NEW YORK—THERE is no such thing as a Richard Jenkins movie, though he's been in more than 70 of them. Even in his best-known role -- as the mortuary paterfamilias, Nathaniel Fisher, on the HBO series "Six Feet Under" -- Jenkins was dead, haunting the characters from the margins, a figment of their inner lives.
In "Six Feet Under," he recurred in unpredictable intervals, giving scenes instant texture. So too in his film career, which has seen directors use him repeatedly as ballast for other people's star turns, as detectives and lawyers and dads, both in heavy drama and light comedy.
"Like with all good actors, it looks effortless," said McCarthy. "You don't see the acting."
McCarthy, whose first film was 2003's well-received "The Station Agent," has given Jenkins the first lead role of his long movie career, as a widowed economics professor named Walter Vale (the role, for whatever it's worth, is his fourth Walter) in "The Visitor," opening Friday. The film marks the first time someone has showcased Jenkins' dry, even ordinary qualities as more than a countervailing note in a larger, more hectic world.
Oddly for Hollywood, Jenkins seems -- just now, at 60 -- to be hitting his movie prime.
In "The Visitor," Jenkins' Walter drives the action and sets the film's emotional tone. Fittingly, the script, which McCarthy wrote with Jenkins in mind, is dexterously light on inner-life detail. What we know about Walter could fit on a cue card: His wife was a concert pianist. He teaches global economics on a Connecticut campus. He goes to departmental meetings, then goes home.
"If you knew that character of Walter, if you worked with him, you would be frustrated with this character," McCarthy said. "You would sense he was sleepwalking through his life. It's a real credit to Richard that he could keep a character like that compelling."
Jenkins and McCarthy, who is also an actor (he played the duplicitous reporter Scott Templeton on the final season of HBO's "The Wire"), met several years ago. The two were staying at the same L.A. hotel, with Jenkins shooting a film and McCarthy appearing in George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck." They share the same talent agent. Both had time on their hands. McCarthy said he was far from creating Walter but now says he "created the character around [Jenkins] in some way."
Mining beneath the surface
ONE can see how Jenkins might be a muse -- his expressions are malleable, his reserve deceiving. These qualities give "The Visitor" some of its mystery: Is Walter depressed or merely blank? One strength of the film is the way it studiously avoids addressing this question outright. Even the event that jump-starts the plot is greeted by Walter with barely registered engagement: Coming into Manhattan to present a paper at a conference, he discovers a young immigrant couple duped into renting an East Village apartment he owns but rarely occupies.
"The Visitor" is about Walter's growing entanglement with the couple -- Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian jazz drummer who comes to face deportation in a post-9/11 New York; Tarek's Senegalese jewelry-maker girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira); and his attractive mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass).
But amid this, McCarthy's camera keeps on Walter, as if begging the question, "Are you there?"
"He wanted an Everyman," Jenkins said. "And I love playing characters that don't initiate things. I love doing that. I like to watch."
Jenkins laughed. He was sitting on a recent afternoon in Jules Bistro, a French jazz club in the East Village that was used as a location in the movie. He has lived in the Providence, R.I., area since moving there in the mid-1970s to take a job with Trinity Repertory Theatre, a respected regional theater company where Jenkins has also served as artistic director.
On this day, his train into Manhattan had been delayed by a brownout -- a power outage that had him sitting outside Penn Station for over an hour. But patience has always been a virtue for Jenkins. His voice is deep but soft; you have to keep pushing the tape recorder closer to pick up what he's saying. Interviews are not his thing anyway. He's better at blending into other people's worlds. He has read interviews and thought, "God, this is a man afraid to say something wrong."
"That's maybe the reason I'm an actor," he said. "That's where you can connect and communicate."
Having auditioned for them continually since "Raising Arizona" (he said he deeply wanted the part that went to William H. Macy in "Fargo"), Jenkins is now part of the Coen Brothers' ensemble; in "Burn After Reading," their next film, he plays Ted Treffon, "the soulful manager of a gym." Also upcoming is a costarring role in the comedy "Step Brothers," starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly.
But the movie career, you sense, has come in gradations, almost scene by scene. His face might be familiar, but his name on a billboard still fails to register. Jenkins says that when McCarthy presented him with the script for "The Visitor," his first thought was, "You'll never get this made with me in the lead." "It was a very shrewd answer," McCarthy said.