Intrusion Becomes Friendship in "The Visitor" In the new film The Visitor, a college professor comes home to find two undocumented immigrants living in his apartment, a surprise that changes his life. Director Tom McCarthy and cast members Richard Jenkins and Hazz Sleiman discuss making the film and the message they hope it conveys.
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Intrusion Becomes Friendship in "The Visitor"

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Intrusion Becomes Friendship in "The Visitor"

Intrusion Becomes Friendship in "The Visitor"

Intrusion Becomes Friendship in "The Visitor"

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89715421/89715411" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In the new film The Visitor, a college professor comes home to find two undocumented immigrants living in his apartment, a surprise that changes his life. Director Tom McCarthy and cast members Richard Jenkins and Hazz Sleiman discuss making the film and the message they hope it conveys.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Picture this. After a long absence, you turn the key to your apartment. Living there are two young people you've never met before, whom you strongly suspect are not just in your apartment illegally, but in the country illegally. Your first reaction is probably to throw the bums out. But if your second reaction is to wonder who they are and how they got there, then you'll be intrigued by "The Visitor." It's a new film written and directed by Tom McCarthy. Tom McCarthy joins us now in our studio in Washington. Also with him are actors Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman who both star in the film. It's currently in theaters in New York and Los Angeles and opens in other cities this weekend. Thank you all for joining us. Mr. TOM MCCARTHY (Director, "The Visitor"): Pleasure to be here.

Mr. RICHARD JENKINS (Actor, "The Visitor"): Nice to be here.

Mr. HAAZ SLEIMAN (Actor, "The Visitor"): Thank you.

MARTIN: Tom, let me start with you. The headlines in the talk shows are filled now with angry arguments about illegal immigration. So one might think this is not the most propitious time for a film that tells a sympathetic story about two people without papers. So what drew you to the story? What made you think of this?

Mr. MCCARTHY: Well, you know, honestly, I started writing this script about three years ago. So at the point, it was still an obviously important topic in this country, but it wasn't, as you pointed out, so front page, and so red button as it is right now, running up into this election year. But I think a part of it was really just the characters. I had just come back from spending some time in the Middle East, in Beirut, and I had met a lot of people that reminded me of this character, Tarek, and Tarek needed a girlfriend, which turned out to be a Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab. And you know, it's tough to make a movie with characters from other countries and not deal with the issue of immigration. And so it was really a very organic extension of the story.

MARTIN: Interesting. So you didn't start with the story, you started with the people? Thinking about the people.

Mr. MCCARTHY: Absolutely. Yeah.

MARTIN: Interesting. Richard Jenkins. Many people will know you from your recurring role on the hit HBO series, "Six Feet Under." You star as Walter Vale, an economics professor who's had a very difficult time in his life. He's in the state of - I don't think it's giving too much away to say, he's widowed, not quite sure how recently...

Mr. JENKINS: Seven years.

MARTIN: And he's obviously in a state of grief. Kind of barely functioning. He's functioning, but barely functioning.

Mr. JENKINS: He's trying in his own kind of limited way to keep on truckin', and it just doesn't seem to be working for him. He's kind of going through the motions. But I understand the reticence to change, and sometimes I need to be pushed in new directions. And when I am, I really love it. So, that was just one element that I connected to and understood.

MARTIN: When your character first stumbles on the couple in his apartment, it's obvious that everybody is surprised, and we're going to play a short clip.

(Soundbite of movie "The Visitor")

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Vale) Sorry. I'm sorry.

Ms. DANAI GURIRA: (As Zainab) You stay away from me. You leave me alone.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Vale) It's OK.

Ms. GURIRA: (As Zainab) My boyfriend is coming.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Vale) I'm not going to hurt you.

Ms. GURIRA: (As Zainab)Who are you? What are you doing here?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Vale) This is my apartment.

Ms. GURIRA: (As Zainab) How did you get in here?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Vale) My name is Walter Vale. I have keys. This is my apartment.

(Soundbite of scuffle)

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Shut up!

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Vale) OK, OK.

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Who are you?

Ms. GURIRA: (As Zainab) (Sengalese spoken)

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) You have keys?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Vale) Of course, I have keys. This is my apartment.

