SXSW 2008: Richard Jenkins on “The Visitor”

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03102008_richardjenkins.jpgBy Stephen Saito

There’s an everyman quality to Richard Jenkins, but not every man (or actor) has had the chops that have led Jenkins to become one of cinema’s great scene-stealers. Though his career has spanned over 30 years, Jenkins first broke through with a turn as a gay FBI agent on acid in David O. Russell’s “Flirting With Disaster,” which was followed up by supporting roles ranging from the deceased patriarch of the Fisher family on “Six Feet Under” to being a regular in films for the Coen and Farrelly brothers. He joins a different fraternity in his latest film, “The Visitor” — the all-too exclusive club of leading men. In the film, Jenkins stars as Walter Vale, a widowed college professor whose life is reinvigorated by an unlikely friendship with Tarek and Zainab, a struggling immigrant couple who have unwittingly been illegally subletting his apartment. When an incident occurs that threatens deportation for Tarek, who befriends Walter and teaches him the drum, Walter attempts to save him from being returning to his native country of Syria and, in the process, begins to save himself.

“It’s an hour and 45 minutes of life, is kind of what it is,” says Jenkins, who came to SXSW Sunday to introduce the festival fave that’s full of both laughs and tears. Although director Tom McCarthy couldn’t join him, since the actor/writer/director was preparing for his first day of work on Tony Gilroy’s thriller “Duplicity,” Jenkins obviously relished the opportunity to praise “The Station Agent” helmer, dispel some talk about frequent collaborator David O. Russell and explain how the Coen brothers really lost at this year’s Academy Awards.

Had you met Tom before?

I met him, but didn’t know him very well. We have the same agent and I loved “The Station Agent,” and then one day, I was in L.A. and he was in L.A. We were both doing different movies; we were staying at the same hotel and he called me up and said, “You want to go out and get something to eat? Get some dinner?” So we went out and talked for an hour and a half. He sent me [a script] about a year later, and said “I wrote this movie and I want to know, will you do it?” And I read it and I couldn’t believe it. I said, “You wrote this for me?” I said, “But nobody’s going to finance this with me in the lead.” And he said “That wasn’t my question. My question was ‘Do you want to do it?’ I’ll find the money.” I said, “Absolutely.” And that’s how it happened.

Knowing that you were going to anchor the film, did your approach to the performance change from that of a supporting role where you only have to nail a few scenes?

Ten years ago, I may not have been ready to play Walter, because you just have to trust… because he doesn’t talk a lot. He watches. And he doesn’t really respond to a lot of things. He does, but it’s internal. You don’t see it. So I really had to trust myself and to say people will follow this and watch it and understand it better if I don’t try to show what I’m doing — just live the life, live the guy and see what happens. And Tom was a big help with that too.

Because the film was shot on a budget, were any of the scenes that were exteriors improvised? There’s a scene in the film where your character plays with a drum circle in Central Park that seems really authentic.

No, no. But [McCarthy] got the idea from going to Central Park and seeing the drum circle, so he got these guys and brought them in for one day and he had extras, but it’s Central Park. You can’t close down Central Park. I mean, we can’t. “I Am Legend” could, but we couldn’t. But they were shooting the same time as we were. (laughs) They had all the equipment. They had everything. You know, it was like we didn’t have anything. It was like, “Can we get a truck?” “No, no trucks left.” But [the scene] had that feeling, which is what you wanted. You wanted a feeling of spontaneity and what a drum circle is really like in Central Park.

03102008_richardjenkins2.jpgYour character learns how to play the djembe (African drum) in the film, but you have a history of drums yourself, right?

I did. I played the drums when I was a young guy. I took lessons for five, six years. I was never any good. But it did serve me in this movie. I stopped playing because I knew that no matter what, I wasn’t going to be any good. My son is a fabulous drummer. He was better in six months than I was in five years. But he saw the movie in Miami and I said, “How was it, Andy, the drum work?” He said [grinning], “Well, you were very good.”

Have you ever faced a moment, like Walter does at the beginning of the film, where you became uninterested in your career?

Well, yeah. Everyone has those moments where it’s just like nothing seems to make any sense. There’s a lot of self-loathing in there, a lot of embarrassment about how he’s lived his life the last few years. We’ve all had that. Being an actor, it’s not like a hard job, a lot of work, but it is filled with uncertainty, and you get to the point sometimes where you think this is… I give up. I give up.

It might not be an appropriate comparison, but you’ve worked on some productions known to be chaotic (David O. Russell’s “Flirting With Disaster” and “I Heart Huckabee’s,” the troubled “Rumor Has It”). Were there any moments where you thought “Maybe I should have been a lawyer instead”?

(laughs) No, actually not. I don’t like conflict. Some people love it. I just like to have a nice environment and having said that, I love David O. Russell. I mean, he’s so gifted and he was great to me — “Flirting With Disaster” was a huge break for me, and when he called me up to do “I Heart Huckabee’s,” he goes (in manic tone), ‘It’s just a day! Just a day!’ I said, ‘Ok,’ so I go in for a day and we’re starting rehearsals and he kind of goes, ‘How about a beard? Do you want to wear a beard?’ I said, “Sure, ok.” So the makeup people [said], ‘We don’t have beards. What are we going to do?’ So they finally found one. That’s what he’s like. He’s a real force of nature.

And speaking of crazy filmmakers, who are we going to think is more insane tandem that you’ve worked with by the end of the year: The Coen brothers (“Burn After Reading”) or Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (“Step Brothers”)?

Well, you know, it’s a different kind of insanity, but both of them. (laughs) It’s mayhem in both of them. The Will Ferrell thing was just crazy. It was great. I kept saying, “We shouldn’t be having so much fun.” And the Coen brothers are the best. And this script was so good. It’s going to Cannes, I think. I have not heard one word about it, but I e-mailed Joel [Coen] after they won [at the Academy Awards] and said, “Congratulations on your awards, but by my count, you also lost four. So better luck next year.” (laughs) And he wrote back, “Thank you for that perspective.”

[Photos: Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor,” Overture Films, 2007]


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.