Tuesday, May 20, 2008

And the Name Is Richard Jenkins!

Lately he's been on the "First time this character actor has ever played a lead" pr train, for his role in an indie called "The Visitor"...
...but you might remember him from the "Charlize Theron wants another Oscar" Oscar bait/revisionist 70's agitprop drama "North Country"...
...and if you watched the "not television" channel you probably caught him as the dead father in "Six Feet Under".

But to me, he has always been a comedic secret weapon, because no one ever expects him. Just watch him in "Flirting With Disaster" (the best thing about that movie), "Intolerable Cruelty" or even the "Fun With Dick And Jane" remake and see a guy who plays everything so real, you don't realize how funny he's being until a scene or two after.

Hey, let's see what the interview conducted in the New York Times with Jenkins has to say...

Stretching for a New Film Role: The Lead
Published: April 6, 2008


MOST of the time when people recognize him on the street, they ask if he was their high school classmate. No, he politely responds in his distinctive, gravelly baritone. Richard Jenkins is an actor — one you did not go to high school with, unless you happen to be from DeKalb, Ill., but have probably seen a dozen times on screens big and small. Try to place exactly where you saw him, though, and you might find yourself at a loss.

He has played characters created by John Updike and the Coen brothers. He was the psychiatrist in “There’s Something About Mary” who pretended to listen as Ben Stiller’s character droned on about his romantic problems. In “Flirting With Disaster” he was the gay federal agent who ran through the desert in his underwear after inadvertently eating a meal laced with drugs. He’s been the ghost of an undertaker who gets pulverized by a bus in “Six Feet Under” and Woody Allen’s doctor in “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

But now, after playing supporting roles for the better part of three decades, he is finally getting his shot at being the leading man.

In “The Visitor,” a new film by Thomas McCarthy that opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, Mr. Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a lonely, bored and widowed economics professor who finds his orderly life shaken and then transformed by two illegal immigrants he discovers in his Manhattan pied-à-terre.

Vale is in many ways a reflection and creation of Mr. Jenkins himself. Both are contemplative and earnest men, making it difficult to tell where Mr. Jenkins ends and Vale begins.

That is because Mr. Jenkins worked directly with Mr. McCarthy, who wrote the script with the actor in mind, to shape Vale’s character development. The actor and director collaborated on the character’s every trait, from the lines he speaks to the glasses he wears.

“I understood this man,” Mr. Jenkins, a slender-framed man of 60, said in an interview here at a cafe just a few blocks from Trinity Repertory Company, the theater where he spent almost 20 years as an actor and, eventually, artistic director. “I understood his reluctance to reach out, to become part of things.”

By his own admission Mr. Jenkins sometimes requires a jump-start to get into first gear. He’s perfectly content in his comfort zone. He often needs a little motivation from his wife, he said, even for the littlest things, like trying a new restaurant or taking a vacation someplace they have never visited.

Mr. Jenkins’s role in “The Visitor” began to take shape about four years ago, when he and Mr. McCarthy first sat down over lunch to discuss the possibility of working together.

“About a year and a half later he called me and said: ‘I wrote this script. Would you take a look at it?’ ” Mr. Jenkins recalled. “He sent me the script, and I read it, and I just loved it. I mean, I just loved it. And I said to him, ‘Nobody’s going to give you any money to do this movie with me in the lead.’ He said: ‘That wasn’t my question. My question was, do you want to do it?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”

Mr. McCarthy, an actor who made his directorial debut in 2003 with “The Station Agent,” did not see Mr. Jenkins’s lack of star power as a problem; he saw it as an asset. “I felt like I needed an actor who could really vanish into the role and maybe someone who wasn’t immediately recognizable as a Hollywood star,” Mr. McCarthy said in a telephone interview. “He could really play the everyman, the average American, and be really believable.”

A Hollywood stereotype Mr. Jenkins is not. For the last four decades he has lived in the Providence area, where he and his wife, Sharon, raised a son and a daughter. Ms. Jenkins, a dancer turned choreographer and his wife of 39 years, still works with Trinity Rep, where Mr. Jenkins got his start as a professional actor right after college in the Midwest. He spent 14 seasons with the theater and later four years as its artistic director, making time for the occasional small part in films like “And the Band Played On” and “Wolf.”

Mr. Jenkins, whose taste in cars tends toward Toyota Camry hybrids, tries as hard as he can to stay out of the limelight. That has been difficult lately. He is about to embark on a publicity tour for “The Visitor,” and it’s a part of the actor’s life he finds a little awkward. “I don’t do this,” he told a reporter as he fidgeted nervously with a piece of paper during an interview over lunch. “I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been able to do lots of different things. And I don’t know why, but I have.”

He seems truly at home at Trinity Rep, which is housed in a majestic, renovated theater in downtown Providence. On a recent visit there the staff welcomed him with warm embraces and gleeful greetings. A black-and-white picture of him still hangs on a wall in the lobby.

“This is just a great little space,” he said, standing in the aisle of one of the auditoriums and taking in the smell of freshly cut wood from the set. “I love coming back here. I love the feeling.” The four seasons he spent as the theater’s artistic director seem to have carried over to his career as a screen actor. Mr. McCarthy recalled a scene in “The Visitor” in which Mr. Jenkins’s character tries to flirt with the mother of Tarek, one of the immigrants who has been living in his apartment. Vale, a creature of strict habit, arrives wearing new glasses.

Those spectacles — with sleek, thin frames compared with the big, clunky pair he wore earlier — were Mr. Jenkins’s idea and written into the script at his suggestion to show how the straight-laced Vale is taking baby steps toward loosening up. “It’s a lovely touch,” Mr. McCarthy said, “and it really reveals a lot about the character.”

Mr. McCarthy said Mr. Jenkins connected with his role at a level of intimacy he has rarely seen from actors. The night he screened “The Visitor” for Mr. Jenkins and his wife, Mr. McCarthy said, the bond of actor to character was obvious.

“He didn’t say anything for a long time,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Then he finally said, ‘I’ve been waiting my whole career to do a movie like this.’ And he said it in such a way that was so honest. For me, those are the moments you live for.”

I think it takes an independent writer/director like Thomas McCarthy to bring to the viewing public what someone like Jenkins is capable of. One thinks of Robert Altman shooting the film version of "Secret Honor" and making the actor Phillip Baker Hall suddenly visible to critics and art house audiences. Or Woody Allen putting the heretofore unknown Wallace Shawn in "Manhattan" as almost a sight gag, but giving Shawn a second career as an actor (in addition to Obie-award winning playwright).

And those are moments I live for.


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