“The Visitor,” one of the first great movies of 2008, was released in select cities this week and manages to portray Muslims as realistic, complicated, nuanced, and – for the first time in a long time – actually good looking human beings trying to live the “American Dream”. Unfortunately, the Muslim characters in The Visitor have traded their dream for a nightmare, as the film highlights a paranoid, security-obsessed, anti-immigrant, post-9/11 world.
Generally, tales of immigration, multicultural America, and “East meets West” culture clashes either immerse themselves in clichéd, cartoonish, stereotypical comedies or overt, bleeding heart, political slogans masquerading as plot narratives. Thankfully, Tom McCarthy, director of the runaway Sundance hit The Station Agent, creates a realistic, warm-hearted relationship drama about communication, redemption, and frustration focusing on the unlikely friendship formed between Walter, a depressed widowed university professor, and Tariq, his good natured Syrian musician immigrant friend.
In the course of teaching Walter the drum, their relationship blossoms and grows to include Tariq’s beautiful but reserved Sengalese girlfriend, Zaynab, and his widowed, Syrian mother Mona. altmuslim associate editor Wajahat Ali recently talked to director Tom McCarthy and lead actor Richard Jenkins about this new movie.
The movie has constant interactions, mostly very amusing and light and some tragic, between Eastern and Western cultures, but never done in a stereotypical way. Why do you think the drum awakens Walter more than the piano, which is more emblematic of “the Western culture?”
JENKINS: He’s looking in the same place for different answers and it ends up the same. You know, the piano, that world he’s in, it just doesn’t seem to float his boat and he can’t find his way out of this feeling. And I don’t think he consciously is saying, “I’m depressed” or “I’ve given up.” But, when he’s thrown in with this young man and his girlfriend in that world, I just think that the little light goes on that says “Maybe this is what I need. Maybe this is who I am.” I think the drama is more of an emotional instrument. It’s not as precise as the piano and it takes kind of a visceral commitment as opposed to an intellectual one.
A lot of people who are critical sometimes of Hollywood’s portrayal of ethnic minorities say there’s a certain type of character, whether it’s an African American or Asian or Middle Eastern, who they call the “magic dark person,” the “Bagger Vance…”
…who gives an infusion of funk and groove to the White character and then jigs away. And here we see all the characters develop an arc that exists outside what one would call the stereotypical “White man” point of view narrative. We actually see the lives of immigrants and their hardships. Why did you choose this nuanced narrative, when the more stereotypical and perhaps more lucrative Hollywood approach would have sufficed?
MCCARTHY: That’s just my style. That’s the kind of movies I want to make, the kind of movies I want to be associated with. I just think they’re more authentic and realistic. And I think ultimately, audiences respond to that. I think we’re led to believe that the audience needs this more fictionalised approach to storytelling. But I think audiences – and I know by screening it around the country, everywhere from DC to Phoenix to LA to Dallas to Chicago. Audiences are looking for authenticity. They’re looking for characters and movies that mix comedy and drama like this. And they really just respond to that. Sometimes we think they need to be more spoon fed information and they need to be handed things with a little more of a candy coated fantasy life to it. But what I find audiences really want is to invest in characters they can really believe in. And I think in terms of storytelling, I like the sort of set characters, real characters in place, and just let the events unfold organically. To me, this felt organic and felt authentic, I guess is the word I keep coming back to.
The Visitor – it’s a really clever title. The Visitor in one way can refer literally to immigrants who come to this country. Another spin is Walter visiting Tariq in jail. But it seemed to me that Walter was the visitor – an old American finally confronted with a new America that’s always existed under his nose. What’s your take on it?
MCCARTHY: I would agree with all those things. I think all those things are completely valid and maybe would also add to it that here’s a guy, in Walter, who’s sort of visiting his own life, sort of half heartedly. I remember Richard actually said this at one point… it really depends on what moment you’re at in the movie to understand who’s visiting. I think Walter is a visitor. I think certainly Tariq and Zaynab are visitors. I think it really depends on just where you’re picking up in the movie.
This is sort of what I really loved about the title. I think it implied, both specifically and universally, to the theme of the movie. Or themes.
Richard, do you think Walter is in fact the “visitor” in this movie?
JENKINS: I always thought he was, yes. I know that Tom [McCarthy] warned me he won’t commit to say who is or isn’t or what is. But I always thought that, yeah.
There’s going to be critics – I’m assuming it’s pretty sure it’s going to happen – who say this movie is just typical, flaming liberal, pro-immigrant, anti-conservative, Hollywood propaganda, humanising of Arabs and Muslims…
JENKINS: What a terrible thing, huh?
How would you or how have you responded to that knee jerk criticism?
MCCARTHY: I don’t really. I think people, you know, as in every aspect of this culture, they will have knee jerk criticism. I would say watch the movie and then decide. People will have that. I can’t control that. All I can do is present it and I do know that all of these experiences are, for me, personal experiences. They’re not fictional experiences. I lost my anger at a detention center. Much worse than Walter did. I went on the other side. The guy invited me back to continue the conversation and we were practically chest bumping. It was insane. I completely lost my cool. Walter experiences a similar thing. That’s a personal experience. That’s not a dramatic convention. I think this is far from a Hollywood movie in most ways. So I don’t think I can plainly apply that. But I think there is something cathartic in terms of that moment. But you know… yeah, you’re right. There are people who are going to say this and that.
