Director Tom McCarthy – The Visitor

Director Tom McCarthy – The Visitor

By Beth Accomando

In some ways Tom McCarthy’s new film The Visitor started years ago with a call from the U.S. State Department.


“They just called me one day. I thought it was a joke. I mean wouldn’t you think it was a joke if they called you and said we want to send you and your film The Station Agent to the Middle East? I was like what? They had this outreach program where they said let’s go to different regions and show movies that people don’t normally see and possibly present a different side of American culture.”


So McCarthy went to Lebanon and Oman and showed The Station Agent to Middle East audiences. The experience not only reinforced his commitment to further explore themes of connection and community but it also gave him the idea of creating an Arab supporting character for what would become his new film, The Visitor.

Actors Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman listen to director Tom McCarthy

The Visitor focuses on a widowed Connecticut economics professor named Walter Vale (Six Feet Under’s Richard Jenkins) who arrives at his little used New York apartment to find a couple living there. Victims of a real estate scam, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian man, and his Senegalese girlfriend, have nowhere to go so Walter surprises them and us by inviting them to stay. 


McCarthy, who wrote and directed the film, calls Walter “disconnected from his life and his community. He’s probably lost his passion for his vocation and he’s a little bit adrift. That said I think he’s still a guy who has a lot of integrity, a lot of self-respect. He’s flawed and he has his quirks for sure. But I think he has a sense of decency. What I find compelling about him is that he realizes he sort of needs to reinvent or reinvest himself in life but he just doesn’t know quite how to do that.”


Tarik provides the unexpected means of Walter’s reinvention. Walter, who’s been trying to learn how to play piano, becomes fascinated with Tarik’s djembe drums and begins to learn how to play. This pulls Walter out of his shell and he even starts to partake in the drum circles at Central Park.


“Actor Richard Jenkins interestingly enough played percussion as a kid so he had a pretty good handle on it,” says McCarthy, “but I cast Richard because I felt like he would really disappear in the role. Richard has this wonderful everyman quality about him.”


The Visitor pulls us into this friendship and then introduces a complication. Tarik is an illegal immigrant and he ends up in a detention center. Walter tries to help but realizes that the U.S. immigration system, especially after 9/11, does not look at these immigrants as individual people. Walter doesn’t know how to express his outrage and all he can do is yell at the detention center guards, telling them that Tarik is a good man and that should count for something.

“Sometimes reducing it to such a simple idea, some people would say that’s naïve or irresponsible – maybe,” McCarthy say, “But maybe there’s something to be learned and gained from that. I feel like politicians and certain groups want to reduce everything to an us and them sort of black and white issue, and I think that’s a dangerous way to proceed because nothing in the world is so black and white any more.”


The Visitor is a film that presents a rich, complex world where people connect in unexpected ways.


The Visitor opens April 25.