Just because a role is labeled as “supporting” come awards season doesn’t make the role itself any less important — if you choose them right. For Richard Jenkins, the key comes down to this: “When the star is talking, you can’t roll your eyes.”
Jenkins, who stars in Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy-love story “The Shape of Water,” was joined by fellow actors Jim Belushi (Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel”), Laurence Fishburne (Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying”), Jason Mitchell (from Dee Rees’ “Mudbound”) and Sam Rockwell (Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) to talk with Times writers Amy Kaufman and Mark Olsen about a wide range of things for the Envelope Supporting Actors Roundtable. Things like racism, the rhythm of comedy and how heroes are made.
And one valuable life lesson: Should you ever encounter Fishburne on the street, for the love of God, don’t call him Morpheus.
Mark Olsen: What is it like for all of you to be a part of the industry right now, figuring out how to talk about things?
Laurence Fishburne: It’s a very, very interesting moment. But it’s also a really good thing that a lot of this has come out. And that people are being taken to task for it. You know maybe on the other side of it there won’t be so much of this behavior.
Richard Jenkins: I think of the women’s march right after the election. Part of that was speaking to that issue. That’s when it kind of started to crystallize. Then you think about all of these women who’ve lived with this so many years and just finally getting to tell their story. This movie that I’m doing takes place in 1962. And I was in high school in 1962. Man, it was great for me. But I was a white, straight man — or boy. If you were anybody else it wasn’t so great.
Jason Mitchell: Everybody just has to be held accountable for their own actions. And, you know, once that’s in the air and we can talk about it as a society as an industry, then things will continue to get better.
Olsen: Jim, you’re in “Wonder Wheel,” a dramatic film. You’re mostly known for comedic performances. Were you surprised to get that call for that role?
Jim Belushi: Yeah. It was, the breakdown said it was a Harry Brock type. And I had just done Harry Brock in “Born Yesterday” on Broadway. And my agent called and said we got a Harry Brock type. And I went, “They’ll give it to Goodman.” The drama’s easier for me. I mean, comedy is just much more of a science, you know. There’s a lot of math in it and character work. And in drama it’s really about the character and the character and the character. And the fear of not connecting, the fear of losing hope, the fear of losing love, the fear of the abyss. So there’s a lot of things that I tie it to my life, different traumatic things that left me in an abyss. It was a rough emotional shoot for me that way.
Amy Kaufman: What do you mean there’s a lot of math in comedy?
Sam Rockwell: Timing.
Belushi: It’s timing, rhythm jokes. One, two, three. Everything’s in threes even if you break down a scene. You get the joke down in three and get sentences down in three. You get paragraphs in three. And then the scene is in three. Everything is in rhythm.
Jenkins: Oh, God. No wonder I’m not funny.
Rockwell: Hey man, you’re in “Stepbrothers.” You’re funny. I love “Stepbrothers.”
Olsen: Laurence, do you find there’s a big distinction for you between performing in comedies and in dramas?
Fishburne: Not really. I mean, we have this great symbol for actors, right, which are the masks of comedy and tragedy. So most actors are capable of both. I mean you do get sort of handed an archetype sometimes as an actor. Journeyman actors, we all got handed like these archetypes, these things that the audience really responds to us doing.
Rockwell: Like you in “King of New York.” You made that cliché like a Shakespearean character.
Fishburne: Thank you. For me, he was just the first hip-hop gangster on screen.
Belushi: In “Wonder Wheel,” it feels like a Tennessee Williams play or an Arthur Miller play. And I kind of studied that and tried to take a little bit of that archetype and that sense of drama and sense of environment. You know and it is, it’s a mask.
Jenkins: It’s just both. It’s like life. It’s just incredibly heartbreaking and hysterically funny.
Mitchell: People find the humor in life all the time. And you have to in order to make it through real life. Like some things are tragic, but you have to laugh. You have to continue to smile through life. And it’s good when you get to bring that out in a character.
Belushi: I heard a great saying one time: “Heroes aren’t born, they’re cornered.”
Rockwell: That’s really cool.
Belushi: So our characters are constantly getting cornered. And it’s not the cornering that’s interesting, it’s the recovery from the corner. That’s where the character and the heartbreak comes from.
Olsen: I’ve always thought it must be so difficult with some roles offered to you like, “Oh, that’s what you think of me? That’s how I read to you?”
