Director Thomas McCarthy on ‘The Visitor’ and His Failed Career As a Djembe Player

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Actor Tom McCarthy’s writing-directing debut The Station Agent won him critical raves, and he’s back this weekend with The Visitor, an intimate, heartfelt (and already nearly as acclaimed) drama starring Six Feet Under’s Richard Jenkins as an unhappy Connecticut professor who crafts a tentative new family for himself when he finds a pair of illegal immigrants (a young djembe player and his wife) crashing in his New York City pied-à-terre. McCarthy talked to Vulture about casting the film, learning to play the djembe with mixed results, and the joys and obvious perils of shooting a movie in Manhattan.

People are already praising Richard Jenkins’ performance. How did you make the decision to go with him?
It was early on. I really wanted Richard’s character to kind of be an Everyman, not at first glance this strapping leading man. I wanted him to be a guy you would just pass on the street, and Richard can be that way. The character can be pretty caustic at times, but people just really love Richard as an actor and I think there’s sort of an empathy for him from the very first time you see him. We shall see. With small movies like this, it’s so delicate. It’s as if you’re sending your kid off to school, like "Good luck! You’re doing fine! They’re just buck teeth! It’s no big deal!" But our fingers are crossed.

A lot of people say filming in New York is a blessing and a curse. What was the hardest scene to shoot?
You’re right about New York. You have those moments where you’re shooting a scene in the park on a beautiful Indian-summer day and you don’t even need extras because the drummers start playing and people are just coming out of the woodwork to watch, at the perfect increments to build time continuity, you know? And then you’ll be filming at a café on the Lower East Side and you’re just all set up perfectly when suddenly a grate door flies open and the owner reveals that there’s actually a sweatshop underneath you and that they’re going to be coming out occasionally for breaks.

That really happened?
Yeah, that really happened. It’s like, Oh, really? A sweatshop? Terrific! Another New York moment: I read a great book while I was researching the movie called The Prophet of Zongo Street, by Mohammed Naseehu Ali, about a man’s returning to Ghana and his experiences going back and forth to America. I flipped it over and it said, “Mohammed lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two kids, and he plays the djembe in a jazz trio.” That was such a creepy coincidence that I arranged to have coffee with him. It turned out he was a friend of [Station Agent star] Peter Dinklage’s, and I ended up taking djembe lessons with him once a week in my little West Village apartment.

And how were you?
Horrible. [Laughs.]

It seems like strangers coming together to form new communities is an idea that resonates with you…
I think this is something I’ll have to look back on in 30 years, like what was I going through at that point in my life? It’s obviously something I’m interested in — both loneliness and connection, on some level. I think a big part of why I live in New York City is that you are constantly thrust into these situations where you have to interact with different kinds of people. It’s got to be one of the great benefits of living here. It’s certainly isn’t real estate or anything else.

So have you written your next one yet?
I’ve had this idea in my head for a little while. I’ve got these two characters in my head and a third — I’m not really sure what he does yet. But what’s the story? I’m kind of there again.

Will it be another “The” movie?
The — oh. I don’t know! It’s not gonna be now that you’ve pointed that out. You’ve ruined it for me. You’re going to get a really random angry e-mail from me in about two years angrily accusing you of robbing me of an option. —Sara Cardace