In actor and filmmaker Tom McCarthy?s follow-up to his award winning directorial debut The Station Agent, Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) stars as a disillusioned Connecticut economics professor whose life is transformed by a chance encounter in New York City.
A poignant and often funny film about rediscovering joy in the most unexpected places, The Visitor boasts an international cast including Jenkins, Haaz Sieiman (24), Obie Award winner Danai Guria and Hiam Abbass (Munich). McCarthy wrote and directed the film. Michael London (Sideways) and Mary Jan Skalski (Mysterious Skin) are the film?s producers. Oliver Bokelberg (Dark Matter) is the Director of Photography. Oscars winner Jan A.P. Kaczamarek (Finding Neverland) composed the music. John Paino (Brothers Solomon) is the Production Designer. Costumes are by Melissa Toth (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). The film is edited by Tom McArdle (The Architect).
In The Visitor sixty-two-year-old Walter Vale (Jenkins) is sleepwalking through his life. Having lost his passion for teaching and writing, he fills the void by unsuccessfully trying to learn to play classical piano. When his college sends him to Manhattan to attend a conference, Walter is surprised to find a young couple has taken up residence in his apartment. Victims of a real estate scam, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian man and Zainab (Danai Gurira), his Senegalese girlfriend, have nowhere else to go. In the first of a series of tests of the heart, Walter reluctantly allows the couple to stay with him.
Touched by his kindness, Tarek, a talented musician, insists on teaching the aging academic to play the African drum. The instrument?s exuberant rhythms revitalize Walter?s faltering spirit and open his eyes to a vibrant world of local jazz clubs and Central Park drum circles. As the friendship between the two men deepens, the difference in culture, age, and temperament fall away.
After being stopped by police in the subway, Tarek is arrested as an undocumented citizen and held for deportation. As his situation turns desperate, Walter finds himself compelled to help his new friend with a passion he thought he had long ago lost. When Tarek?s beautiful mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) arrives unexpectedly in search of her son, the professor?s personal commitment develops into an unlikely romance. It?s through these newfound connections with three virtual strangers that Walter is awakened to a new world and a new life.
Richard Jenkins (Walter Vale) is one of the most in-demand character actors in Hollywood. His memorable performance alongside Ben Stiller in Flirting with Disaster (1996) netted him an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Male. He recently wrapped production on The Broken, a horror film in which he stars opposite Lena Headley, and Burn After Reading, a comedic drama starring George Clooney and directed by the Coen Brothers. He co-stars in Adam McKay?s Step Brothers, a comedic re-teaming of Will Ferrall and John C Reily (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) scheduled for 2008 release.
Prior to his film work, the actor developed a long and distinguished regional theater career, most notably a 15 year stint at Rhode Island?s Trinity Repertory Theater, where he served as artistic director for four years. After a small role in the Lawrence Kasdan film Silverado (1985), Jenkins found himself working regularly supporting parts in such films as Ken Harrison?s On Valentine?s Day (1996), Hannah And Her Sister (1986), The Witches of Eastwick (1987), and Sea Of Love (1989) followed, Jenkins spent the early ?90s specializing in made-for-TV movies, including HBO?s Emmy Award winning adaptation of Randy Shilts? bestseller about the discovery of the AIDS virus, ?And the Band Played On? (1993). Later in the decade, Jenkins gained wider appreciation, especially as he indulged his talent for comedy. His appearance as an uptight gay FBI agent who is accidentally drugged was one of the highlights of David O. Russell?s Flirting with Disaster (1996).
Working again with Ben Stiller, Jenkins appeared as a psychiatrist in There?s Something about Mary (1998), which launched a relationship with directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly. Jenkins also appeared in the Farelly-produced Outside Providence (1999) and Say It Ain?t So (2001), as well as in the Ferrally-directed Me, Myself and Irene (2000). The actor then shifted over to another pair of movie-making brothers to portray the father of Scarlet Johansson?s character in Joel and Ethan Coen?s noir The Man Who Wasn?t There (2001). The same year, Jenkins appreared in te first season of HBO?s ?Six Feet Under? as Nathaniel Fisher Sr., the wry funeral home director who his family members recall as an impenetrable mystery, frugal with his praise and emotions. Most recently, Jenkins has appeared in Intolerable Cruelty (2003), Cheaper By The Dozen (2003), I Heart Huckabees (2004), Shall We Dance (2004), North Country (2005), Fun with Dick and Jane (2005) and Rumor Has It (2005).
Haaz Sleiman (Tarek) appeared in a three-episode arc on Fox?s Emmy winning series ?24? as a detained terrorism suspect. Sleiman has also guest starred on such television shows as ?Navy NCIS? and ?Veronica Mars?. In 2006, Sleiman completed the indie films AmericanEast, directed by Hesham Issawi and written by Sayed Badreya and Issawi. Sleiman co-stars in this film about a family man (Badreya) who opens a Middle Eastern restaurant with this Jewish best friend (played by ?Monk? star and three-time Emmy winner Tony Shalhoub).