Ms. GURIRA: (As Zainab) (Sengalese spoken)

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Show me your keys.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Vale) All right. Here. I've had this apartment for 25 years.

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Are you friends with Ivan?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Vale) Ivan? I don't know. Who's Ivan?

Ms. GURIRA: (As Zainab) I'm sure he's called the police.

MARTIN: So "who were you" is really at the heart of this whole thing, isn't it? Hazz, you would be the boyfriend.

Mr. SLEIMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: And you star as Tarek. Your character has quite a back-story. Could you tell us a little bit about Tarek?

Mr. SLEIMAN:: Tarek is a young guy from Syria. His father was imprisoned in Syria for something he wrote, for seven years. And then when he got out of jail he died soon after. And so him and his mother, they go to Michigan to seek a new life, a new beginning, sort of, from that tragedy. And then - he also plays the Djembe, the African drum, and decides to go to New York to pursue a career in music. And in that process, meets this beautiful young Senegalese woman, and they become, like, seriously connected in many ways.

And I was doing some research. I found out that, like, there's a big Lebanese population in Senegal and the west end of Africa, and so when you see that, those two people, it's so real. There's a lot of that, you know, you see those kind of connections.

MARTIN: But Tarek is Syrian.

Mr. SLEIMAN: He is, but what I mean, it's still from that area, from that region. Syrian-Lebanese and - with African women. It's authentic. It's not like, oh, just because it's in New York it could happen. But it's happening also in Africa.

MARTIN: So it wasn't just basically, you're saying, sort of for artistic effect that all these folks were thrown together. They're not, you know, just sort of acting as metaphors. These are things that, you know, people really have, these real relations.

I wanted to ask you about - you play a mean drum. Did you know how to play before the film?

Mr. MCCARTHY: Well, thank God for editors. No, I actually never touched a drum in my life, and it's funny. Richard knew how to drum more than I did, and so, yeah, every day I drummed for like three hours a day. You know, later on, when we were shooting, it was also a challenge because I had to play with the live band, like really professional. You know, the guy, Muhammad Ali, who taught me how to drum, he was part of a trio band, and you know, I was playing with them. Only the difference, he had experience of over like 30 years. I had experience for a month and a half. So, there was some sort of a difference, I would say.

MARTIN: Well, OK, I wouldn't know. It was hot to me. As far as I was concerned, it was hot.

Mr. MCCARTHY: Oh, good, I'm glad you thought that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Tom, the thing about the scene that we just played, it's a lot of things going on there, and one of the things that you point out is that there - the scams that immigrants are often subjected to. The fact that they come here and sort of create new lives here that they might not have had at home. I don't want to go into sort of all of the details of the film, because I think that the enjoyment of it is sort of how the characters begin to connect to each other in the circumstances, but something tragic does happen in the middle of it. Is it giving too much away to say one of the twists?

Mr. MCCARTHY: Yeah. Yeah. No. I mean it isn't, and at this point, it's kind of out there, but one of the - when Tarek and Walter are stopped in the subway, really, for what amounts to a misunderstanding. But a misunderstanding with the cops for someone who's undocumented at this point, especially a young Arab man, can, as it does in the story, lead to something else, and he gets turned over to ICE and put in a detention center.

MARTIN: And Walter chooses not to wash his hands of the situation. Walter chooses to remain engaged with this couple at this point and to stay close to them during this sort of terrible situation. And we're not going to sort of tell you how it all comes out, but do you find that improbable?

Mr. MCCARTHY: No. Not really, because it's sort of what happened to me with my process of researching this story. You know, I visited my first detention center, quite honestly, just for research. I didn't even know I was going to write about it. It's just like, well, this is something, I read a story. I thought, wow, these are - there's a detention center in Queens, there's one in Manhattan, there's one in Elizabeth, New Jersey. These are all a couple of miles from my front door. I live in Manhattan. And I visited this one in Queens and I was blown away by it.

In the course of that, I met a young Nigerian guy who had been in detention for three and a half years and we just kind of connected. There was nothing but a friendship between us. I couldn't do anything for him legally, but I was so drawn in emotionally to his story that I stayed very involved in his life and in his story in that detention center, until ultimately he was deported and quite honestly, I was a part of that. So, I was very passive at first, much like Walter Vale, and then emotionally became very involved.

