After four decades of diverse supporting roles, Richard Jenkins was elevated to leading man status in 2007 with his portrayal of lonely professor, Walter Vale, whose life changes unexpectedly after the arrival of three Syrian immigrants in Tom McCarthy’s wonderfully resonant film, The Visitor. Says Jenkins of the role, “It consumed me for a year or two, but I understood him immediately. I understood his situation and who he was.” Audiences understood him, too. Nominated for an Academy Award, Jenkins’ performance in The Visitor cemented his reputation as one of the finest character actors around.
Hailing from DeKalb, Illinois, Jenkins earned a degree in drama from Illinois Wesleyan University before moving to Rhode Island and working as an actor and artistic director at the Trinity Repertory Theater. Honing his craft for 14 years on stage, he eventually branched out into television and film with an appearance on the award-winning PBS miniseries, “Concealed Enemies” and co-starred in Lawrence Kasdan’s Oscar nominated western, Silverado (1985).
From there, his resume expanded exponentially—The Witches of Eastwick, Flirting with Disaster and Sea of Love. Not to mention a successful working relationship with the Coen Brothers (The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, Burn This) and Rhode Island’s very own Farrelly Brothers (There’s Something About Mary, Me, Myself, and Irene, Say It Isn’t So).
Then, in 2001, Jenkins struck television gold, landing the role of Nathaniel Fisher, Sr. in the highly acclaimed HBO series, “Six Feet Under.” Although his character was killed in the very first episode, his presence was felt throughout the series, oftentimes giving advice or warnings to his son Nate. The role earned him a Screen Actors Guild nomination along with the rest of the cast and spawned some of the best film work of his career—North Country, The Visitor and, most recently, Eat Pray Love.
This week, Jenkins adds vampire genre to his repertoire with director Matt Reeves’ Let Me In, a chilling and provocative tale about a bullied young boy and a female vampire who befriends him. Jenkins plays the vampire’s guardian—an interesting change from the traditional authority figure and fatherly types of yesteryear. But, says the 63-year-old veteran, “I’m a character actor, you know? And as long as it’s interesting and fun, what more could you ask for?”
Mark Sells (MM): : Growing up in DeKalb, Illinois, who or what inspired you to pursue drama?
Richard Jenkins (RJ): There wasn’t an isolated incident. Back then, I went to the movies every week like a lot of kids my age. And I remember thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do. I don’t know how you do it, but wouldn’t that be cool?’ That thinking led me to college (Illinois Wesleyan University), where I remember seeing Hamlet for the very first time and being completely blown away. After that, I never looked back.
MM: You left Illinois to work in the theater in Rhode Island?
RJ: I was hired as an apprentice at Trinity Repertory in Providence in 1970. My wife and I drove out, figuring we would stay for only a year or two. But then I became a member of the company after a year of being an apprentice and was an actor for 14 or 15 years afterward. Our kids were in school there and I started doing movies in ‘84 and ’85. And we just stayed.
MM: And you’re still there today?
RJ: Yes, I am. All our friends are there. We’ve been there for over 40 years!
MM: After your first leading role in The Visitor and all the accolades that followed, is there more pressure when it comes to selecting material?
RJ: Well, no. I don’t feel pressure. I’m 63, what are you going to do? (laughs). But there’s a wider range now and the choices are a little more interesting. It’s really been fantastic. And I can truly say, I’ve enjoyed all the projects I’ve done since The Visitor.
But I’m a character actor, you know? And feel as long as it’s interesting and fun, what more could you ask for? I’ve been incredibly fortunate.
MM: This week, you’ve got Let Me In coming out, about a young boy and a vampire. But not in the pop crazy Twilight sense. What attracted you to the story?
RJ: I just liked the story. It was a totally different take on it. And I wasn’t aware of the Swedish film when I read the script. I just thought it was really an interesting take on the vampire genre.
MM: Speaking of which, Tomas Alfredson, the director of the original film, said he was not in favor of remaking the film. Specifically, “If one should remake a film, it’s because the original is bad, and I don’t think mine is. “ From your perspective, why was it important to remake Let the Right One In?
RJ: From my perspective, it probably wasn’t. But I liked the part and I liked the script. I think it was more important for Matt [Reeves], because I think he saw something in it that he wanted to pursue. I don’t want to speak for him, but I think he saw something in this young boy (Owen) that he wanted to pursue as a director.
Even though I didn’t see it until afterward, I loved the original. It’s a fabulous movie.
MM: How would you compare the physical demands of this film with others you have worked on?
RJ: This was tough for me. And a lot of it’s because I’m older. There was a lot of running in the snow, falling, dragging and fighting. It was tough, but it was actually kind of fun. Especially dragging bodies across the ice in the cold. (laughs)
MM: Is it harder to portray a real person like Richard from Texas in Eat Pray Love versus a fictional one as in this movie?
RJ: There’s an added pressure in playing a real person like Richard from Texas because you want to honor him. You want to do him justice, especially someone like that, who I really loved when I read the book and when we talked over the phone. Even though it’s a little harder to play a real person, in the end, you just have to make the movie, play the part, and hope it turns out okay.
MM: You’ve worked with a lot of Hollywood greats from the Coen Brothers and George Clooney to Julia Roberts and Will Ferrell. Who or what inspires you as an actor?
RJ: I get inspired by other actors. And there are so many terrific ones. I’ll see a performance and it moves me. I’ll find it alive and real and new. I just love watching actors deliver great performances because you can’t help but get a little jealous as you’re watching it.
MM: Do you favor one medium over another?
RJ: I did stage for so many years, but I haven’t been back in a while. And the only “true” television series I did was “Six Feet Under.” But I didn’t really do that many of them—I just kind of popped in and came and went. I have more experience and love for film and that seems to be what I end up doing.
I like having a six- to eight-week moment of time where everyone gets together, gets to know one another and it’s like a little club. At the end of the period, everyone goes their own way and you might not see them for four or five years, but when you do, you pick up right where you left off because you had such a close working relationship.
MM: Out of all the characters you’ve portrayed—from Silverado to Let Me In—which one do you associate with most and why?
RJ: I would have to say, because of the investment of time and energy, Walter Vale in The Visitor. It consumed me for almost a year or two. But I understood him immediately. I understood his situation and who he was. Richard from Texas was another I connected with immediately.
MM: Is it important to have that connection when you first read a script?
RJ: Yes. If I read a script and don’t think I can bring anything to it, I won’t do it. If I read different parts and think of three or four actors that could do this better than I could, I won’t do it. I try to find people I can bring to life.
MM: What’s the most important advice you would give to young, aspiring actors today?
RJ: Advice is cheap. But I would have to say, there’s room for everybody. I remember how hard it was to believe that and thinking there’s no way this is going to work. But if you’re meant to do this, there’s room for everybody.