Sleiman also co-stars in the Universal feature Amerian Dreamz directed by Paul Weitz (American Pie, In Good Company) with Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid, Marcia Gay Harden and Willem Datoe. Other film credits include Offside: The Price of Dreams, directed by Erik Laibe, where he played a hit man: The Ski Trip, helmed by Maurice Jamal, and What Goes Around, directed by Korna Stonz, where he played an ethnically mixed drug dealer from Brooklyn. The actor also appeared on the television show ?ER? played an American soldier in Iraq. He was cast in a recurring role for the CBS pilot ?Company Town?, where he played an influential Arab billionaire pursued by government agents. Another television credit was supporting role as the slave of the Persian king in the Discovery Channel special ?Battle Ground: Alexander,? about the life of Alexander the Great.
Sleiman played an Iranian soldier in the off Broadway play ?Joys of Lipstick? in New York City. The play revolves around an Iranian family that moves to the U.S and battles to hold onto their own culture. He currently resides in Los Angeles.
Hiam Abbass (Mouna) was born in Nazareth. She studied photography in Haifa and theatre in Jerusalem where she worked mainly on stage with different theatre troupes until she left her country in 1988. After a stay in London, she settled in Paris, where her acting career in cinema began. She worked early on in French and Middle Eastern movies.
Her feature credits include, Azur Et Asmar, Free Zone (co-starring with Natalie Portman), Desengagment (with Juliette Binoche), Aime Ton Pere, (with Gerard Depardieu), Haifa (with Mohammed Bakri), Dialogue Ave Mon Jardinier (with Daniel Auteui), Vivre Au Paradis, L?Ange Du Gourdron by the Quebequios Denis Chouinard, Satin Rouge, The Syrian Bride by Eran Riklis, for which she was nominated for a European Film Award, Munich, The Nativity Story and the Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee Paradise Now. Soon, she?ll be seen in Eran Riklis Lemon Tree, La Fabrique Des Sentiments with (Elsa Zylberstein), Un Roman Policier (with Olivier Marshal), and Kandisha (with David Rasmussen?s movie Romance In The Dark.
She worked as an acting coach on Munich, Babel by Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu, The Nativity Story, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Julian Schnabel, often helping children and other first time actors to access their emotions for the cinema. Abbass has also written and directed two short films, Le Pain (2000) and La Danse Eternelle (2003).
Danai Gurira (Zainab) was born in the United States and raised in Zimbabwe. She received her M.F.A. in acting from New York University, where she appeared as Juliet in ?Romeo and Juliet? and Ruby in ?King Hedley II.? She is a recipient of a 2006 OBIE Awards and a 2006 John Gassner Outer Critics Award and has been honored by the Theatre Hall of Fame. In 2007, Gurira won the Helen Hayes Award for Best Actress in a Play for ?In the Continuum,? which she co-wrote. Her television credits include ?Law and Order: Criminal Intent.? She also appeared in the film Ghost Town.
Walter is a 62 year old college professor who is alone and has lost his enthusiasm for anything that ever meant something to him. Barely able to hide his disinterest in his students, his writing or his friends, he tries to fill the void in his life by learning classical piano, his late wife?s passion. Forced to attend a conference in New York City by the college, Waler reluctantly returns to his long abandoned apartment he once shared with his wife, only to find two strangers have taken up residence in his absence. Finding a forgotten kindness, Walter allows the couple to stay. He opens his apartment to the young couple, and they in turn open up a whole new world to Walter and eventually revitalize his faltering spirit.
Tarek is a young man of Syrian decent who moved to America as a boy with his mother. A talented musician, Tarek brings his African drum to New York City and becomes a fixture in the vibrant world of local jazz clubs and Central Park drum circles. Though he was never a documented US citizen, he lives a rich and fulfilling life in the city. After being mistakenly stopped by police in the subway, Tarek is arrested as an undocumented citizen, entering a post 9-11 maze of confusion and bureaucracy.
Zainab is a young artist from Senegal and Tarek;s girlfriend. An undocumented citizen like Tarek, she makes ends meet by selling her beautiful jewelry creation in markets on the streets of New York. Initially questioning Walter and his kindness to the couple, she warily settles into their new life in the apartment. When Tarek is arrested, Zainab is forced to not only comtemplate staying at the apartment with Walter, but what will become of her now that she is alone.
Tarek?s mother brought him to America when he was a boy to keep him safe from persecution by the Syrian government. It is only when Mouna arrives unexpectedly at Walter?s apartment door that she learns Tarek has been arrested and will most likely de deported back to Syria. An undocumented citizen herself, Mouna forges an alliance with Walter to communicate with Tarek and try to keep him in the country. An unlikely romance develops as Mouna balances the guilt that Tarek?s situation may be her own fault and the realization that if he is deported she will follow, giving up a life and friend she has built here.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
?It?s always difficult to point to the exact inspiration for a film,? says Tom McCarthy, director and writer of The Visitor. ?I collect a lot of different ideas and keep them in one big file, and then I pull out that ones that are most resonant for me.? McCarthy wowed Hollywood with his first project, The Station Agent, a low budget independent movie that made waves well beyond the indie film world. In fact, the U.S. State Department invited McCarthy to take it to the MiddleEast as part of a cultural outreach program.
