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THE BIG PICTURE PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Filmmaker takes on illegal immigration

September 05, 2007|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Some of McCarthy's actors had life stories not so dissimilar from their characters. When McCarthy cast Haaz Sleiman, a young Lebanese actor, as Tarek, Sleiman told him he wouldn't have trouble with the role, saying "my story is pretty much like the one in the movie." Sleiman was especially happy to play the part of a warmhearted musician since, as an Arab American actor, he had been largely typecast as playing a terrorist in TV dramas.

Richard Jenkins had been typecast, in his own way, as a slyly comic character actor (as in his role as the dead father on "Six Feet Under"). It took McCarthy to envision Jenkins as a man in need of a spiritual awakening. "He has a wonderful everyman quality," says McCarthy. "He totally absorbed this character, this person who, like most of us, hasn't achieved everything he wanted in life -- a guy whose flame has been extinguished."

When McCarthy began meeting with investors, he made it clear that he had no interest in casting a big name in the lead -- it was Jenkins, all or nothing. "Tom knew what everyone would say," recalls London, who first met McCarthy when the actor was in "The Guru," a film London produced. "Tom said to everybody, 'I'm gonna show you the script and you're gonna tell me you want a movie star and I'm gonna say, "I want Richard Jenkins," and then I'm gonna find out who really wants to make the movie.' "

Indeed, McCarthy found that no studio wanted to bankroll a movie starring a little-known actor. Like so many filmmakers these days, he turned to indie financiers who are more willing to take risks with difficult subject matter. Groundswell and Participant teamed up to finance the picture, which was made for less than $10 million.

McCarthy felt especially comfortable with Participant, which has backed issue-oriented films, notably "Good Night, and Good Luck" (in which McCarthy had an acting part) and Groundswell, which makes its debut with this film and draws on London's experience as a producer of such films as "Sideways" and "The Illusionist." The film also reunites McCarthy with producer Mary Jane Skalski, with whom he worked on "The Station Agent."

Jenkins' presence turns out to be a huge plus. He plays a character we instinctively identify as the kind of American we've seen in films going back to the days of Frank Capra and John Ford -- a decent man who empathizes with people in trouble, who sees wrong and tries to right it.

Before filming began, McCarthy brought his production design team on his detention center visits to ensure they captured the bland, Kafka-esque look of the centers. "They don't look like prisons," he says. "They're very generic, like a factory, except they are factories filled with human cargo."

The actors were also brought to visit before filming. "They were pretty shook up, which is the way most people get when they realize that this is going on in America," McCarthy says. "I just want people to ask themselves -- is the best way for us to handle this? Are we really doing the right thing?"

McCarthy insists he that he's not the sort of filmmaker who wants to hit anyone over the head with a message. "I certainly didn't set out to make a film that's ripped from the headlines. But our job as storytellers is to reflect what goes on in our world. If the movie feels timely, I guess it's because our story and the headlines just found each other."

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The Big Picture normally runs on Tuesday in Calendar. Ideas or criticism can be e-mailed to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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