“A brilliantly sustained performance.”
—William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
“A star turn that “brings all his saltiness and comic solemnity to bear.”
—Wesley Morris, The Boston Globe.
An actor can wait a lifetime to earn notices like that. Richard Jenkins didn’t have to wait quite that long. He’ll be 61 on May 4.
Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass
(Overture Films; US theatrical: 11 Apr 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 4 Jul 2008 (General release); 2007)
But the veteran character actor, the hang-dog face and balding pate of a hundred cops, FBI agents (“The Kingdom”), dads (“North Country”) and authority figures, is winning the greatest acclaim of his long, not-quite-invisible career for “The Visitor.” The film revolves around his taciturn turn as a widowed college economics professor who finds a new life rhythm when he meets two illegal immigrants squatting in his New York apartment, becomes involved in their lives and learns to play the conga drum from them.
Jenkins, a longtime actor and first-time “star,” is still a bit bowled over by the sudden flush of attention. But he’s rolling with it. We reached him in Rhode Island, where he splits his time between homes there and in Naples, Fla.
How did your reputation as a character actor, your past roles, help create Walter Vale?
How do you get on a subway train without anybody noticing you? Walter, he’s close to me. I understand those guys. He’s like the guy in the back of the room that nobody pays any attention to. If you’re in a room with him, you probably wouldn’t notice him. But the camera does.
You really don’t have to do that much. You have to trust that the camera’s going to be there for you and that the audience will be there watching you. I really tried not to give much away, to explain who he was. Let the movie unfold.
You do seem to be good at blending into the background, if need be.
(Director Thomas McCarthy) said, “I wanted an Everyman for this part.” What he didn’t say was, “I need somebody who can walk down the street in New York and not have people going, `Hey, it’s that guy!’” There were a lot of people in these shots who weren’t extras.
It’s not that I don’t have an ego. It’s not that I don’t have a point of view. But the parts that I play, a lot of them seem to be these guys who come out of nowhere.
You’ve been in plenty of big movies (“Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Sea of Love,” “Fun With Dick and Jane”), usually in a small role, though. What’s it like winning these kudos, 50 or so films and dozens of TV shows (“Six Feet Under”) into your career?
This was just such a surprise when it came around. It’s not that I was asking for it, or thinking, “When do I get my shot?” I’ve had some incredible parts in films like “North Country.” But I am a character actor.
When this came around, being at my age, realizing how this profession works, it was just a blessing. I’m just trying to treat it that way.
We like to think we can do anything when we’re young. I’ve been fortunate enough to have done a lot of different things. Right after this one, for instance, I play a dad to Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly (“Step Brothers”). Totally different from Walter.
But I don’t care how many cops I play, as long as they’re interesting cops! The same with dads. As long as they’re interesting, I’ll play them.
The lasting image in “The Visitor,” the one that sticks with us, is that incongruous sight of you, the upper-middle aged, conservatively dressed white man, sitting in an African drum circle. A stretch?
I played the drums when I was young, so that was a help. But that was a drum set.
Walter was never supposed to be ready to go on tour with these African drums. That drum circle scene we did, in Central Park, was with guys who sit in a drum circle every week. And Tom (McCarthy) rounded them up for the day. They sat down. I sat down, and I couldn’t get the cover off the drum! The guy next to me had to help me.
The message of “The Visitor.” What would you say it is?
Truthfully, what I think it’s about is stepping outside the box, of finding something different in your life, of not judging something until you’ve come to know it. When I was doing it, I kept this in mind. It’s about what it’s like to stand in someone else’s shoes.
Walter Vale hasn’t given up. But he’s looking for answers in the same place and not finding any new ones. He needs to shake up his life, look at the world differently. Sometimes, we all do.