Thomas McCarthy tells Jeremy Kay about using wrestling to explore middle-class life in Win Win.

“It is the bastard sport between the marquee events like basketball, baseball and football.” So says Thomas McCarthy of wrestling, an activity prevalent in US high schools that provided the inspiration for Win Win. “The true genesis was when my friend [and co-writer] Joe Tiboni began reminiscing one day. We were both on the team a painfully long time ago.”

The first draft — for the story of a cash-strapped lawyer, husband and high-school wrestling coach who gains timely insight into life when he recruits a brilliant youngster to the team — was ready by February 2009. They shot in spring 2010 with Fox Searchlight backing the film, marking the first time a studio has been on board a McCarthy project from the outset — the film-maker broke out with his directorial debut The Station Agent and followed that up with The Visitor. Win Win premiered at Sundance 2011 and went on to gross a little more than $10m in North America.

“I zeroed in on this straight businessman [played by Paul Giamatti] and found the parallels with what was happening on Wall Street,” McCarthy says. “Joe worked on Wall Street as a lawyer. We were trying to depict the suburban middle-class family in a way that seemed authentic. We weren’t sensationalising it or condescending to the situation.”

Giamatti, his on-screen wife Amy Ryan and friend Bobby Cannavale are terrific: however, the ace up the sleeve is newcomer Alex Shaffer, a former New Jersey junior State wrestling champion who left the sport after he broke his back during national trials. 

“Some people say he reminded them of Sean Penn,” McCarthy says of the budding actor. “He had this unique quality of disconnectedness and this directness — he just possessed that. We brought him in six or seven times and wanted to make sure he had the aptitude for getting there. The thing that made Alex so good as an athlete was his focus and he can bring that to his acting.”