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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]

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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GIFs via Giphy

Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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