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The Visitor - Richard Jenkins interview

Richard Jenkins in The Visitor

Interview by Rob Carnevale

RICHARD Jenkins talks about winning the role of a lifetime in The Visitor, why he doesn’t view it as a political movie and why he views the director, Thomas McCarthy (of The Station Agent fame) as a brilliant new filmmaker.

The veteran star also talks about reuniting with the Coen brothers and George Clooney for the forthcoming black comedy thriller Burn After Reading and some of the actors who inspired him…

Q. Director Thomas McCarthy suggested that you beat Morgan Freeman and Robert Redford to the role of The Visitor. Does that happen often?
Richard Jenkins: Eight or nine times a year. I wanted to do this thing but I though the script was a little weak, so…. [Laughs] But seriously, this never happens.

Q. So this really is the role of a lifetime for you?
Richard Jenkins: That’s exactly what it is. It fell into my lap. It was a gift and it was hard to believe. I read the script and said to my wife – who doesn’t usually read the scripts because she says they never turn out the way I describe them – to please read it. When she asked why, I said: “Because I want you to tell me if it’s as good as I think it is.” I didn’t trust myself with it because I thought it couldn’t be that good, but when she read it she said: “It is that good.”

Q. And did it turn out the way you expected it to?
Richard Jenkins: It’s not so much you expect, but you hope. You have no expectations… you learn that a long time ago. Even though you do toss and turn at night thinking: “This could be really good…” You have to crush those or they will crush you [laughs]. So, you hope that it will connect with an audience. After all, that’s why we do it. We don’t do it in a vacuum. We do it to share it with other people. It’s not complete until other people see it and respond to it… or not. You act like you don’t care but the truth is that you really do because if you do something and you really believe in it and no one else does it can be a weird feeling. You tend to think: “Where am I going wrong.”

Q. Is that feeling heightened now that you’re the leading man?
Richard Jenkins: It hit me afterwards, when we started to open the film. We’d say: “OK, we’re opening April 11 [2008] in New York…” And then I got nervous because I started to think that if it didn’t work then it was my fault. I never really got nervous when I was making the movie. Before I started I was a little anxious. But we rehearsed for two weeks and I’ve been doing this for a number of years. I’d never had a part like this in film… I had in TV and on the stage. So it was only when we started to open it that I got nervous. Thomas said that he’d written the role for me, so if I screwed it up then what? It gave me a little taste of what the major movie stars must feel. You know: “This movie better open at $75 million or whatever…” It’s a huge responsibility. So, I just got a little taste of it.

Q. But you do have a recognition level among audiences who have seen you in a lot of movies over the years…
Richard Jenkins: I do, yeah. [Smiles] In fact the other day someone came up to me and said: “Is your name Larry?” I said: “No.” And he replied: “Are you sure?” And then he said: “What have I seen you in?” It’s like, for me: “How do I know which movie you’ve seen me in.” [Laughs]

Q. Did you see The Visitor as a political movie?
Richard Jenkins: The truth is I never saw it as a political movie. I knew there was immigration, but I thought it was a human story. I always saw it as dealing with people. Once you put a face on something, everything changes. For me it did too. As Thomas says, immigration became a part of the story, a fabric of the story, when he brought Tarek and his family into the film. Immigration has changed in our country since 9/11 but it was just a natural part of the story and that’s what he wanted it to be as opposed to being “an immigration movie”. I think he’s really succeeded. I’ve seen political movies and that’s what they look like. But this is not one of those. It has ramifications and we see a world that we’ve never seen before but that’s really not where we wanted to send the story.

Q. Does it get your creative juices flowing, then, when you see little things in the script such as “Walter whites out the date”. It’s a little character detail that’s not dwelt upon but which tells you so much about him…
Richard Jenkins: I got excited when it says: “Walter has a glass of wine.” I said to Thomas: “I don’t care if I don’t get any money for this movie but I do want a real glass of wine.” [Laughs] But you’re right. It’s filling in the blanks. Tom’s a really patient filmmaker. He lets the camera take it out of you. You have to go on this little journey and trust that people will understand who you are… maybe not everything about you. But you can’t try to explain too much, you just try to live it. So, when I saw this for the first time I said: “You really let the camera do the work.” When you make a movie you have an edit in your head as an actor and the first time you see it, it’s never the way you see it. But when I saw this movie, I never once thought that. I got lost in it and I usually hate watching myself.