Rockwell: Yeah, I get all these rednecks. I think it’s hilarious because I’m a city kid. I used to like, break dance — badly. But they try to put a lasso in my hand and, you know, throw us on horses. But I’m a concrete creature.
Jenkins: And sometimes you read something that they ask me to do and you think, “I can think of 10 guys that could do that better than me.”
Mitchell: That’s what made it so important for me to start trying to really be strategic and look into each character. Because after I did Eazy-E [in “Straight Outta Compton”] everybody was like yo, he’s Eazy-E forever.
Jenkins: The reason that they typecast you is because you were really good.
Mitchell: Thank you. And that’s what makes it such a beautiful double-edged sword.
Olsen: Sam, your character in “Three Billboards” has an interesting twist on what you’re talking about, sort of the villain type. You’ve said though it’s like he seems like Barney Fife but then he turns out to be like Travis Bickle.
Rockwell: The Barney Fife part is kind of a red herring. We kind of think he’s a goofy comic relief, maybe a hapless villain. But then he goes through this metamorphosis, which is what makes it a great part. The general arc was sort of Barney Fife to Travis Bickle, but that’s very general …
Fishburne: Are you talking to me?
Rockwell: Yeah, exactly. Throw a little Don Knotts in there and you got it. He had to be goofy and dangerous, which is a very strange line.
Kaufman: Laurence, your character, we don’t see the actual transition but obviously he used to be sort of wild. And then he becomes a preacher, so it’s under the surface. Was that fun to play?
Fishburne: Yeah, it was great. I haven’t played a whole lot of preachers, but this guy was an ex-Marine and a hell raiser and a real brawler with [Bryan] Cranston’s character when they were in Vietnam. And now he’s a pillar of his community and all of that. It was nice to have the duality going on.
Olsen: Jim, is it exciting for you to do something like “Wonder Wheel” that feels new? Are there still corners for you to turn in your career?
Belushi: It was a little intimidating for me. I walked on the set and there’s Kate Winslet with like three Academy Award ghosts right there. And then there’s Woody [Allen] with about 12. And I have a little certificate from being nominated for writing on “Saturday Night Live” — in 1983 and I was one of 17. It was thrilling to be with the caliber of people on that set. And I was really intimidated. I just didn’t think I was worthy or ready. But when it started, because of the level of professionalism on the set, I just slipped in and did my job. My job is to make you look good. And as long as I focused on keeping Kate supported and not getting yelled at by anybody, I did my job.
Kaufman: Are there things from your “Saturday Night Live” experience that you still keep in mind all these years later?
Belushi: “Saturday Night Live” was probably the toughest thing that I’ve ever been through in my entire life and I’m including divorce. Everything has been easy after “Saturday Night Live.”
Belushi: It is one of the toughest pressure cookers that I’ve ever been in.
Olsen: Richard, along the lines of what Jim was saying, is there a trick to being a supporting actor? In many ways I think of you very much as one, even though you’ve been nominated in the lead category before.
Jenkins: Mistakenly you’re saying, yeah.
Olsen: It just seems like you’re so good at being sort of unflashy, part of an ensemble like you are in “Shape of Water” — is there something to that?
Jenkins: You know the truth is I don’t look at it that way. What you have to do is when the star is talking, you can’t roll your eyes. That’s the one thing I’ve learned.
Mitchell: At least be off camera.
Jenkins: I look for parts. I want to see a person with a life and it’s hard to find great parts like that. “Shape of Water,” here was a guy, has his own life, has his own dreams, fears and he gets caught up in this world of Sally Hawkins and supports her. He actually says, “I will do whatever you want me to do.” That’s fantastic. But you read a script and you either connect with it or you don’t.
Olsen: Laurence, you were in “Apocalypse Now,” obviously set during Vietnam. In the new one, you’re a Vietnam veteran. Is that sort of connection something you even think about?
Fishburne: It didn’t occur to me until we were shooting how much the Vietnam experience or the “Apocalypse Now” experience could have informed what I was doing for “Last Flag.” But it was more the fact that I’ve done a lot of military pieces. So there was “Apocalypse Now” when I was 14, 15, 16. Then there was “A Rumor of War” when I was 18. There was “Gardens of Stone” with Coppola again, which is another Vietnam thing. So I have that and the relationships with the people that I’ve met doing those movies, particularly people who served. So yeah, the experience informed it but it wasn’t like I was consciously thinking about it.
