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Interview: Tom McCarthy and Alex Shaffer

Director Tom McCarthy, and actors Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer.
Fox Searchlight
Director Tom McCarthy, and actors Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer.

'Win Win' Team Stops by KPBS

Filmmaker Tom McCarthy and high school wrestler turned actor Alex Shaffer came by the KPBS studios to talk about "Win Win" (Currently playing at Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas, AMC La Jolla, and UltraStar Flower Hill). Watch the video.

Interview: Tom McCarthy and Alex Shaffer

The trailer for "Win Win" opens as the film does with a daughter asking her mother, "Where's daddy?" To which her mother (played to perfection by Amy Ryan) answers, "He's running." And the little girl innocently inquires, "From what?"

And daddy, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is running. He's running to try and improve his health and he's running in place because he just can't seem to get ahead in life. In other words, he's the perfect kind of real life character that interests filmmaker Tom McCarthy. McCarthy has a knack for telling stories about such real people with movies like "The Station Agent" and "The Visitor." Now he looks to a high school wrestling coach struggling with hard decisions for his latest film "Win Win."


TOM McCARTHY: I was having a conversation with an old friend of mine about wrestling, we’re both high school wrestlers and we were reliving our painful high school wrestling memories. We started laughing about it thinking this would be a funny thing to work into a story and that was really the first seed of the idea. And two I started to develop this story, which was this story of a decent family man who was really grappling or wrestling with his own sense of responsibility and ethics. And how to marry the two in tight times. How to make responsible decisions and at the same time still perform his duties or what he perceives as his duties, which is to take care of his family.

TERRY: Okay dude how long has this been happening?

MIKE: A couple of months. The doctor says it's stress.

TERRY: Did he prescribe anything for you?

MIKE: Yeah jogging, what the hell do you think I'm doing out here.
Amy Ryan, Paul Giamatti, Burt Young, Bobby Cannavale and Alex Shaffer in "Win Win."
Fox Searchlight
Amy Ryan, Paul Giamatti, Burt Young, Bobby Cannavale and Alex Shaffer in "Win Win."
TOM McCARTHY: What I try to do is take my time with my films especially at the beginning so that the audience really has a moment to live, to be with these people, these characters, get to know them, get to judge them. But what’s essential to that is we do like these people, we do sort of judge them, which we always do as an audience, to be good people. What happens when we see someone like that make a bad decision? That we know is wrong? That was very compelling to me. Because I think it happens more often than not. I think we get ourselves in these troubles big or small we’re not talking the economic collapse we’re talking something much more intimate it’s not always evil people making evil decisions twirling their moustaches, a lot of times it’s decent people making bad choices.
JACKIE: Are you out of your freaking mind?

MIKE: I didn't think it would get that complicated.
TOM McCARTHY: And I try to do that in a very simple way and have some fun.

Part of the fun comes from McCarthy wanting to bring high school wrestling into the mix.

TOM McCARTHY: We had a coach that used to smack us up side of the head like happens in this movie. He was this little fireplug of a guy who used to belt us side of the head before we’d go out on the mat. But all it did was freak us out more.

KYLE; Can you give me a slap?

MIKE: What?

KYLE: Give me a slap across the face like you are trying to wake me up.

MIKE: Uh-huh. Okay, like that?
TOM McCARTHY: It's a sports genre that we play with within the movie I knew as soon as I tackled something like this it would be a sports movie but through my filter and I was curious to see how it would turn out.

One of the first challenges was casting the role of teen wrestler Kyle. McCarthy first looked to professional actors.

TOM McCARTHY: And then I started thinking about, like you know what? I’m not getting the quality I want I need something raw here and it would be really helpful to the production if this kid could wrestle.

COACH: I don't think we can teach him anything.

ALEX SHAFFER: My friend texted me and said you should audition for this role and my initial response was like no, cause I mean this is wrestling season and I’m focusing on wrestling. And not to say I didn’t want to do it I just didn’t think I had the time to really go out and audition for a role for acting it was just something I never did and had never been interested in. But then he told me it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I thought about that and then I became interested and I was like yeah it really is. And I’ll never get the chance to be in a movie again so why not just go out and audition.

JACKIE: Did you reach your mom?

KYLE: Yeah I told her I was coming home.

JACKIE: Well did she want to talk to me or anything?

TOM McCARTHY: And in this very shut down, monosyllabic character, teenager that we all know and love so much, which is really difficult to bring to the screen actually because you run the risk of the character being very flat. And I think he found a way to be, to make his directness be very charming.
KYLE: If I wanna smoke, should I go outside?

JACKIE: You shouldn't smoke.

KYLE: I know but if I do.

JACKIE: Then yes you should go outside.

KYLE: All right. Good night Jackie.
TOM McCARTHY: You sort of get that although he’s very quiet and reserved, there’s still something, the mind is working under there you can kind of see it happening which I think felt very authentic to us.
JACKIE: You're good, I'm glad you started wrestling again.

KYLE: Yeah, me too.

JACKIE: No quitting this time. You got that?

KYLE: Can I tell you something?

JACKIE: Of course.

KYLE: I didn't quit my old wrestling team. I got thrown off.


KYLE: I stole a car.
TOM McCARTHY: It’s not so much about the ABC’s of wrestling or what particular move he’s gonna do it’s much more of an emotional game for him now that he has mastered the craft of wrestling so to speak and now it’s about where he puts himself in terms of his head space. I think this kid has found his own way of doing it, sadly it’s drawing on a lot of personal pain that he had to experience as a young man.
TERRY: [as Kyle fights with Mike] Kyle, Kyle, com'on, get up... whoa, I'm just the ref, I'm just the ref.

Paul Giamatti is a high school wrestling coach and Alex Shaffer is a teen with talent in "Win win."
Fox Searchlight
Paul Giamatti is a high school wrestling coach and Alex Shaffer is a teen with talent in "Win win."

ALEX SHAFFER: When I’m wrestling I’m always putting on a show for people it’s kind of what I like to do. I want people to watch me and say wow! Did he just do that? Oh my god how did he do that. I want people to watch me and be really interested in my match and I guess that’s what of me onscreen, I want people to feel about my acting, I want people to watch me and say holy crap this kid’s good at acting. You know I just want people to enjoy me. So I guess those two relate. Also I guess the discipline with wrestling. I was always very disciplined with acting I’m kind of disciplined.

TOM McCARTHY: My feeling is when audiences connect with characters they are going to go for the ride. They are going to believe it, they are going to enjoy that experience. And I think it's been really fun watching it with audiences and see what they take away.