MARTIN: Do you think, though, that in the way you're shading the story, in that these characters are so lovely - they're beautiful people, they are kind people, they are artistic, and there are people who are very angry about this situation, this whole scenario, who just feel that illegal immigrants are, by definition, criminals, that they are sort of taking something away from Americans, and I just wonder how you feel the people who might have that view might react to this story?

Mr. MCCARTHY: I guess I always just want to make sure that that view is based on personal experience and not on something they've heard or read about. I know I spent a year visiting detainees, listening to a lot of stories, talking to lawyers on both sides of the issue, talking to homeland security agents. By and large, there's a lot of very decent people in these things. I'm not saying that they haven't broken or bent the law in some way to arrive in these places, but a lot of them are people who have never been incarcerated. Most of them, in many cases up to 90 percent, a lot of these facilities do not have any sort of legal support, and you know, this is one story I chose to tell. Again, based on a character that was, you know, from my own personal experience.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're talking about the film "The Visitor" with writer and director Tom McCarthy and actors Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman, who star in the film. Richard, what about you? Do you find the relationship plausible?

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah. I do. I really did and, you know, the choice to help someone, you know, everything changes once you know someone and we were friends. I mean, we were really friends. But even when he asked me, and he said, don't forget about me, it's scary. You know, it's a commitment. And I do feel responsibility a little bit for this because he was with me and taking me somewhere to let me experience the drums and we were doing all this stuff. So, absolutely I find it plausible, yeah.

MARTIN: Haaz, how did you experience this film emotionally? I mean, you're a Lebanese American and I assume at some point your family had an immigrant experience. Do you find the relationship plausible? How did you sort of navigate your own feelings in it? Clearly, being in that situation, one would feel very vulnerable and one of the things that's interesting about your character is that your character is still giving, despite his own vulnerability.

Mr. SLEIMAN: Yeah. I think, you know, part of the process is, of course - I mean, there's a lot of my own personal experience, and the journey that I've been through so far, coming from Lebanon here. So there's a lot of stuff that I understand about what Tarek, you know, went through. But for me, what did it is when we went to an actual detention center, me and Richard. Tom took us there, and we met a couple of detainees and we spent some time with them and talked to them, and that's what did it for me emotionally, to get, like, the extent and the seriousness of that and the isolation. And I realized that those people, some of them are hopeless. They have no hope. For me, I chose that Tarek wouldn't have that because he had Walter Vale.

MARTIN: You both talked about how your relationship changed after Tarek's character is detained and then Walter's character decides against, perhaps, all odds that he's going to maintain a relationship. Let's play a short clip from when Walter chooses to visit Tarek in the facility.

(Soundbite of movie "The Visitor")

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) So how are they treating you?

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Very depressing here. There's no privacy. The lights are always on.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) You need anything?

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) No. I just want to get out of here.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) Zainab and I met with a lawyer today.

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Yes? What did he say?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) He's going to stop by tomorrow and see you. Tarek, Zainab said that you were denied asylum?

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) You mean when we came here? Yeah.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) Did you go to your deportation hearing?

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Yeah.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) In Michigan?

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Yeah, we did everything they told us to. I have to go. They have to do a bed count. Usually I can visit for one hour. Could you come tomorrow?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) I will.

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Good. Bye-bye, my friend.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) Good-bye.

MARTIN: Richard, I wanted to ask you. First, there's so much subtlety in the relationship between these two men and also one of the things I saw was that Walter trying to help Tarek maintain his dignity and sort of not intrude on his space, and yet his own reticence, sort of emotional reticence. I'd just like to ask, if I can, and I'm not an actor so I don't know how it works, but I'm just curious to know how you were able to show these small steps without showing too much?

Mr. JENKINS: It wasn't a conscious decision. It's just something that you have to trust will happen, if you're in the right spot, if you're in the right place in the scene.

MARTIN: And, Tom, I wanted to talk to you about your capturing of all these different ethnicities. You know, everybody is something, right? You know, nobody is without an ethnicity, and yet when one crosses these lines to try to capture somebody else's reality, it can be tricky. We worry about, you know, stereotyping people and just wondered how you thought about that in a way that sort of honored both the white Americans, the international sort of characters, and the way that had each of them, sort of, be true to who they were, without kind of crossing over into such broad brushes that some people would be "ick"?

