NEW YORK - While writer-director-actor Tom McCarthy was shooting his third film, "Win Win," his star and longtime friend Paul Giamatti would occasionally turn to him and shake his head in befuddlement: "It's a weird movie, and I can't explain why."
McCarthy's career is no easier to describe than his shape-shifting movies. He seems to run on parallel, never intersecting lines: An actor in films and TV shows like "The Wire" and "Boston Public"; a writer on the Oscar-winning Pixar film "Up"; an acclaimed independent filmmaker, lauded now three times for writing and directing "The Station Agent," "The Visitor" and "Win Win," which already earned glowing reviews at the Sundance Film Festival.
"I'm a big believer in careers as something you look back on," says the 45-year-old McCarthy over lunch in at a SoHo café near his New York apartment. "It's gotten me this far."
"Win Win," which Fox Searchlight will release March 18, stars Giamatti as Mike Flaherty, an elder-law attorney in a small New Jersey town who unwittingly sets off a chain reaction of events when he, in a weak moment of financial anxiety, takes guardianship of an aged client so that he can earn some extra cash. His family (Amy Ryan plays Mike's wife) ends up taking in the client's wayward, teenage grandson (Alex Shaffer), who proves an excellent wrestler — much to the delight of Mike, a high school wrestling coach (with Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor as assistant coaches).
It's perhaps McCarthy's most crowd-pleasing movie, but it's also very much in line with "The Visitor" and "The Station Agent." All three are, above all else, humanistic films based on characters brought together in unlikely kinship.
McCarthy acknowledges the theme comes from living in New York, where his girlfriend calls him "the mayor" for his widespread acquaintances. (True to form, McCarthy greeted another patron at the café during the interview.)
"I've revisited it in every one of my movies," says McCarthy. "You can certainly link the two, and certainly find a lot of inspiration in terms of people and characters and lifestyles. ... Come on, that's why I love New York."
McCarthy grew up in the town "Win Win" is set: New Providence, N.J. The middle of five children, McCarthy's father was in the textile industry. He didn't have any designs on moviemaking or even acting, except for an early love of Broadway theater, which he'd beg his parents to take him to.
To help him get closer to suburban family life in New Providence, McCarthy developed the story of "Win Win" with a friend since childhood, Joe Tiboni, an elder law attorney.
"I've kind of seen the evolution of Tom over the years, from my friend who got cut from the basketball team with me to the writer-director," says Tiboni. "He had a good imagination and he was funny, but as far as envisioning him doing anything like this, I think everyone — including his family — would resoundingly say `No.'"
As an undergrad at Boston College, McCarthy fell in with a sketch comedy troupe, which he says was his "entry into it all": writing and performing, the two of which would henceforth always be mixed, intertwining disciplines for McCarthy. After graduating and doing a few plays in Chicago, he attended Yale School of Drama, where he first met Giamatti.
Parts in theater ("Noises Off" on Broadway), television ("Boston Public") and films ("Meet the Parents") followed. McCarthy was also writing his own plays, too, including "The Killing Act," which Peter Dinklage starred in. Dinklage would later star in McCarthy's "The Station Agent" as a loner who takes over an abandoned train depot in rural New Jersey and is befriended by townspeople (Cannavale, Patricia Clarkson).
"Tom is super articulate in matters ranging from everything to everything," says Cannavale, who met McCarthy in regional New York theater. "He understands how to speak to an actor and how to ask the kind of questions that are action-oriented."
McCarthy's acting background trained him to focus on character, which is where most of his scripts begin. He also credits European movies for the approach.
"You watch (European films) and they kind of live with the character," says McCarthy. "I feel that a lot more in European cinema, specifically — French, Scandinavian, Spanish — than I do American cinema, where we're slightly more ironic and sarcastic a lot. I've never responded to that."
It's an approach bent on authenticity, which comes across vibrantly in the portrayal of a loving, functional marriage in "Win Win." The film is full of subtle details on suburban life, depicted without sentiment or criticism.
"There was something perversely challenging about it to me in its conventionality and in the fact that it was such a world I never wanted to be a part of," says McCarthy. "I ran screaming from that world even though I had a great upbringing and a great family. It just wasn't where I wanted to be."
McCarthy is now writing a movie for Disney (another sports film, "Million Dollar Arm") and developing an idea with another writer. He continues to occupy a unique position in movies. He's not your classic actor-director, as he doesn't act in his own movies.
"It's never even been a debate for me," he says. "Part of that is just having too much respect for acting, how difficult it is, to really do it and do it well. There are what I'd call personality actors, whose very personality is so infused with their characters — your Clint Eastwoods, your Woody Allens — it's a little bit easier for them to click into that. I don't have that. Outside of saying I play a lot of weasels or bad guys, I don't think there's these strong characteristics."
He laughs: "Sometimes it makes me smile how I ended up here."
See the Trailer for 'Win Win':