Interview: Richard Jenkins on First Lead Role in ‘The Visitor,’ ‘Six Feet Under,’ Coen Brothers

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DeKALB, Ill. – Richard Jenkins is a familiar if not overly recognizable character actor. With his distinctly grave voice, he’s best known for his turn as the dead father in the seminal HBO series “Six Feet Under”. But he has also had numerous film roles – most notably with the filmmaking brothers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen along with Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly.

Born and raised in DeKalb, Ill., Jenkins moved to the east coast after college to pursue theater work with the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I. Now residing there, Jenkins has carved a character niche in TV and movies from Providence.

Richard Jenkins in The Visitor
Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor”.
Photo credit: Overture Films recently interviewed Jenkins about his first leading male role in the new film “The Visitor,” his “Six Feet Under” experience and his life as an actor.

‘The Visitor’ In “The Visitor,” how are you as an individual most like the character you play (Walter Vale)? Conversely, how are you unlike him?
StarRichard Jenkins: Like him, I’m a little hesitant to do new things and try new things. I get stuck in a box a bit – but hopefully not to the degree that Walter Vale has. But I do understand him. I understand looking for different answers in the same place and not finding them.

I understand isolation and I’m a little shy, which is in Walter. I’m unlike him since I’m a little more hyper. I think physically I’m different from Walter. I’m a little more animated.

StarHC: What is the origin of your association with the writer and director of the film (Thomas McCarthy)? Since he wrote Walter Vale with you in mind, how did he help you and how did you help him develop Walter from the page to the character?
StarRJ: We barely knew each other. We did know enough to say “hi” because we had the same agent. But we were in Los Angeles doing a movie, staying at the same motel and doing different movies. He saw me in the lobby and asked me to get something to eat. So we went out and talked for a couple hours about everything.

A year-and-a-half later, he calls and says he wrote this part for me. It’s the part he had been thinking about. He thought about me as Walter after he had dinner with me. He said he wrote Walter with my voice in his head. We then rehearsed it for two weeks.

He rewrote as we went along while the other two leads and I basically hung out. We had meals together, we rehearsed and we talked and laughed. We really became friends. The things we were saying in rehearsal would sometimes end up in the script the next day in a much clearer and more interesting way.

It really evolved. At the same time, this was his movie and his script. He knew what he wanted it to be. Basically the script I read was the script we shot.

StarHC: When Walter has the angry breakdown in the immigration detention center, what decisions as an actor did you make in approaching how angry he would get?
StarRJ: I did it in a bunch of different ways, but I kept thinking: “This is Walter’s breakdown.” I didn’t want to do it by tearing apart the room. There was a certain decorum even in that for him. It’s anger, yes, but it’s also impotence. You can change anything in the situation. He realizes there is nothing he can do.

StarHC: Following Sept. 11, 2001, laws and attitudes toward immigration rights are a major plot point in “The Visitor”. Was it Thomas McCarthy’s intention to expose how good people are painted with the same brush as terrorists?
StarRJ: I always thought when I read this script (and it holds true in life) that everything changes when you know someone. Everything changes when there’s somebody sitting behind that detention center glass who is your child or your friend.

The ability to stand in someone’s shoes before we judge is important. There is a whole world of experience out there that we sometimes shut ourselves from – not intentionally – but we do. It’s simply better if we know each other than if we don’t.

Richard Jenkins (left) and Hiam Abbass in The Visitor
Richard Jenkins (left) and Hiam Abbass in “The Visitor”.
Photo credit: Overture Films

StarHC: Since you have a great deal of experience with stage work, what classic theater character do you equate Walter Vale with and why?
StarRJ: Elwood Dowd from “Harvey” – you know, the guy who talks to the rabbit – except he has a friend and Walter doesn’t have a friend.

Richard Jenkins: The Actor

StarHC: You’ve been on a number of film sets with many different directors. What type of set atmosphere do you prefer with your acting style? Without naming names, what type of set experience is not conducive to your preference?
StarRJ: I’ve never been asked that. It’s an important question.

It even determines the movie I will do and how I feel the working conditions will be. I like relaxed sets. I like to feel that I can make a mistake without feeling like I’m costing somebody money. I like a sense of freedom. I like it when people are open and are willing to let you do your work.

When there is tension, arguments and money problems, it’s tough to do your work. Some people thrive on that. I don’t.

StarHC: You have now worked with the Coen brothers on three films. What kind of sensibility do they bring to their stories and characters that you most connect to?
StarRJ: They trust you. They cast you because they see you as their character.

It’s a very relaxed and easy atmosphere with them. Still, they make these incredibly intense, interesting and complicated films. They move very fast because they know what they want. Still, they are also open for you to bring to your character what you see. It’s a great environment to work with them.

StarHC: How did growing up in the DeKalb, Ill. during the 1960s impact your decision of becoming an actor?
StarRJ: I went to the movies in DeKalb at the Egyptian Theater. That’s how I saw the world. I saw “Goldfinger” and thought: “Wow!” It didn’t matter what was playing. We went. I fantasized about it, but as for being in the movies, I thought that was like going to the moon. I didn’t know how you did that.

When the opportunity arose to actually work in film, I jumped right in. It fulfilled all my fantasies about it. There’s nothing like walking onto a Hollywood sound stage. You walk onto Warner Brothers and on those big sound stages that have been there for years there’s a list of every movie ever shot there.

You are in the same place where Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn, Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart made movies.

‘Six Feet Under’

StarHC: I was always struck by the dichotomy between Nathaniel Fisher, your character and the character of Nate’s wife (Ruth). What do you think Nate and Ruth’s relationship in life was about? Why do you think your character greeted her after her death at the end of the show?
StarRJ: I had an idea, but I never really knew who this guy was because he was only alive in the show (literally) for a minute and a half. Every time I appeared, it was another character’s impression of him. Everyone saw him in a different way. In truth, I never knew who he really was.

I also know, though, that there was something special between Ruth and Nate when they were really young. When she died, she thought of him.

StarRead Patrick McDonald’s full review of “The Visitor”.
StarRead more film reviews from critic Patrick McDonald.

StarView our full, high-resolution “The Visitor” image gallery.

StarHC: How did you collaborate with series creator Alan Ball on the character?
StarRJ: I was only supposed to be in the pilot, but Alan said: “When your father dies, you never really stop thinking about him.” So, he asked me to come back and do more. He could be brutal to his family, but really it was about the character being brutal to themselves like self-loathing or a lack of confidence.

StarHC: Since you only appeared in the show periodically, how were you able to develop the excellent father-son connection between your character and the characters played by Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall?
StarRJ: They are really good actors. We all started the show together. We started with the pilot. We didn’t know what it was going to be like. We all became friends. It was really fun coming back during my appearances to see everyone.

StarHC: Finally, as a veteran actor, do you have a one-line piece of advice regarding technique?
StarRJ: If you’re an actor, you are enough. You have to believe that – that you are enough.

“The Visitor” is currently playing at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema in Chicago. staff writer Patrick McDonald

Staff Writer

© 2008 Patrick McDonald,

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