It was during that trip that McCarthy first started thinking about the deep chasm separting Americans from the inhabitants of much of the rest of the world. ?I was in Oman and in Lebanon, two amazing countries,? he says. ?I was struck by how little I knew about the region, about the people, about the culture. Our country is so involved politically and militarily there, but with all the news and the headlines and the drama, we cant forget that there are human beings on both sides of this. How can I eliminate that a little bit? That always is my call to arms.?
McCarthy was struck by the artists he met there and the passion they brought to their work. ?I thought, ?I want to capture this? That?s where I got the idea for the character of Tarek.?
At the same time, the filmmaker had been separately developing the character of an aging college professor who had lost his passion for his vocation. ?Somewhere along the way, the two came together,? says McCarthy.
The Station Agent producer Mary Jane Skalski was one of the first to read the developing screenplay. ?I had an idea of what he was writing and I?d read pages here and there.? She remembers. ?But when I got the first full draft, I didn?t really know what to expect.?
Skalski was struck by the film?s humanity and its sense of hope. ?It?s a story about four people and how their lives come together and are changed because of it. It?s about just going a little bit beyond yourself and how your life can change when you do that. Yes, it?s another opportunity to entertain people to just be a little be more.?
Little decisions, says McCarthy, sometimes make the biggest differences in life. ?Many of the choices that send us in a completely different direction in life are arbitrary. I think that?s the magic of life, isn?t it? It makes us realize, as much as we like to imagine we have control over our fate and destiny, we really don?t.
?That?s something that happens in this movie,? adds the director. ?Walter has no intention of going to New York. He does everything he can to get out of it. He makes a snap decision to help two kids out of a jam, and in doing so, he discover a new musical life. Who could predict these things??
While McCarthy and Skalski are adamant The Visitor is primarily about the characters, ultimately it lso deals with issues surrounding the hot-button topic of immigration. After returning from the Middle East to his home base in New York, McCarthy began to spend time in the city?s vibrant Arab community. During his research, he heard the story of a young man who had been confined to a government detention center on immigration charges. McCarthy eventually began visiting detainees and learned that many of them didn?t have legal representation.
?We?re not standing on a soap box and saying this is right or this is wrong, but rather let?s approach this situation with empathy and with understanding,? says the director. ?We?re dealing with people, not just a cause.?
In addition to Mary Jan Skalski, McCarthy brought back a number of his collaborators from The Station Agent to work on The Visitor. ?My cinematographer, Oliver Bokelberg, read a very early draft of this. Tom McArdle, my editor, and John Paino, my production designer, did as well. It?s a joy to be able to include these guys very early on because we share a common vision of the type of movies we want to make. We?ve even started to develop a shorthand for working with each other.?
?McArdle and I sat down a number of times before we shot the movie to talk through all the things we would usually talk through after we shot the movie,? he continues. ?It?s a wonderful opportunity to do that with an editor you trust. What happens by the time you actually begin shooting or the design stage or the editing stage, is that you have a history with these people and the story has a history among you, which is crucial. They keep me on track and remind me of the vision we had when we started.?
McCarthy and Skalski were working with two new partners as well, the production companies Participant and Groundswell. McCarthy had previous experience working with both companies as an actor ? in Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck for Participant and in The Guru for Groundswell.
?Groundswell and Participant were two of the first companies we turned to when it was time to finance this film because of their commitment to telling original stories and their track records in making it happen,? says McCarthy. ?They had a lot of input and a lot of ideas along the way, but they were also very committed to my vision of the film. We were all very clear about the type of movie we wanted to make.?
Authencity was one of the most important elements for McCarthy throughout the making of this movie, says Skalski. ?The movie hinges on people who are taking a leap of faith and therefore the audience has to take that leap of faith too. And how could they do that is a moment ever didn?t feel true??
McCarthy says that he didn?t setout to make a political statement but rather to reveal the human face on something that was quickly becoming a major issue. ?The characters are embroiled in a situation that is very much in the national consciousness right now: immigration and detention. It may not change the world, but at the very least, it?s reminding us of the human element and consequences to a very divisive issue. I guess, in some small way, I?m holding up the mirror up and saying, ?This is what?s going on. Do we like it? Do we not? Is there room for debate?? Rather than providing answers, McCarthy sees the filmmakers? job as raising questions ? but never at the expense of telling a compelling story. ?In the end, this is a love story, and a story of friendship. The story keeps evolving in a very simple way. There are funny moments, tragic moments, and even mundane moments. I think it?s reflective of how life unfolds.?