Richard Jenkins has been a constant presence in film and television, whether audiences have been aware of it or not. With roles ranging from the deceased father in Six Feet Under to a parody of a conservative Midwesterner in I Heart Huckabees, Jenkins has been a true character actor, someone who makes the rest of the cast look better instead of drawing attention to himself. With The Visitor, Jenkins has finally been given the starring role he’s deserved for years. He plays Walter Vale, a crusty, detached economics professor at Connecticut College who rekindles his passion for life after meeting Tarek and Zainab (Haaz Sleiman and Danai Jekesai Gurira), a young Muslim couple he finds squatting in his New York apartment. Jenkins has already earned enormous accolades for his performance and may have even given the first Oscar-worthy performance of 2008. I recently talked with Jenkins about how the role has affected him and his career.
Ethan Stanislawski: This is probably your biggest starring role yet, as before you were considered more of a character actor. Was this a conscious choice, or was it more that you were presented with a golden opportunity?
Richard Jenkins: I was presented with the opportunity, definitely. I don’t have much control over what roles I get, and I was so glad something like this came up. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.
ES: Before The Visitor, you were most famous for Six Feet Under, but you’ve also done a lot of less serious work with the Farrelly Brothers and the like. How do you see this movie in relationship to the rest of your career?
RJ: Well, you never have perspective on it while it’s happening. A career is more of something you look back on in the end and say, “Oh, this fits into this,” and so on. You mostly just go from one role to the other. I will say this however: These past few years have been truly fantastic, and I’ve gotten to do some roles I’ve never had the chance to do before. This movie was sort of the cherry on top. I’ve never worked with a role this complex or with this much of an arc, and it’s been truly a fantastic experience.
ES: Your character had to develop really strong relationships with characters from extremely different backgrounds, and I think you succeeded tremendously to that end. How did you manage to build that kind of chemistry with your costars?
RJ: Well, we were in rehearsal for two weeks beforehand. We had a lot of time to get to know each other, and feel comfortable with each other, and comfortable in our roles. It was a challenge, but it was never a struggle. We all felt pretty confident in our roles. Still, though, after it was all over and we had a chance to look back on what we had accomplished, we were sort of in awe of what we had done. It was nothing we could have anticipated beforehand.
ES: [Writer/Director] Tom McCarthy has worked primarily as an actor, but I’ve loved both the films he’s directed. To what end do you think his experience acting helped the production process?
RJ: Tom’s truly fantastic, because he truly knows what actors want in a production, which is to be treated with respect and truly feel like they have a say in the matter. He was very conscious of how we felt at every stage in the process and was always making sure we were okay with where we were. At the same time, he had the ability to say “No,” and “This is how it should be,” which is just as important. He really knew what to expect as a director and also did a phenomenal job as a writer.
ES: For the role you had to alternate between academic priggishness and a more compassionate, paternal side of your character. How did you manage that dichotomy?
RJ: Well, we ordered the scenes as best as we could. We started with all the scenes in the university, where, you know, he doesn’t accept the student’s [late] paper, and it’s not the most flattering depiction. We did manage to shoot the last third of the film in order, which was very important to us. At the same time, the very last scene we shot was the piano lesson, so it had to come full circle. I guess it was good, because we got to experience the full wave of emotion.
ES: Do you see this movie getting you more starring roles in the future?
RJ: Well, I have to tell you, and I don’t mean to be coy in saying this, but I truly don’t know. You can never anticipate this sort of thing, and I’ve learned that every time you take a role and see yourself going somewhere after it, it never turns out as you’ve expected. I mean, I think I’ve had a great career before this, and I’ve had some great experiences over time, and yeah, I’d like to see some bigger roles in the future. But it’s not something I have control over.