Of all the actors enjoying the glow of awards season this year, one of the most “out of character” is Richard Jenkins, the low-key and perfectly cast star of writer/director Thomas (The Station Agent) McCarthy’s subtle and charming film The Visitor. As a 60-ish professor faced with mid-life ennui who befriends young immigrants and learns to play the djembe, Jenkins put in a disarmingly strong, nuanced performance. It was duly noted and respected by critics and the sizable hordes who have made the film a sleeper hit.
It makes perfect sense, in one way, that Jenkins would be part of SBIFF’s Virtuoso 2009 panel of emerging artists. In another way, the actor, now 61, has been part of the scenery of cinema for many years. Jenkins has steadily worked as a character actor whose soft-spoken presence has become his calling card. But he also has a great deadpan comic style, nicely capitalized on by the Coen brothers, in whose latest darkly comic film, Burn after Reading, Jenkins is virtually the only sympathetic character.
Suddenly, Jenkins is basking in a spotlight he’s never known before. “I’ve never carried a movie,” he said, on the phone from his home in Rhode Island. “I wondered what it would be like. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to do it. I wasn’t pining and saying, ‘It’s not fair; how come I don’t get a lead?’ I had a great career. I loved my life and I got to do a lot of interesting roles for terrific people. But it was like a gift.”
Jenkins explained that his experience via The Visitor came when McCarthy presented him a script with a tailor-made role. “He said, ‘I wrote with your voice in my head,’” Jenkins commented. “I said, ‘That must have been a long, scary time.’ He wanted an everyman. I understand it, because I kind of see myself as someone who, when you walk into a room, he’s not the first person you notice.”
In both The Station Agent and The Visitor, McCarthy has shown an interest in exploring corners of human experience not normally seen on the big screen. Jenkins said McCarthy is “interested in people, in real people. I have found that he likes to take people who would not become friends normally. They might walk past each other on the street and maybe not run in the same circles or the same culture, even. And he throws them together and sees what happens.”
Aside from the unconventional touch of having an older protagonist, The Visitor is refreshingly subtle in its characterizations and stylization. As Jenkins said, “Tom is incredibly respectful of the audience, I think. When I read it, I couldn’t see the foreshadowing or the exposition or any of that stuff that, as actors, we’ve had to do and say for the audience. : That kind of stuff was never in this movie. It was so beautifully crafted. The trick was just to let these characters unfold and not try to help, but just go along for the ride.”
Although part of artful, economically humble films, Jenkins is also part of the Hollywood machinery. That includes an ongoing relationship with the Farrelly brothers (fellow Rhode Islanders). “The truth is that I love making Hollywood movies,” Jenkins said. “Maybe I’m a Pollyanna, but I love the people and I love the process.”
Jenkins is not one to make a clear distinction between smaller, artier films and studio-made mainstream movies. “Studios make some great films,” he said, adding with a laugh, “and I’ve been in some bad films-and I’ve helped to make them bad. It’s not like I’m blameless.”
For now, Jenkins is enjoying life in a brighter spotlight than he’s ever known. He’s now in the portion of his career that could be called post-The Visitor. “Yeah,” he said. “I have a friend who says, ‘After The Movie.’”
Richard Jenkins will be honored along with Viola Davis, Rosemarie DeWitt, Melissa Leo, and Michael Shannon as this year’s “Virtuosos” at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Wednesday, January 28.