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Interview with Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy interview

HBO

There are two Tom McCarthys on The Wire this season. You're the one who directed The Station Agent?

McCarthy

I am.

HBO

Otherwise, we'd have to reschedule this interview.

McCarthy

(LAUGHS) Yeah it was funny. I got to the set and heard this guy: "Where is he? Where is he?" and it was the other Tom McCarthy (Thomas). He's an older guy from Philadelphia, a character actor, a great guy.

HBO

How did you get involved with The Wire?

McCarthy

I auditioned years ago for I don't even know what part in the first or second season and for whatever reason it didn't happen. And going into the fifth season they called with a part they thought was right for me, and I took it sight unseen. I said yeah, let's do it. Sounds cool. I was a fan of the show and a really big fan of David's [Simon, executive producer/creator] and Ed's [Burns, producer/writer] writing, and the rest of the incredible staff.

HBO

How was it to discover you were playing the Jayson Blair character?

They do a great job of providing a moral ambiguity to their characters so you never feel like you're just a bad guy.

McCarthy

[Laughs] Is that what it is? They do a great job of providing a moral ambiguity to their characters so you never feel like you're just a bad guy. David will tell all the actors: There's no bad here, you're trying to do this, and trying to do that, and struggling against the system. It keeps it very alive. Keeps it very three dimensional. It's really fun to discover the character and the journey as you go along.

HBO

Had you had any experience with journalism? Was that a new world to you?

David Simon and Bill Zorzi are journalists, so we were exploring their most inner sanctum. And that made it exciting because these guys know...what the hell they're talking about.

McCarthy

No, I really hadn't. I mean, I'm a [screen]writer also and I spend a lot of time researching and doing my own version of journalism, but I'm not a journalist by any stretch of the imagination. But David Simon and Bill Zorzi are journalists, so we were exploring their most inner sanctum. And that made it exciting because these guys know that world inside out, they know what the hell they're talking about. So it was like constantly having a source on set.

HBO

Was that pretty much the research, using them as resources?

McCarthy

Pretty much. They took us over to The Baltimore Sun, let us meet people, talk to them. And I started paying attention to things, reading more news. David would constantly have real reporters on set. The Post or The New York Times, so I was always talking to them. Ultimately as an actor it comes down to committing to the text in the script. And there was a lot there.

HBO

Were there any surprises for you on The Wire, any twists and turns with your character, or other characters?

McCarthy

Yeah, there were a lot. Like who comes into contact, which characters meet. And who ends up in bed together  literally and who end up in cahoots together. But I don't want to give anything away. Also, you never know when a character's going to suddenly pop in a story. There are a few of those at the end that I THINK David was really clever about. And the way we say goodbye to certain characters I've come to love over the years ...

HBO

It looks like you keep your acting and writing/directing separate. Have you ever been tempted to cast yourself in one of your own films?

McCarthy

Yeah, I keep auditioning, and I just don't get the part... it's awkward actually. I try not to talk about it. (LAUGHS) No, right now I have [kept it separate]. I just haven't felt, quite honestly, capable of doing all three simultaneously. I enjoy writing and directing so much that I think to put one more thing on my plate, I don't think I would enjoy it. The same goes with acting. It was such a joy to be an actor on The Wire. I was doing it in part while I was editing my [second] film [The Visitor] . And it was a joy to go be an actor on set, stay focused on the role, and not over-think it.

HBO

Sounds like you're going full steam on both the acting and writing/directing fronts.

McCarthy

It gets a little confusing because I also writer (WRITE) for other people  I do rewrites. So you have your acting, your re-write for hire jobs and my personal writing and directing. I just try to keep going and work on projects that are exciting to me, with people I respect and enjoy and want to work with. That takes me in different directions sometimes but it's all been a pretty good ride. Ben Karlin is a friend of mine and was a writer on The Daily Show. He's just put out a book and asked a bunch of writers from various disciplines to contribute. It was called Things I've Learned from Women Who've Dumped Me, and of course I agreed and then I actually had to sit down and write it. God, writing fiction is terrifying. It's so different than writing scripts, in terms of just dialogue.

HBO

It was fiction?

McCarthy

(LAUGHS) I mean nonfiction  which is why it was so hard. Actually, no, it was supposed to be fiction. Every writer is embellishing. It wasn't like reporting. It was the lessons we learned. And I think lessons, as in parables, can be sometimes distorted. But it was very difficult. It's given me a whole new respect.

HBO

What was your lesson?

McCarthy

The title is "We Left Too Much Room for the Holy Spirit." And it was about a girl I met at Christian camp when I was very young. The actual lesson, it's not like a one liner. it wasn't like commandments, you know: I never learned to trust again. But I think by the end of the story I reveal my lesson. You'll have to buy the book. That is what I'm getting at.

HBO

It sounds pretty serious.

McCarthy

No it's pretty funny. I think you have to have a sense of humor about getting dumped. Otherwise you carry it around for a long time.

HBO

What's up next for you?

McCarthy

Let's see. I just finished working on The Lovely Bones that Peter Jackson is directing. I'm going to Thailand to work on a film with a Swedish director who's one of my favorites, Lukas Moodysson. Other than that, I'm honoring the writer's strike. Not working on any projects I was working on that involved studios. I literally just walked in from the picket line which is why I was a little late. Hopefully the strike will be resolved soon and we'll get back to work.

On the Record

McCarthy's React Quotes

HBO

We have a glossary quiz for you. Some newspaper terms.

McCarthy

Oh my God, I've erased all those things from my brain.

HBO

What does Edot mean?

McCarthy

Edot? First edition or something like that. We'd throw those terms around and had to constantly be looking them or asking "What the hell am I saying again?"

HBO

All the President's Men or Shattered Glass?

McCarthy

Shattered Glass was a very good film, some of the performances were wonderful, but All the President's Men definitely. It's a classic and a pretty high bar.

HBO

I wish I'd broken ____________news story.

McCarthy

A news story I'd like to have written? Wow. How about ... you have to go back to Watergate ... that was a pretty big fucking story. Let me think. I need a great story. None of them seem big enough now. I keep coming back to Watergate. You stuck it in my mind with that All the President's Men question.

HBO

Yes. That wasn't fair.

McCarthy

Put Watergate and when I think about it walking down the hall later, I'll get back to you. I've been interviewed a lot and I never got a question that original. I wonder if I'm going to get it in every interview I do now. I wonder if after the fourth person asks, I'm just going to have my "go-to" by then.

HBO

Probably. It's from Interviewing for Dummies. Everybody will be using it.

McCarthy

Seriously?

HBO

No.

McCarthy

Does that book exist?

HBO

No.

HBO

Do you have a favorite headline?

McCarthy

Whenever anything big in the world happens, my friend and I always try to guess what the headline will be in the New York Post or the Daily News and we've come pretty close at times. Right before Iraq we were in a tough situation and I guessed it would be: STUCK BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE.

HBO

You have to write a story about a rescued cat what would the opening line be?

McCarthy

Jesus. Can it be a headline?

HBO

Sure.

McCarthy

ME WOW! That would be the New York Post headline about a cat rescued in a perfect, amazing way.

Interviews