Onscreen in Tom McCarthy’s “Win Win,” they interact like a long-time married couple.
In fact, actors Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan barely knew each other before they accepted the invitation of old friend McCarthy, who told both of them, “I’ve written something with you in mind.”
“Paul and I had been ships passing in the night – a few years ago, he was leaving a production of ‘The Three Sisters’ as I was joining it – so I was nervous at first,” says Ryan, 41. “We’re both shy people. But once we were on the set, that all melted away. And he was one of the most easy-going people to work with I’ve met.”
Giamatti found that Ryan locked in to a certain quality of her character that he found impressive: “She captures this thing just unbelievably well,” says Giamatti, 43. “Every time the camera would roll, her eyes would harden in a way that was amazing to watch. It was just the slightest change. But she became a completely different person.”
In McCarthy’s “Win Win,” which opened in limited released Friday (3/18/11), Giamatti and Ryan play Mike and Jackie Flaherty, a couple in New Jersey whose lives are turned upside down when they take in the grandson of one of Mike’s clients. Mike, an elder-law attorney, has become the guardian for one of his clients – and the grandson shows up unexpectedly (and turns out to be the answer to Mike’s prayers: a would-be star for the high-school wrestling team Mike coaches in his spare time).
Mike is as much a pragmatist as Jackie, who’s fiercely protective of her young children – and, eventually, of Kyle, the visitor in her home. Yet, at heart, the couple is decidedly normal – two people in a loving marriage coping with the problems that life sends their way.
Which meant that, for both Ryan and Giamatti, the characters were kind of a stretch – in the sense that both actors have built careers playing people who are the opposite of happy.
“He’s playing normal and I’m playing good,” Ryan says with a smile. “It’s very different for both of us. It’s a good challenge. Our inclination is to go toward chaos. Tom kept kicking us back to normalcy. He kept saying to me, ‘They’re happily married. The bottom is not falling out.’ That was an exciting place to visit and to be. It was such a healthy environment.”
For Giamatti, whose career has focused on playing men who were dissatisfied, neurotic or otherwise grumpy and unhappy, it was even a bigger step.
“It was tricky not being required to go to that place,” he says. “I’ve gotten lazy with my bag of tricks. My biggest concern is always that I’ll be boring. That’s my biggest fear.
“There’s an emotional quality that I naturally go to, something more negative, neurotic or twisted. It’s some sort of aesthetic choice I make. I always want to color it the opposite thing. If a character is cheerful, I look for things that are darker. I look for flaws, for conflicts underlying – something rotten underneath. But Tom was particularly good about keeping me in the right place, and not letting me go toward my propensity for going somewhere grotesque.”
Both Ryan – who just finished her role on “The Office” – and Giamatti – who just played Fed chairman Ben Bernanke in an HBO film of the Andrew Ross Sorkin book, “Too Big to Fail” – have known McCarthy for a number of years. But working with their friend was a revelation.
“I’ve known Tom for 20 years; we were at Yale together,” Giamatti says. “And I always wanted to work with him. And when he got on the set, he was in command of every aspect. It was a funny way to see a friend in a completely different way. He’s a great actor’s director.”
Adds Ryan, “I mean this in a good way, but Tom was tough as a director. He’s demanding of you. There was a day where he somewhat scolded Paul and me. He asked us for input and we said, ‘OK, tell us what you want and we can make it work.’ And he said, ‘I don’t want you to just make it work – I want you to tell me what you think.’ He’s not someone who wants to easily settle for something. He wants to work it out, even in the middle of shooting.”