I think that when you have any issue that is slightly political. I think this detention-immigration storyline is really a B storyline – it’s a C storyline. It’s there. So there are political aspects to the script. But I sort of defy anyone to make a modern day movie in New York and a thinking movie – a smart movie – without having a political element. I think that’s not only irresponsible, but it’s just unrealistic. I don’t know how you could have someone from another country in a movie in New York and not be dealing with some sort of political or social idea.
I was talking with an interviewer a while ago now, and someone said to me, “you have to admit, this guy you put in detention, he’s sort of a harmless Arab character, wouldn’t you say?” And I just went silent for a good minute and thought, “OK, that’s why I made this movie.” I don’t know what he’s referring to. Like, it’s so out of my realm. The fact that it was a writer was staggering to me. I thought, “Wow, is that really where we’re at?” You wouldn’t say, “Well, that’s a harmless gay character, a harmless black character.” Then you would realize that it’s weird.
Tariq is completely indicative of four or five different characters that I spent time with in Beirut. And spending time with these guys, I was like, “I gotta grab this character and I’ve gotta put this character in a movie.” It’s an original character to me, to my personal experience. I think while other people are maybe casting aspersions and knee jerk reactions… it’s like, “Well, have you done your research? Have you walked in not only my shoes but their shoes?” If so, then so be it.
JENKINS: I respond to it by saying that it was never an immigration movie. For me, that wasn’t what it was. It was a relationship movie. I know Tom said he was in Beirut and with his movie [i[The Station Agent and he met a lot of artists over there and he came back and he worked with them for something and he said, "I've never seen this portrayed on film. I've never seen these guys. And I want to portray them on film."
And it's about people connecting from different backgrounds, people that wouldn't probably be thrown in with each other. Everything changes when we know someone, when we stand in his or her shoes for a minute. I mean, I don't even know what my opinion on immigration is. It's so complicated. I just don't know. But I do know that it does change your ideas and your feelings about things can be molded if you know someone who is in that situation. It isn't just a political theory. I think that's what Tom's trying to do.
But I always saw it as a story about people. I know it's simplistic, but that's how I always approached it.
You make a really good point. The human aspect of the movie - there's no mention of Democrats or Republicans or politics. Last year, a lot of these movies, well intentioned, failed...
JENKINS: I think sometimes if you start with a political idea, that's a problem. I think that Tom never did that. Tom started and ended with a relationship story, a human story about these people. And this just happened to be part of the story.
You bring up some really good points here and it leads into what I was going to ask you. As a Muslim person myself, let me thank you for actually having good looking Muslims in the movie first...
...who actually speak English and use sentences and don't blow themselves up. It seems very simplistic, but you're right. You find yourself talking to educated people who should know better but don't. You actually cast Arabs for Arab-American roles, and that's unfortunately quite rare in Hollywood. How important was it to transcend these loathsome stereotypes we're bombarded with on a daily basis?
MCCARTHY: To be honest, when I finished The Station Agent, I got a call from the State Department and they were like, "Would you bring the movie to the Middle East? We want to send your movie as sort of an artistic outreach." And that's what sent me to Beirut.... first Oman, and then to Lebanon. And it was my first time in the region. To be quite honest, it was my first immersion into Arab culture. I was like, "Oh, my God."
I was in Beirut - I don't know if you've ever been there - I fell in love with that city, man. I fell in love with the people and was like, "Man, I want to do something here." And then I was invited back with this organization called Beirut PC, a wonderful organization there. It's like a film collective. They run the Beirut Film Festival, and they invited me back to work with young filmmakers developing a short film. So I went back and my passion for the people of that city was deepened.
I got back and was like, "OK, I've gotta immerse myself into the Arab culture here in New York and did so. I made a lot of friends, started hanging out in lots of different places. A friend of mine, she runs the Near East department at NYU, I attended a lecture of hers. It was great, it's a wonderful part of the job. I just want to meet as many people as I can and get a sense of this culture at many levels - academic, social, artistic, professional, anything. There's so many aspects. Going a concert with a friend of mine who's Palestinian and experiencing it all. A lot of that stuff gently sort of found its way into the movie. It was such a fun part of the writing. It was not really writing, it was experiencing life.
When you sit down to write, you want to get it right, you know what I mean? When you sit down to write, you want to get it right. You want to sort of present something that my friends now would sort of read and say, "Yeah, that's me. That's part of my culture. That's part of who I am. And I knew I was on to something because when I started to audition for this role in LA, in New York, in Paris, a lot of young Arab actors would come in and say, "Hey, whatever happens, thanks for doing this. It was a pleasure reading the script. It was a pleasure to prepare for this." I heard that again and again and again. It was sincere and I felt like I'm getting something right here. I'm sort of on to something that I feel is authentic and honest to both my experience and to people of this culture. So getting that right was very, very important.
