Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Clare Foley, and Sophia Kindredin Win Win
Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Clare Foley, and Sophia Kindred
in Win Win
Writer and director Tom McCarthy's latest film, Win Win, opening on March 18, is set in New Providence, New Jersey, the hometown of the McCarthy's lifelong friend Joe Tiboni, who co-wrote the story. Like Tiboni, the film's main character, Mike Flaherty (played by Paul Giamatti), is not only an elder care lawyer but also a high school wrestling coach. And both Tiboni and McCarthy wrestled as teenagers. Still, McCarthy hastens to make it clear that the film -- which co-stars Amy Ryan as Mike's wife, Jackie, and Bobby Cannavale as his best friend, Terry Delfino -- is not really autobiographical.

"I think the great thing about Joe and I writing this story together was there are little bits of each of us in the characters," says McCarthy. "Joe and I have very different lives, but we've stayed really good friends over the years, and it's always fun to revisit that. Terry and Mike are very different guys, but they have a common ground. I think most of all they have a sense of humor that they enjoy, and I think that's where Joe and I come in."

In the movie -- which earned rapturous reviews earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival -- Mike is a decent, family-oriented guy who finds himself way in over his head financially. As a result, he makes a really bad decision to try to get out of his money problems -- a decision that leads to an unexpected addition to his family, Kyle Timmons (played by newcomer Alex Shaffer), a disaffected runaway teenager. "What interested me was how good people sometimes make very faulty decisions and then have to find a way to live with them in the end," says McCarthy.

The family's center is Jackie, says Ryan, a two-time Tony Award nominee. "She is the glue that holds them all together. She's the one who first says Kyle can stay and she's the one who first helps him integrate into the family." Giamatti has nothing but the highest praise for his co-star. "Amy is so present that when the camera would roll, she would become this person. You'd just see it in her eyes; she was just there completely," he says. "And she kind of did for me what her character does for my character; she kept me on point and sort of steady. But we didn't need to talk about it much and we didn't. We'd just fool around [between takes] and have a good time."

Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in Win WIn
Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in Win WIn
While McCarthy was thrilled to have such experienced actors on the set, he was aware that the biggest challenge would be finding a young actor who could also be a believable wrestling champion. "The whole movie pivoted on this character and we had to decide if we were going to try and find an actor and teach him how to wrestle or find a wrestler and teach him how to act," he says. "I'm a big sports nut and I can't stand when I see a movie with sports and I don't believe that the actor playing the role is not actually proficient in the sport. Once we met Alex, who is a real-life New Jersey state wrestling champion, it was all decided."

Shaffer recalls that trying out for the part of Kyle was all a bit of a lark in the beginning. "Tom sent out a cattle call in the newspaper for all wrestlers to come in and audition, and my friend said, 'You should audition for this,' and my initial response was, 'No' and he was like, 'No, you should seriously audition for this,' and I was like, 'Alright, cool man. I'll go in.' I finally went and auditioned for it and then went back seven or eight times before I got the role."

He proved to be a natural fit in every way, says Giamatti. "Alex was so relaxed and confident about it I didn't want to get in his way at all. I wasn't going to give him any crappy acting advice and screw him up."