishes of parents who want something a little more stable. This is a kid who has had relative success: He's got his trio, he's making money.
"I think it's more the spirit of the character that caught me: He is like so many of the young artists that I met in Beirut who were eager and open to anything new in their life. As we get older, we get a little more selective in that process and in our fascination with differences."
The Visitor became a study of people who are open and shut in different ways. "Interestingly, Zainab isn't like Tarek: She has a more complete sense of how tenuous their situation is in this country and in this world, and she's more guarded for that reason."
Putting the young drummer together with the academic Walter, a character even less like Tarek than Zainab, is what catalyzed The Visitor. The filmmaker had been kicking around the idea of depicting "an average guy" who was not a conventional Everyman or a pathos-crippled widower. "I wanted a regular guy of a certain age who still carries himself with self-respect and integrity: He can prepare a decent dinner for himself; he's taking piano lessons, so we know at least there's a heart beating. I wanted to see how someone disconnected from his life and his profession re-invests in life and reinvents himself." McCarthy never intended to summarize the plight of illegal immigrants. But once he settled on these characters and placed them in New York City, the threat of deportation provided him with a storyline that expressed their growing feeling of community and friendship in ways that are dramatic and authentically, awkwardly funny.
After he visited a detention center and saw "the inhumanity of the place, even from a visual angle," he knew he had to share with audiences something "95 percent of them had never seen before. I didn't want to get on a soapbox and declare, 'Here's what's wrong with our immigration policy.' I did want to ask, 'Understanding that it's a complex part of our legal system that has to be enforced, can we do anything better?'"
After all, McCarthy points out, "Almost everyone in this movie has done something wrong, including Walter, Tarek and Mouna."
Part of his method is to define his characters so surely, in detail and in gesture, that when they move in opposition to themselves - as when closed-up Walter reveals his core - they become stronger and more multi-dimensional, not flimsy or bogus.
Given that he's made two films with no villains, how did he feel about playing an undiluted bad guy like Templeton in The Wire, who cuts corners to serve his own ambitions and undercuts the heroic city editor Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson)?
McCarthy protests the question. "Hey, I wonder if there's a little reporter jealousy here: Scott now happens to have a Pulitzer to his name!" McCarthy says he and series creator David Simon joked that if The Wire ever produced action figures, Templeton would wind up in the 75-cent remainder bin.
But McCarthy also says some audiences and critics just didn't get his character. "Everyone in that newsroom was looking for love from good old Gus," he explains, with a ready laugh. "That's what Scott was all about. Just give the reporter a little love."