Richard, your character reminds us of so many men we know, men weathered by age and grief and those who sometimes repress their passion and anger and frustration under a veil of stoicism. What causes Walter [the 62 year old, White, college professor protagonist played by actor Richard Jenkins] so stiff and a curmudgeon at first, to be so selfless with Tariq, Zaynab, and Mona [the undocumented Muslim immigrant characters]? Is it liberal guilt? Is it some savior complex? Is it a selfish, redemptive need and feeling for usefulness? What do you think?
JENKINS: Well, I think subconsciously they are what he’s looking for. He would never think to look there. And I think, what he sees… there’s something about this Tariq [the young Syrian musician]. There’s a vibe there. I don’t think it’s an intellectual choice on his part. I think there’s something that draws him in. He finds a connection because there’s something going on in this young man’s persona.
You seem to have a fulfilling career and you’re doing what you love, it seems, very passionately. Why did you choose this role of Walter and how did you tap into that repression and that anger?
JENKINS: I chose it because I haven’t read a script this good in… God, I just loved every second of it when I read it. And, you know, it’s an actor’s trade, it’s an actor’s challenge. That’s what we love to do and we love to find those places in ourselves that are closed off. And I approached it like I approach everything else that I do. But I have to say, this script was amazing and the people were amazing. We worked for two weeks with each other and got to know each other, understand each other a little better. So by the time we started shooting, we were friends.
Here’s a small criticism some have said about Walter’s character arc. Some say his apathy, which transforms into rage at the injustice of it all at the end, could be an unrealistic arc. What’s your take on that transformation? Could that have happened or is it glossed up for the sake of Hollywood fiction?
JENKINS: Absolutely it could happen. If you think he says, “We’ll get him [Tarik] out [of immigration detention] now” to Zaynab. Like “I’m here now, everything’s going to be fine. Now the grown ups are here. I’ll take care of this,” and the realization that she is just as helpless as anybody else and can’t do anything. That was absolutely real for me and, I think, really logical. I didn’t feel it was a stretch at all.
I agree. That’s my take on it as well. There’s going to be debate – there already is debate – and some criticism about the film’s ending (and for those people who don’t know anything about the film’s plot, don’t worry, I’m not going to ruin it). But we see Walter playing the drums in the subway. To me – and this is just my opinion – this is a language in which Walter can convey his anger – through art. And I recall the first scene where he played and the character Tariq says, “Don’t hit it like you’re angry with it.” So, what’s your take? Is it passion at the end? Is it anger? Is it freedom?
JENKINS: It’s all that. Absolutely all that. There is anger and there is freedom at the same time. There’s no ending, there’s no “everything’s fine now.” Cause it isn’t. That’s what I felt when I was playing. I felt angry and I felt free at the same time.
MCCARTHY: I think yes to all three. All of the above. I think all of those – and I think I would add to that conviction. He is now a man with conviction and purpose. And I don’t think he was at the beginning of the movie. I think in some sense there’s an emotional renaissance of this character – of all the characters on some level. And that provides the film with a hopeful quality. That the end is not just – it’s not a bleak ending in some odd way. It’s not because I think the most important thing that’s been forged here is this connection. And this connection is palpable and this connection is hopeful. Richard’s somewhat defiant – or at the very least defining act – in the last scene, without giving it away for those who haven’t seen the movie – makes the case for that.
Let me ask this question from the ethnic minority perspective. Muslims, Arabs, Middle Easterners are very skeptical when it comes to Hollywood portrayals of them. It’s been a dishonorable smearing and caricaturizing for nearly a century. How is this movie different in that regard and can this movie in 21st century cinema truly be a vehicle to bridge those gaps? Do you think that the depictions can really change this negative perception? Can it get better?
JENKINS: I don’t know. I know Tom was incredibly… his desire to bring these people who he hadn’t seen on film to film, he just hadn’t seen this world before. And I know he was very careful in trying to portray these people as they really are. Not as how we perceive them in films or on the news, but really as human beings. That was his goal. And as I said, he worked with so many artists in Beirut and just fell in love with them and said, “My gosh, I just don’t see these guys in films.”
So, I hope so. I don’t know what the politics are and I don’t know what one feels about immigration, but I do know that once you know somebody, everything changes. Maybe people will stop and think, “What if that was my kid? How would I feel?” Because it is somebody’s kid. I think if it does that at all, it’ll be nice.
MCCARTHY: I hope so. I hope it continues to open. I think there’s a lot of interesting stories and lifestyles out there. I think there’s so many wonderful things to explore just in terms of storytelling and I think we ought to open our eyes a little bit and see, like Walter does, that some of those things are right under our nose. For me as a writer, I look at it as such a wealth of material, all these different backgrounds and cultures. For me, it’s just exciting to explore. Hopefully everyone else will continue to do that. There are a lot of young, wonderful writers doing just that. Hopefully, times are a-changin’.
The Visitor opens this week in the US, July 4th in the UK, and September 17th in France.
Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at goatmilk.wordpress.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.