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Visitation rights

Hidden in plain sight
By BRETT MICHEL  |  April 16, 2008

GONE, BABY, GONE: Tom McCarthy based his new film, The Visitor, in part on interviews he did in real-life detention centers.

“In terms of the general public, most people I know have never seen the inside of a detention center. Most people I know don’t even know they exist. Or that they’re within a mile of their home, depending on where you live.”

Boston College alumnus and New York–based actor Tom McCarthy (most recently seen as a Jayson Blair–esque journalist on HBO’s The Wire) not only knows such centers exist, but two-and-a-half years ago, while researching his screenplay for The Visitor (his impressive sophomore film as a writer/director, opening Friday), he discovered one “20 minutes from my front door.”

McCarthy didn’t rely on Blair-like inventions to detail the harsh realities that undocumented citizens face while held in these phantom facilities, some for as many as five years. “They’re stuck in this limbo,” he says, “depending on what country can take them back, and when.”

Through an organization known as the Sojourners, McCarthy was able to visit these detainees, many of whom were glad to talk with him “because they’re just so totally disconnected from the world.”

“They don’t have access to family, or to lawyers,” McCarthy tells me over coffee and bagels at the Ritz. He’s joined by his film’s lead actor, Rhode Island resident Richard Jenkins (while you might not know his name, you’ll surely recognize his face from Six Feet Under and other roles), who should see a career boost from his role as 62-year-old Walter Vale. In the film, Vale, a Connecticut widower closed off from the world, stumbles across a pair of illegal immigrants –– Syrian Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Gurira) –– who have taken up residence in the Manhattan apartment that he’s hardly used in recent years.

Thus begins an unlikely friendship between strange bedfellows, a hallmark of McCarthy’s acclaimed first feature, 2003’s The Station Agent. The bond is short-lived, however: after being stopped by police in the subway, Tarek is arrested and taken to a detention center in Queens.

When McCarthy paid his first visit to the real-life detention center, immigration wasn’t yet the hot-button topic it’s become in the run-up to November’s presidential election. “People were talking about it,” he says, “but not like they are now.”

“I’m not really vilifying anyone,” says McCarthy. “All the movie sort of asks is, let’s have a little bit of empathy, and let’s occasionally do something that our country hasn’t done for a long time, which is try to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and see the world multi-dimensionally, as opposed to ‘us and them’ and ‘good and bad.’ ”

The Visitor opens Friday, April 18, at the Kendall Square and the Waltham Embassy Cinemas. See the Arts & Entertainment section for details.

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