Mr. MCCARTHY: It's a great question, and it certainly is a concern as a writer and a filmmaker, especially because, you know, I spend a lot of time - when I returned from Beirut specifically, I really sort of submerged myself in the Arab community in New York, and I think just doing that, just picking up on subtle things that they share between themselves that maybe culturally wouldn't be immediately shared with myself. And I know, like, by the time I met Haaz, he's from Beirut, I had been to Beirut a number of times, we joked a lot. Haaz kidded me a lot about what I knew. You know, he kept saying, you're an honorary Lebanese now, you know, because I knew enough.

But I think it's really the fun part of being a writer, is just jumping in. And also, when I started to work with my actors, you know, Danai is African, she's African and American, from Zimbabwe, actually, but did a lot of research in the Senegalese community and brought a lot to the role. Same with Hiam. She's Palestinian who lives in Paris. I really listen to these guys in the process of creating the script.

MARTIN: Did you worry at all? There's a couple funny lines in there. There's one about "Arab time," and I wondered, did you worry at all about that?

Mr. MCCARTHY: No. I experienced Arab time, time and time again.

Mr. SLEIMAN: Yeah!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCARTHY: I was working in Beirut at one point with these filmmakers. I kept showing up for work at like, you know, nine thirty, and like, I would get there, open the place, make coffee. You know, the Lebanese would roll in around 11. I'm like, what's up? Where is everyone?

Mr. SLEIMAN: Yeah. They can't say anything because it's the truth, you know, it's the truth so they can't complain, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: All right, well, you answer the blog postings, OK? I'm not going to answer the email. You answer the email.

Mr. MCCARTHY: Bring it on.

MARTIN: Finally, I wanted to talk about the music of the film, and I did want to play a clip of the scene where Tarek is teaching Walter how to drum. Let's just play that.

(Soundbite of movie "The Visitor")

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil): 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, OK?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) OK.

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil): Now give it a couple of bangs.

(Soundbite of drum)

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Not so hard. You're not angry at it.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) OK. I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of drum)

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil): Better. Did you think?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) No.

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil): Good. Come on. Follow me.

(Soundbite of drums)

MARTIN: Now Haaz has given us a scoop here, that Richard actually knew how to play the drum better than you did.

Mr. SLEIMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: That was good acting there, Richard, because you stank!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: Thank you.

MARTIN: So what do you play?

Mr. JENKINS: I played the drum for five, six years when I was an early teen. I was never very good. I, you know, I never got out of my head. I was always in my head. So if you play a drum, you really have to let it go, as Tarek says.

MARTIN: So can you play little bit now?

Mr. JENKINS: Give me a little beat.

(Soundbite of drum)

MARTIN: All right. Not bad! All right.

Mr. MCCARTHY: Wow.

MARTIN: Awesome.

Mr. SLEIMAN: That's way better than Tom.

MARTIN: OK. That's making it happen. I wanted to just ask each of you as we close, what would you like people to take away from this film. Haaz?

Mr. SLEIMAN: I hope people will be less judgmental of one another because of our differences in culture, race, political views and beliefs. I think that's the most important thing for me because what this movie does is that it strips away all of that, and then these people connect on that level without all of these differences. And I think that that's the only place that we can truly fall in love with each other. Unfortunately, it's very sad. We're missing out on a lot of wonderful connections that we can have and friendships and relationships.

MARTIN: So nothing at all.

(Sounbite of laughter)

Mr. SLEIMAN: Yeah. Nothing at all. Just go see it.

MARTIN: Richard, what about you?

Mr. JENKINS: I just think it's important sometimes to stand in somebody else's shoes and it's what I get to do in the movie, and it would be nice if the audience kind of got to do that, too.

MARTIN: Tom McCarthy?

Mr. MCCARTHY: Yeah. I think just to echo them, just sort of an open-mindedness. Just be open. Be open to change. Be open to new experiences and new people, and I think if we all just enter life with a little bit more of that curiosity and open-mindedness, we'll be in a much better place.

MARTIN: Tom McCarthy is writer and director of the new film, "The Visitor." We were also joined by actors Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman who star in the film. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SLEIMAN: Thank you.

Mr. JENKINS: Thank you.

Mr. MCCARTHY: Pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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