From supporting actor to star, Richard Jenkins steps up in ‘The Visitor’

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

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.

See his comic turn as a town lawyer, drunk on his porch, in the Coen brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” See him as a gay field agent for the Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms in David O. Russell’s “Flirting With Disaster.” See him, as did writer-director Tom McCarthy, in the Richard Gere-Jennifer Lopez romance “Shall We Dance,” where Jenkins played a private detective hired by Susan Sarandon’s character to spy on her husband.

“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.

That’s because McCarthy didn’t want a big name to play Walter, someone who would have to come down from his stardom to seem pedestrian -- à la, say, Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt.”

Jenkins admits to being nervous when the cameras began to roll. It was, for a veteran who has done the giants onstage -- O’Neill, Mamet -- a new experience. The pressure had been on Charlize Theron in “North Country” (where Jenkins played her working-class father). It was on Billy Bob Thornton in the Coen Brothers’ noir-ish “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”

“I think 10 years ago I would have been a little more [nervous], but, yes, I was,” Jenkins said evenly. “I understood the responsibility. But I also was really excited to do it. I think I got nervous after the first couple of days. Then you realize, first of all, [McCarthy] wrote it for me. And if I can’t make it work and he wrote it for me, then I’m really screwed.”

He did not want to know everything the audience would never be told about Walter. In fact, it was what drew him to the project: its lack of exposition.

“It’s almost like a novel going on in there,” he said of the character’s inner life. “I loved the fact that when I read it you don’t know what he’s thinking.”

This rich inscrutability is a recurring theme in the parts Jenkins has nailed. One of the more memorable episodes of “Six Feet Under,” called “The Room,” had Nate (Peter Krause) discovering that his late father had bartered his mortuary services for the use of a spare room above an Indian restaurant, suggesting to the son that his father led some counter-life.

“What I loved about him in ‘Six Feet,’ ” Alan Ball, the show’s creator, said by phone, “is there’s this genuine decency that he has, but you get the sense that there’s a lot of serious complexity beneath that surface.”

‘Light bulb went on’

JENKINS traces his maturation as an actor to work he did decades ago with Harold Guskin, the New York acting coach who more recently worked with James Gandolfini during “The Sopranos.”

Guskin wrote the book “How to Stop Acting,” a title that speaks to the unadorned realism Jenkins brings. He discovered Guskin in Bloomington, Ind., teaching out of his basement; Jenkins, who is from DeKalb, Ill., and who later attended Illinois Wesleyan University, was at the time in a graduate theater company at Indiana University.

“He was the first one that the little light bulb went on,” Jenkins said of Guskin. “He kind of says, ‘You’re who you are, who are you trying to kid?’ And you say, ‘But I’m not interesting enough.’ He was kind of the trigger for me.”

Jenkins has lived outside Providence for more than 30 years. Only once did he move -- a 10-month stay in Los Angeles, in 1975, when Jenkins started to worry about money after his first child was born. He lived over a carport on Sunset and Crescent Heights boulevards and paid $35 to audition for film and TV parts.

“Look at me,” he said, asked if he had to age into movie roles. “What was I going to play when I was 30?”

One agent told him to think “hit man” parts.

“I came home, and I said to my wife, ‘You know, we’re going to have to find a way to do this here. ‘Cause this is what it’s gonna be.’ ”

The older he got, though, the more he worked. And the path that he eventually found, this longer, less predictable road, has left him saying today: “Yeah, Hollywood’s pretty cool, actually.”