Q. Do you think that Tom’s background as an actor helps with that?
Richard Jenkins: The truth is [checks behind him] it’s because Tom is brilliant. That’s what I believe. There’s a lot of writers, directors and actors who aren’t. I just think he’s one in a million. It’s mainly because he keeps telling you that all the time [laughs]! But I’ve worked with some amazing directors… we were just talking about Sydney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, the Coen brothers. Those guys are fabulous. To find people like that, you’re so thrilled. But then to have this guy come along… he’s one of the great ones. Of course he only makes a movie every five years but I just think this is an incredible feat from the moment I read it. This guy doesn’t explain anything but he respects the audience. The white out scene you mentioned, for instance, says volumes about his laziness, the fact that he’s given up and doesn’t care about those kids or that school anymore. But a scene like that, which is something that only movies can do, is enough to say so much about the character of Walter.

But there are other things… things like the drum circle in Central Park. He has it so I come out of the conference with a full suit and tie on, and a name tag. It’s like he gets me at my most formal and drags me to Central Park and say: “Sit with this group of gypsies and play the drums.” Tarek has to even say to me: “If I were you I’d take the name tag off.” It’s just constant touches like that… you have to be the real deal to think like that. You have to really be an artist.

Q. Who were the character actors you admired when you were starting out?
Richard Jenkins: Well, the film that I was thinking about when I was considering becoming an actor was Alfie with Michael Caine. I saw it when I was in college and I stayed and saw it again. I was mesmerised by the performance of this guy who had absolutely no self-consciousness about him. He was as free as a bird up there on the screen. I remember being floored by that. In fact, I also remember doing a movie here in the UK in 2006, a thing called The Broken, and we were in one of the studios when someone said that Michael Caine was outside. I started to shake. Unfortunately, he’d left by the time I got out there. But that role had a huge effect on me.

But I’m also a Brando guy. I didn’t see On The Waterfront as a kid, I saw it later on, but when I did it was like: “How does anybody do that?” I just saw one of the great performances by Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises. He’s extraordinary! You can’t take your eyes off him even when he’s not doing anything. He’s just there literally living his life on screen. It’s the same as what Brando did. There’s absolutely no self-consciousness. Tom Wilkinson is another one… Meryl Streep. In fact, I actually auditioned for her once, playing the role of her husband. I walked out afterwards and thought: “She fell in love with me… I think this part is mine!” But then I realised that every actor who walked out of there said: “She really likes me.” But that’s what she’s like. And I didn’t get the part. Every year, though, I see performances that are mind-boggling. This year was no exception. Daniel Day-Lewis was amazing [in There Will Be Blood].

Q. Talking of Oscar-calibre performances, your name has been mentioned for The Visitor
Richard Jenkins: Well, I’ve been mentioning it as much as I can. Some people have yet to pick up on it [laughs]. It’s very flattering but it’s not up to me. It’s also weird because it’s not a world I’m familiar with. But it’s really nice that people are responding to this movie. It’s almost a relief.

Q. Are you still playing the djemba [drum]?
Richard Jenkins: No, I never played them. I played the drums when I was young but once Thomas shouted “cut” I stopped because my hands hurt. It’s really hard to play it well. Mohammed, our teacher, was incredible. The trio you see in the bar is his trio and he plays everything with them. But I knew better than to continue playing. When I played the drums, in fact, I did the exact thing that Tarek says to my character. He tells me: “Don’t think…” But I could never stop thinking. I could never get out of my head. Either you’ve got it or you don’t, and I don’t.

Q. Did you feel self-conscious when you were drumming?
Richard Jenkins: Not really, because I was supposed to be inept [laughs]. So, I was right at home. But it was an amazing day in Central Park. The drummers you see are really there every day and they do know how to play. And you do sound better when you play with them.

Q. What’s next for you?
Richard Jenkins: I’m going to do a little film called Norman, which kind of just fell in my lap. But I haven’t really done much. After The Visitor I did two movies – Step Brothers, with John C Reilly and Will Ferrell, which is hilarious, and then I did the new Coen brothers movie [Burn After Reading].

Q. What was it like working with the Coens for a third time?
Richard Jenkins: Fantastic. And I’m also with George Clooney again… a great guy. Brad Pitt too, who is the nicest, funniest guy. These guys are great. They’re exactly as they seem… not a pompous bone in their body. It’s very dark but really funny as well. John Malkovich is in it as well and he’s great.

Read our review of The Visitor

Read our interview with writer-director Thomas McCarthy