Mitchell: The skill set that I think we have as actors is so cool because they train you in ways that you never thought you’d be trained. And that’s skills that they can’t take back. So as you go further in your career, you can dump all these skills into things.
Belushi: I’ve learned a new skill though in my first movie. Dying. I love dying on film.
Jenkins: But if you’re on stage and you die and you have to be there awhile, you want to die behind the couch.
Olsen: Jason, was there something specific you learned in making “Mudbound”?
Mitchell: I’ve never experienced that sort of excellence on a set. As soon as you read the script you’re like, “OK, this is going to get weird.” So you had to have some sort of trust and real love for each other because when somebody’s dropping N-bombs straight to your face, eight takes later, you gotta be able to hug this person, you know what I mean? So I think for the first time I had what I felt in my heart and on camera coincide with each other. It was a real unifying thing that we did. And I’ll never forget, Jonathan Banks who plays Pappy, in the scene where I’m trying to leave out the front door [of the store and Pappy stops him with racial invectives]. Maybe six or seven takes into it. He’s like, “OK, I’m not doing it anymore. I can’t do this.” He’s tearing up. He’s like, “I don’t see how people treat each other like this.”
Mitchell: Yeah, it was a big deal.
Kaufman: Your movie and a lot of movies this year, “Get Out,” “Detroit,” are trying to grapple with race and how we treat each other. Have there been interesting discussions as a result of screening the film?
Mitchell: Absolutely. And for me it’s been really good, especially with the international press because they want to know about these kinds of things. What makes these films so good is that we just want to get the dialogue started. If we could start talking about it and maybe give people some sort of visual textbook to go off to actually talk about the facts, then I think we’re going to be good. And film is a way to really help that.
Belushi: When you know better, you do better.
Olsen: Especially in a cultural dialogue that’s been started through “black-ish.” Is that something that’s been exciting for you to be a part of?
Fishburne: It’s been wonderful. I’ve been telling people this for a while now, if you grew up listening to jazz or rock ’n’ roll or R&B, you might be a little bit blackish, which pretty much covers everybody in the country. And the things that we’re talking about on the show are things that black folks in America have been talking about for at least a hundred years. And now everybody’s talking about them. And it’s a family show, so it’s universal. And we’re talking about stuff that’s culturally specific but it’s also universal because it’s generational. And it’s aspirational. And it’s about, you know, what do you want for your kids and what are your parents like? And everybody’s got those problems and those challenges. So it’s been really nice that people have embraced us and we’re just talking about stuff that’s just part of life.
Kaufman: Sam, you were saying recently for a role you were researching that you spent time with someone who used to be in the KKK?
Rockwell: He was an ex-white supremacist who now pulls guys out of hate groups. And yeah, he said some useful stuff to me. He said, “It’s not so much that you hate black or brown people, it’s that you hate yourself.” And that was penetrating to me.
Rockwell: Because that I can relate to. I can’t really relate to being a racist. But I can relate to low self-esteem. I think we all can.
Olsen: Richard, was it surprising to you that your monster movie is as emotional as it is?
Jenkins: I was surprised when I saw it. It was so different than what I thought it was going to be. It was so beautiful the way he speaks in film language. He speaks in a language that you don’t see anymore. It’s like a 1940s master making a movie, his homage to cinema. But if you know Guillermo, his heart is huge. And so I wasn’t surprised by that. And I know Sally Hawkins and how frickin’ great she is. The camera never left her eyes. But I was surprised at how brilliantly he shot it and edited it. You see her once, she meets the creature and then how do you show her happy that she met the creature? So you see her once. She likes shoes. And then the next shot you see her walking with red shoes on.
Kaufman: Speaking of “Stepbrothers” earlier, are you surprised by the movies you’ve done that stick with people?
Jenkins: I get, “Hey, Mr. Doback.” Then I say, “Doctor.”
Belushi: I get “where’s the dog?” That “K-9” movie like 25 years ago.
Fishburne: They’ll say, “Morpheus.” And I’ll say, “Is not my name.” But the one that does surprise me is when people mention “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” Because that was completely out of left field for me. It was the only comedy I had ever done.