Discussing his film “The Visitor” during a stop in Dallas with its star Richard Jenkins, actor turned writer-director Tom McCarthy recalled his meeting with a Nigerian illegal who’d been taken into custody by the INS, which tried to send him back to Africa without returning the papers he’d brought with him. McCarthy had helped him secure the documents before his ultimate departure.
“I met a lot of people like that,” McCarthy said. “It’s heartbreaking. A lot of them are just decent people. They’re here illegally, undocumented. They broke the law because they wanted to be here—they wanted to work and were willing to take that route. These guys don’t hold up well under those [detention] circumstances. If they stuck me in a room for two or three years without any connection to family or legal help, I’d freak out, too. This is the kind of thing that made me want to write the movie.”
But the central character in “The Visitor” isn’t an immigrant at all; he’s Walter Vale, a burnt-out academic who’s awakened emotionally by his friendship with a couple of illegals—a Syrian musicians and a Senegalese jewelry-maker, whom he discovers living in his supposedly vacant New York apartment when he makes an impromptu trip to the city. He tries to help the musician when the man is arrested and placed in a detention center.
So to which of the characters does the title refer?
“Well, it’s obviously dealing with immigrants on some level,” McCarthy replied. “There are so many levels. I came up with that title early on, and it just resonated with me for obvious reasons. I think there are so many ways to explore that theme throughout the movie—who is the visitor? Every three minutes we’ve got another visitor walking through the door. But I think that it’s also emblematic of New York City, a city of immigrants, of visitors. It’s where the amazing energy of the city comes from.
“In New York, you can travel by staying in the city. You can just say, ‘I’m going to plug into this [different] society for awhile.”
McCarthy recalled spending some time in the Arabic section of the city, and said, “It was a whole different New York. I didn’t see anyone I knew, didn’t go places I usually do. It was like being on vacation, visiting my own city through a very different lens.”
Jenkins remembered a similar feeling. “We were walking down the street at night, in the summer, and there were about five languages being spoken on that street. And Tom said, ‘Where else?’
“But,” he added, “I’m the only legalized citizen [in the story], and I’m visiting this world. Walter knows it exists out here, but I’m really stepping into another culture. And so in my own city I could say they’re the outsiders, but really they’re not. It’s their world that I choose to visit.”
Jenkins was the first actor that McCarthy thought of for the role of Vale. “I dreamed of him,” McCarthy said. “I just had him in mind. I work that way quite a bit. When I really started to lock in on the character of Walter, Richard was someone I had very much in mind.”
For Jenkins that was both a blessing and a curse. He said that he imagined McCarthy saying to him after a take, “I wrote it for you, and you screwed it up.” And he recalled McCarthy once saying that in casting the part he’d vacillated between him and Gene Hackman.
“I wanted to do this and I was ready to do it,” Jenkins said. “But after the first day of shooting, you wonder how it looks. And the next day, after Tom had seen the dailies…he called me up and said, ‘If Gene Hackman’s free…’
“I do think that if Gene Hackman had been doing it, the dressing room would have been nicer.”