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Coming off of Oscar best picture winner Spotlight, writer-director Tom McCarthy could have made any movie he chose. Instead, he opted to direct a Netflix pilot about teen suicide, 13 Reasons Why.
The shift to TV may have raised eyebrows. After all, with a screenplay Oscar under his belt for the priest pedophilia drama, he was expected to stay in the realm of so-called important films. But the series, which he executive produces, has hit a nerve in the public consciousness, just like Spotlight. And once again, McCarthy’s knack for bucking convention has paid off.
It should come as no surprise that he’s following up 13 Reasons Why with an even quirkier move: taking on a small acting role in the USA Network pilot The Tap. Alas, he will return to film, likely with Disney’s Timmy Failure.
In the meantime, he’s receiving the Screenwriters Tribute Award at the Nantucket Film Festival, which kicks off tonight (his Win Win star Bobby Cannavale will present the award). McCarthy, who lives with his wife and two daughters in New York, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the debate surrounding 13 Reasons Why, his memorable acting turn on The Wire and why he can’t shake the acting bug.
What’s the screenplay that proved to be the most challenging or took the longest to complete?
Boy, that’s a really hard one to grade. Maybe The Station Agent because that was my first one. But they all have been incredibly challenging for different reasons and have all kind of taken the same amount of time, probably. But maybe just the first one because I was finding my way a little bit more.
You’ll play a professor on The Tap. You might be the only director behind a best picture winner to take on a bit part in a pilot.
Well, I started out as an actor. I love acting. I love writing. I love directing. They all seem like part of the same deal for me. It’s all storytelling. Sometimes it’s really fun for me to be on a set and to watch how other actors, writers, directors, cinematographers are all kind of working together. And quite honestly, I get a lot of work done when I’m acting. There’s a lot of time in my trailer to write. Unfortunately, I rarely get a chance to do it anymore.
The cast, the timing of it worked out well. The landscape has changed so much, and there’s so much TV right now that I look at it as almost black box theater. I could’ve done a play off-Broadway, right? I mean, I won best picture and went and directed a pilot for Netfllx that summer. Maybe even that’s more unusual. I don’t know how many people have done that.
My films have a longer runway. They take more time, and are more precious. Sometimes you’ve just got to work. There’s also something just addictive about doing a project like Spotlight. Forget the awards, just the material itself being important and necessary, and then where you go from that? You want to keep challenging yourself.
As an actor, you’ve worked with everyone from Mel Gibson to Ben Stiller multiple times. What did you learn from them?
There’s so many other people that you get to watch. Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, David Simon on The Wire, Peter Jackson in The Lovely Bones. People ask me why I act. Because I get to be on sets with a lot of other writer-directors. And early in my career, it was maybe even more important, in terms of looking at other greats, who I considered the really talented directors and saying, “Oh, man, I like this that he does and I don’t like this.” I wasn’t just observing process. I was immersed in it.
On The Wire, you played a fake news reporter. What do you remember about that?
I signed up without knowing the true arc of the character. David assured me it would be interesting. Every week I would get to set, when you got your scripts — they wouldn’t send them to me in New York — and I’d quickly read them. But many times, I’d get to the set and go right to the chair and didn’t have a chance to read it. There was such a community down there, and hair and makeup would be like, “Oh, man, have you read the draft?” And I’d be like, “No, why?” And they’re like, “Oh, boy! You are …” We were excited to get down there and find out. There was such a discovery that was just super cool with that project.
What attracted you to 13 Reasons Why?
I’d just spent four or five months basically hawking my movie [Spotlight]. Being on the awards circuit, you do a lot of talking about work and not really working. I was eager to get behind the camera and work with actors and dig into material. And I really cared about the message of Jay Asher’s book. I have two daughters, 4 and 2 [years old], and was thinking about furthering that conversation and pushing that conversation into the light. It’s like with Spotlight: Who wants to sit around and talk about the possibility that priests are abusing young boys? Who wants to sit around and talk about the fact that high school kids are dealing with everything from sexual abuse to rape to suicide in a very real way? It’s not table conversation and, therefore, many of those conversations get sublimated. And I thought about, “Wow, this book, in a really compelling way, forces us to not only confront, but at the very least, to discuss these issues.” And I think the discussion is a big part of making progress.
It also has courted some controversy. What do you say to the detractors?
A lot of thought and consideration and care went into making this series. We stand by it. We welcome the debate, the conversations. I don’t think about it as much as a controversy. I think that word maybe is overused. People are having parent nights to discuss the pros and cons of the show, and letters are getting sent home that say, “Sit down and talk to your kids about the show.” In my mind, that’s a win. For the people it’s really done damage, I listen to that, I take it very seriously. But I think collectively, we stand by the mission of the show.
Was it originally intended to be a multi-season show, or was it envisioned as a one-season show?
I think a little bit of both. We could see it as a one-off. We looked at My So-Called Life as a great example of that. But we also understood that the characters were so rich, and there were so many to explore. Season one goes deeper than the book did. So we felt like there was a second season, and seeing how Brian’s conceived it, it makes perfect sense to me. I think there was always an eye to [a second season], but you’re just trying to survive the first season, really.
How long can this show go on?
I have no idea, really. Great question. I really don’t know.
It has been said that there will be multiple narrators for season two. Which character do you think has the best narrative to tell?
I’m not writing, and so I couldn’t say. I’m too out of the loop right now in terms of the writers room and the work those guys are doing to comment with any expertise. It would just be pure speculation.
On the film front, what’s next for you?
I don’t know. I’ve been working on a film with Disney for a while, and it’s a very different world. Timmy Failure. We’re trying to decide right now whether we can make it. I’m really excited about the project. We’re just putting the pieces together now.
What’s the biggest difference between working with a studio like Disney versus doing independent films?
There’s a lot of really good folks over there at Disney, just really decent people who care about movies. They have a lot of integrity from what I can tell, and it’s just such a great environment. It’s sort of like success has bred a really kind of creative and positive environment. So far all my interactions with them have been really good. And I like the fact that they’re still pushing on original material on original movies. I mean, they have enough in their tentpoles to call it a day, but I like studios that continue to champion original movies and find a way to make them. As a filmmaker, that’s something I root for.
You were nominated for a screenplay Oscar for Up. Any plans to make work with Pixar in the future?
I’d go work for Pixar again in a minute. It was one of the great experiences of my career. I’ve maintained some very close friendships in that community, specifically with Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton. If the timing and the project was right, sure. But, you know, they’re a different company now. They’re a lot bigger. They have a lot of people working for them, and they seem to be doing all right without me.
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