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.
Your 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]