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After a lifetime of playing character roles, Richard Jenkins plays the lead in Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, a role for which McCarthy always had him in mind. That’s sweet and flattering, but also frightening, Jenkins tells Andrew L. Urban.

Richard Jenkins is on the phone to Australia, promoting a new film from Tom McCarthy, The Visitor, in which Jenkins plays his first leading role – at the age of 61. He is sitting in the corner of his upstairs room next to a bookcase filled with editions of theatre scripts ranging from writers like Bertolt Brecht to David Mamet. His country house, “rather like a barn,” he says, is some way inland on Rhode Island, and the late evening sun is uninterrupted by clouds on this calm summer Monday night. He’s just finished reading Richard Price’s Lush Life – but he may not touch a book again for a while. “I read in spurts …” Perhaps depending on his workload, which will ease a little after promotional duties end in September for two of his new films coming out back to back.

“Coming up next here in America is Step Brothers, with Will Farrell and John C. Reilly. It’s outrageous . . . and a total 180 from The Visitor. After that it’s the Coen brothers’ new film, Burn After Reading, with Brad Pitt, George Clooney and John Malkovich. So right now I love being asked what’s coming up … but after September, I dunno!” he says with a wry chuckle.

He needn’t worry, though; one of America’s best regarded character actors and stage performers, he has a long list of credits to prove he doesn’t spend much time avoiding that question. After a 15-year stint at Rhode Island's Trinity Repertory Theatre, where he served as artistic director for four years, he snagged his first screen role in 1975, in the TV movie Brother to Dragons, but did not begin working regularly until a small role in the Lawrence Kasdan film Silverado (1985). Supporting work in such films as Hannah And Her Sisters (1986), The Witches of Eastwick (1987), and Sea Of Love (1989) followed.

In the late '90s Jenkins started gaining wider appreciation, especially as he indulged in his talent for comedy. His appearance as an uptight gay FBI agent who gets accidentally drugged was one of the highlights of David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster (1996), allowing him to convincingly act out an acid trip. Working again with Ben Stiller, Jenkins appeared as a psychiatrist in There’s Something About Mary (1998), which launched a relationship with directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly. Jenkins appeared in the Farrelly-produced Outside Providence (1999) and Say It Ain’t So (2001), as well as in the Farrelly-directed Me, Myself And Irene (2000). The actor then shifted over to another set of brother directors to portray the father of Scarlet Johansson's character in Joel and Ethan Coen's noir The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). In 2001, Jenkins also appeared in the first season of HBO's “Six Feet Under” as Nathaniel Fisher Sr., the sardonic funeral home director whom the characters remember as an impenetrable mystery, frugal with his praise and emotions.

"Sparse and minimalist"

Sparse and minimalist is how Jenkins, in The Visitor, manages to portray the 62 year old widower Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), who has lost his passion for teaching and writing, and fills the void by unsuccessfully trying to learn to play classical piano. When his Connecticut college sends him to a Manhattan conference, Walter is surprised to find a young couple has taken up residence in his little used apartment. Victims of a real estate scam, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian man, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), his Senegalese girlfriend, have nowhere else to go and Walter reluctantly allows the couple to stay. Touched by his kindness, Tarek, a talented musician, teaches the aging academic to play the African drum. But when Tarek is arrested as an undocumented citizen and held for deportation, Walter finds himself compelled to help his new friend with a passion he thought he had long ago lost. Then Tarek's mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) arrives unexpectedly from interstate in search of her son.

McCarthy (well remembered for his debut drama, The Station Agent) says, “I’ve long been an admirer of Richard and his work. Very early on, as I was writing the script, I had him in mind for the role.” That, Jenkins agrees, is the sweetest words an actor will hear from a writer, “but while it’s flattering, it’s also frightening. It’s overwhelming, actually; what if you mess it up?”

Like all artists and actors, Jenkins has retained his sense of insecurity despite his career success. “I remember an acting coach once asking me if I felt good about a performance, and I said, well, what do you think? And he said, no, what do you think? You’d better know…” In The Visitor, Jenkins feels he’s done good work, and indeed, has been highly praised for it. In the Chicago Sun Times, US critic Roger Ebert wrote: “Richard Jenkins is an actor who can move his head half an inch and provide the turning point of a film. That happens in The Visitor, where he plays a man around 60 who has essentially shut down all of his emotions.” In the San Francisco Chronicle, Ruthe Stein wrote: “Jenkins' multilevel performance is continually surprising.”

But it’s a vulnerable occupation, says Jenkins, and when actors try to protect themselves, it stops that crucial connection with the audience. In The Visitor, “Tom’s writing is spare and he doesn’t explain his characters, out of respect for the intelligence of his audience. He just puts it out there.”

For Jenkins, everything has to be on the written page of the script. He doesn’t spend too much time creating back-stories or build complex relationships for his character that may or may not exist. Likewise, he didn’t focus much on the socio-political elements of the screenplay, although he did visit a detention centre and he listened to a detainee. (Tom McCarthy is involved with the progressive Christian group, Sojourners, which acts as a support group for detainees, among other things.)

"We were all strangers when we started, and by the time we started shooting, we were all friends"

“To me it was always a film about these relationships; when we were shooting the film, that’s where my head was.” He’s also full of praise for the director for the way he handled the two week rehearsals. “I respect Tom enormously … I’ve done a lot of theatre and film and I can tell you, he uses his rehearsal time to re-write and to listen. We were all strangers when we started, and by the time we started shooting, we were all friends. And I learnt a lot.”

Published August 14, 2008

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