Coburn Dukehart, NPR
Haaz Sleiman: Actor found parallels between his character's life and his own.
JoJo Whildon/Overture Films
Writer-director Tom McCarthy (right, with Sleiman and co-star Richard Jenkins) says The Visitor was all about enticing people — actors, characters, audiences — to leave their comfort zones and take a leap of faith.
Writer-director Tom McCarthy (right, with Sleiman and co-star Richard Jenkins) says The Visitor was all about enticing people — actors, characters, audiences — to leave their comfort zones and take a leap of faith. JoJo Whildon/Overture Films
A spare classical piano meets a rhythmic West African drum; the contrast is like a summary of the plot of The Visitor, a new movie that opens this weekend.
The film's main characters include Tarek Khalil, an immigrant from Syria whose big passions in life are his girlfriend and his drumming, and Walter Vale, a straight-laced, older American who learns to let go through music. The Visitor shows what happens when these two people from two very different worlds become friends.
Walter, played by Richard Jenkins, teaches global economics at a college in Connecticut; he's a widower whose late wife was a concert pianist. He tries to connect with his grief by taking piano lessons himself, but he doesn't get very far. His teacher tells him that "learning an instrument at your age is difficult, especially if you don't possess a natural gift for it." That certainly doesn't help Walter's sullen mood.
And then he goes to New York City for a speaking engagement, and finds a young immigrant couple living in his long-vacant apartment — they've been taken in by a real estate scammer. He lets them stay, and eventually they become friends, especially Walter and Tarek. Tarek teaches Walter to play the djembe, a West African drum, and his pedagogical style involves a lot more encouragement than the piano teacher offered.
His most trenchant piece of advice for the serious professor? "Walter, I know you're a very smart man, but with a drum you have to remember not to think. Thinking just screws it up."
Tom McCarthy, writer-director of The Visitor, says Walter's experience with the two instruments says a lot about how the character gets transformed over the course of the film.
"It's his journey from this sort of heady instrument that he can't seem to get the hang of to this West African drum, the djembe," McCarthy says. "It's sort of the difference in instruments. I mean the drum is something you don't even have to be good at. It can just be a sort of cathartic experience."
Actor Haaz Sleiman, who plays Tarek, is originally from Lebanon. He says he'd never touched the drums in his life before filming The Visitor. But he still found it easy to connect with his character.
"Tarek's path — moving from Syria to Michigan and then from Michigan to New York to pursue music — is very similar to mine," Sleiman says. "I did almost exactly the same thing, except I moved from Lebanon to Michigan and then to New York to pursue a career as a singer. Reading Tom's script was one of those things where you think the planets are aligned in some way."
To learn how to play the djembe, Sleiman spent several weeks taking daily lessons from a professional musician from Ghana. He says it's a lot harder than it looks.
Richard Jenkins, who plays Walter, says he played drums for about five years when he was a teenager, but never felt he played well.
"I never got out of my head as a drummer," Jenkins says. "I was still always counting. And I wasn't getting any better, so I stopped." Until shooting The Visitor, of course.
Jenkins says he, like Sleiman, has a lot in common with his character. He's not very adventurous, he says, and needs to be pushed to try new things. In the film, with its thematic concern with the freeing influence of music, Tarek insists that Walter listen to Afro-pop star Fela Kuti.
"And when I saw the film," says Jenkins, "I could almost see me relax when the Fela music started."
Throughout The Visitor, Walter looks like a fish out of water. In one scene he musters up enough courage to play in a drum circle in Central Park. In his buttoned-down shirt and tie, with a tense look on his face, he sits in a line of musicians, all looking joyful, all dressed in traditional African clothes or T-shirts and jeans. But once he starts playing, Walter blends right in.
In many ways, The Visitor is a movie about taking a leap of faith, whether it's moving to a new country, befriending someone from a different class or culture, or learning a new instrument. Screenwriter Tom McCarthy says to take that leap, you need to get out of your comfort zone.
"I think the key is always, as Tarek's character says in the film, to get out of your head," McCarthy says. "This movie has a little bit about music allowing someone to drop down out of their head and into their body and into their life."
Which doesn't mean things end up well for any of the characters in The Visitor. It is also a story about the precarious existence of immigrants in America — people who live in a place not their own, a place where comfort zones are smaller, and constantly changing.