Visitor, The: How Tom McCarthy’s International Ensemble

As writer and director, Tom McCarthy was determined to make an unconventional casting choice for the leading role by selecting Richard Jenkins, a character actor best known for his supporting roles, to play Walter.

Richard Jenkins

“He gave a heartbreaking performance in ‘North Country,'” the director says of Jenkins. Casting him was an essential element to setting the tone of the film. Walter is a character that I’ve had in mind for some time: an aging professor who is rudderless, void of passion or action. And Richard Jenkins is someone I really wanted to work with. He has such a wonderful Everyman quality about him.”

Jenkins, whose face is far more familiar than his name, has worked in dozens of movies and TV shows with a whos who of film directors from Woody Allen and Mike Nichols to the Coen brothers and the Farrelly brothers. He’s probably best known to fans of HBOs acclaimed series Six Feet Under for his role as the sage and sardonic ghost of Nathaniel, the Fisher family patriarch.

He’s an actors actor, says McCarthy. Hes been in so many movies and yet he always manages to create thoroughly original characters, disappearing into his roles. That quality made Jenkins a perfect fit for the role of Walter, says the director. Lets be honest, he’s not a classic leading man in many peoples eyes, but that is exactly what makes his performance so believable and so compelling.

For his part, Jenkins jumped at the chance to pay such a rich and rewarding role. I said this to Tom and it’s the truth: I have waited my entire professional career to be a part of something like this. When I first read the script, I saw a man alone, which is something that always has interested me. Somebody who’s thrown into a new situation and is emotionally not ready to handle it. I did see a lot of me in it. Im a little timid about taking new steps, trying new things, so I found that aspect fascinating. And I found where he started compared to where he ended just amazing.

Skalski says the decision to cast Jenkins came very early in the production process. We knew that the other people in the cast were not going to be super recognizable faces, says the producer. And so, we wanted Walter to be someone that audiences were comfortable with. Richard Jenkins is such a great actor. He’s funny and he’s serious and he’s heartbreaking.

Hiam Abbass

For the character of Mouna, the Syrian widow whom Walter falls in love with, McCarthy also knew the actor he wanted from the get go: “I saw Hiam Abbass in a movie called Satin Rouge when I was in Beirut and I fell in love with her as an actress. I kept seeing her in all these movies: Syrian Bride, Paradise Now, and then finally Munich. I couldnt get her out of my mind.”

He discovered that Abbass was living in Paris. While there working on the script, McCarthy set up a meeting with her. I said I wanted to include her in this project. After meeting her and seeing her work with the character, the role of Mouna became very clear to me. It’s a much easier way to write, sort of a combination of having an image of a character and a sense of the actor.

Jenkins was impressed by his co-stars intellectual curiosity and instinct for dialogue, even in a language that was not her native tongue. Hiam questions everything. This is the first part she’d ever played in English and there would be an AmericanEnglish phrase and she would ask Tom, Why am I saying this I would never say this! It was that kind of give and take for the entire
time. It was beautiful.

Haaz Sleiman

To find the right actor to play Tarek, the young musician who teaches Walter to play the drum, the filmmakers conducted a large-scale search that stretched from Paris to London to New York City. Their quest eventually led them to Haaz Sleiman, whose credits include the TV series 24, Navy NCIS and Veronica Mars as well as in the films AmericanEast and American Dreamz.

“Authenticity is always very important to me,” says McCarthy. With Tarek’s character, I was trying to come up with a young man who had come here with his mother after the death of his father and was searching for safe haven. Haaz is Lebanese, not Syrian, but he moved to Dearborn, Michigan, which is where, in the story, he and his mother go, and then to New York to become an actor. His journey was incredibly similar to that of the character. And I knew it could only feed his performance.

Sleiman was intrigued by the interplay between characters from entirely different worlds. It’s so unlikely for these people to actually be together, he observes. Due to the circumstances, they are forced to have this connection and get to know one another. Its very true to the way people mix in the world that we live in.

In order to learn firsthand what his character is going through, Sleiman spent time visiting with detainees. It was profound and, for the work that I was doing for Tarek, it was necessary, he says. A lot of them have been there for years. I mean, like three, four, five, 10 years. It breaks your heart.

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For the role of Zainab, a struggling Senegalese jewelry maker and Tareks girlfriend, the filmmakers cast Danai Gurira, who was born in the U.S. but raised in Zimbabwe. Danai was the first person I saw come in and read for the role, says Mary Jane Skalski. So the very first time I heard the words read by an actor it was Danai reading some of her scenes on auditions.

Although “The Visitor” is Guriras film debut, McCarthy says the quality of the young actress performance was on par with the more experienced players in the cast. Danai is a rock, says the director. She is just so strong. She didnt come to us with a tremendous body of work, so, just to watch her dailies and to watch the performance come together was really exciting.

Gurira says her background gives her special insight into her character. My family is from a country that is not very openly welcomed into other parts of the world, so I’ve seen that struggle. I learned a lot about Senegalese women, and they are very proud women, very regal. They have a connection to who they are and what they are able to produce.

She and Sleiman had an instant connection, says Gurira, even though they did not meet until casting was completed. The Zainab-Tarek connection was just immediately felt, she says. There was always a comfort and ease around that which I think was formed during the rehearsal process.

In part to foster just that kind of familiarity, McCarthy arranged for the actors to rehearse with him for nearly a month before shooting began. I literally like to sit down with the actors and read through the script a bunch of times, he says. It gives me a chance to revise since I’m the writer, too. It becomes a way of deepening the work and of discovering new things and the actors can get under the skin of their characters and develop the relationships a little more deeply.

Initially skeptical of the plan, actor Richard Jenkins says the time spent with McCarthy and his co-stars before shooting proved invaluable to the portrayal of his character: “I don’t like film rehearsals usually but after about a week of rehearsal, I knew that Tom was interested in really following this guy’s journey, not putting some kind of false sense of pace on the movie.”