Richard Jenkins, 'The Visitor'

Richard Jenkins, 'The Visitor'
Richard Jenkins, a frequent supportive guest in films, has his first lead role in the acclaimed indie “The Visitor.” His role as a lonely professor has buzz. Earlier this year, he was the gym manager pining for Frances McDormand in “ Burn After Reading,” his third Coen brothers movie. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
A longtime character actor with one of those "Don't I know you?" faces, Richard Jenkins has been building award buzz for his role in "The Visitor" since it first appeared on the festival circuit more than a year ago. If not exactly his "big break," for Jenkins, 61, the part is his first leading role.

In "The Visitor," writer-director Tom McCarthy's follow-up to "The Station Agent," Jenkins stars as a professor of international economics in Connecticut. A widower stuck in a late-career rut, the character of Walter Vale seems sad, lonely and isolated from everyone including himself. When Vale finds a young immigrant couple mistakenly living in his little-used New York City apartment, he is launched on an adventure of self-discovery.

Although "The Visitor" was a modest sleeper hit over the summer, it held onto theaters far longer than the average indie. Meanwhile, Jenkins, who lives in Rhode Island, has continued his quiet and steady career. Since "The Visitor," he has also been seen in the comedy "Step Brothers" as a disappointed dad and in "Burn After Reading," his third film with Ethan and Joel Coen, as a lovelorn gym manager. He recently finished shooting "Waiting for Forever," directed by James Keach.

On the commentary track for the DVD of "The Visitor," you mention more than once that this is the kind of role you've been waiting for your entire life.

It's not just the role, it's the experience. I've wanted my entire professional life to be a part of a project like this, the whole thing. It's how I thought everything was going to be when I started working, that's how every project was going to be. And they aren't. It doesn't mean they're not great and fine and wonderful, but this was just amazing. And I think because I've been doing it so long, I appreciated the fact of how rare an experience it was.

Tom McCarthy wrote the part with you in mind. Has anyone ever done that for you before?

Actually, the Coen brothers. I auditioned for them a bunch of times and they never hired me, and then one day Ethan Coen calls with a part for me. But a part this size? No. And he said he wrote it with my voice in his head. We went out to dinner one night and talked, and we didn't know each other very well and later he told me that when he started to write he just kept hearing my voice. From that one dinner.

Tom also allowed you to collaborate with him on creating the character. Can you tell me about that?

We all did that with him. And I'm not crazy about rehearsal for film, because when you put the camera up it all changes, but he used the rehearsal for us to all just read and talk. And he rewrote. You'd just be talking about something that maybe wouldn't make the movie, or maybe you'd see it written into the film a couple days later. He's a watcher, he takes it all in. He's incredibly observant. I said one day, "Geez, Walter doesn't do anything, he just pretends," and in a few days he wrote this beautiful speech that wasn't there in the beginning.

Is there more of you in this role than in anything else you've done?

There is a lot of me in there. Hopefully, there is in everything you do. You're all you've got, it comes from you. But I understand being hesitant, being reluctant, being stuck in a rut. I think we all do. Hopefully, I'm not as anti-social as Walter Vale but I like to stick at home and I am reluctant to get into new things, new situations. I really understood him. Walter was like the guy you walk into a room and you don't see. I understand that. And it's great that in movies you don't have to say, 'Look at me,' that the camera will find you. You have to just live it.

Olsen is a freelance writer.