Friday, April 18, 2008

THE VISITORThe Evening Class Interview With Richard Jenkins

I've already lathered praise on Tom McCarthy's sophomore feature The Visitor, which is opening up theatrically in the Bay Area this weekend. I had the chance to talk with lead actor Richard Jenkins as he was being shuttled around on press junket between journalists. Just before he got to me, he turned to where I was waiting and quipped, "The dentist will be with you in a moment. Thank you for your patience."

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Michael Guillén: [Singing] "I've grown accustomed to your face. It's second nature to me now." [Jenkins chuckles.] Your performance as Walter Vale in The Visitor, however, is the role that will give you name recognition as well. From hereon in we will know who Richard Jenkins is. It's a stellar performance.

Richard Jenkins: Thank you.

Guillén: Can you speak a bit about your acting background? You've been around for quite a while. How have you developed your style of acting?

Jenkins: Harold Guskin is the first name I'll throw out there. He was the coach that I studied with in graduate school. I went to undergraduate school and thought I was just wonderful. I was so good. [Chuckles.] And then I went to graduate school at Indiana University in the Indiana Theatre Company, which is a graduate touring company, and Harold was in the company with me. He was a little older than we were and we were doing The Importance of Being Earnest, Antigone, and Twelfth Night. And I was just awful in all three of them. He played Teresias, the blind soothsayer, in Antigone. He replaced an actor. He rehearsed it at home and then came in and did his part cold and he was fabulous. I thought, "Oh my God." I knew he taught acting so I said, "Could I study acting with you?" He said, "I wondered when you were going to ask." That's when I started to develop a point of view about what I do, with him, and I'm a slow learner so it's taken me a lot of years to really incorporate and believe in it.

Guillén: One of the qualities that I've admired over the years is the lived-in experiential texture of your performances, particularly in this performance in The Visitor. You have such an economy in what you do on film. So much is conveyed through so little. It amazes me and I wonder how you learned to do that?

Jenkins: You have to trust that people will understand what's going on in your head, if something's going on in your head. Our tendency as actors is to explain who we are. It was my tendency for years, as opposed to just being it, doing it, and trusting that people will make an emotional connection. It's a very hard lesson to learn. You think you have to—we call it "show and tell"—you have to say, like, "I'm happy now!" Do you know what I mean? And, as I said, I'm a slow learner because it's a hard thing to trust. "Am I interesting enough? Are they watching me? Are they bored? I can't begin." But it's true. There is an emotional connection that only happens when you're not lying.

Guillén: Your performance reminded me of diarist Anaïs Nin's description of the large dimension found in small gestures. In The Visitor specifically there are two moments that moved me profoundly, like stones dropping into water and falling rapidly into depth. I felt this drop into depth in my body; a palpable grief. These were two moments when you entered the apartment and each time noticed flowers in a vase. For me that registered your character's awareness that there was life present in the apartment.

Jenkins: That's very interesting. I would give Tom McCarthy credit for that one. I hate to do it; but, I will. [Chuckles.] Tom was willing to watch this stuff, take it in, so that an audience could see it. Sometimes a director will move [a scene along too fast] so that it doesn't allow whatever is happening to happen. If you can't see it, it doesn't matter what you do. So I give him credit. He was amazing with the camera and how much he lingered on things. Sometimes he would be on a face that you wouldn't think would be the focus of the scene; but, he found things that interested him in the movie and he moved the camera there. He's the most patient filmmaker I've ever worked with.

Guillén: He wrote this script for you?

Jenkins: Yes, he wrote the script for me. So I said, "Jeez, if I can't do this, I'm really in trouble!" We had dinner. I barely knew him and we went out to eat and talked for a couple of hours. A year or a year and a half later he said, "I wrote this part for you."

Guillén: You were no doubt surprised?

Jenkins: Yes!

Guillén: What do you think he saw in you?

Jenkins: I think he saw some kind of everyman. Somebody who could walk down a New York street and no one would stop to stare at him. Tom liked things he'd seen me do and he was kind of stewing about this character for a long time. After we ate he said, "I saw qualities in you that I felt Walter had." When I read the script, I thought, "I understand this. I really understand this." Sometimes you read scripts and you think, "There are so many guys who could do this better than I can." But this one, I thought, "If I don't get to do this, it will be really hard on me."

Guillén: You are a countenanced actor, in the sense that heart and mind interplay actively in your performances. Before I attached your name to your performances, whenever you would come on screen, you would feel familiar, and I would feel comfortable watching you. Again, that experiential texture I was talking about earlier. As if my life experience immediately found a comfort zone in yours. As someone who's getting up in years, what I've long appreciated in your performances is the play between humor and gravity that you usually don't find until someone's lived in their body for a while.

The final image of The Visitor, which serves as the poster for the film, of Walter Vale drumming in the subway station, can you talk to me a bit about what you feel is being said in that image?

Jenkins: It was a funny feeling of anger and freedom. I was really pissed off but at the same time I felt really free and alive. It was that combination. Because there were a lot of people that weren't in the movie who were just walking by and the camera was way away so I felt alone in that situation. I would never do that on my own. The fact that I could sit down there and play and play loud and play as fast as I did, was freeing.

Guillén: One of the things I most appreciated about The Visitor—and I can honestly say this film is already within one of my top ten of the year—was that it didn't offer false remedy. The script could have gone in different directions. Walter could have married Mouna to resolve some of the heartbreaking issues in the narrative.

Jenkins: If there's one question that we get over and over, it's that one. "What are you doing?!" But, you know, as we were filming it, that never crossed my mind because emotionally neither one of us were ready.

Guillén: Exactly. She still honored her husband. You still honored your wife. For the two of you to partner would have rung false.

Jenkins: You're right. It would have been false. It would have been tacking something on. As an actor you know when you're playing something that feels forced or phony or a lie. I know that if Tom would have asked us to play the scene that way, no one would have been happy; it would have felt wrong.

Guillén: So though the film doesn't offer that remedy, precisely for being inauthentic, The Visitor has been heralded as inspiring much hope. What do you perceive as the nature of that hope? What is the film giving its audiences?

Jenkins: It's people who never would cross paths who are thrown in together. The connection they make is, I think, incredibly hopeful. They're totally different people with totally different backgrounds who find a connection that is really deep and lasting. I think that's incredibly hopeful.

Guillén: There's also something to be said for the shift in relationship with bureaucratic forces. The other scene that moved me was when Walter is in the detention center and the security guard keeps telling him to step away from the window. There was a lot of frustrated energy in that scene. What would you say is being said to American citizens with that scene?

Jenkins: If I thought that way, I couldn't have done the scene. I think I added, "Do you hear me?" That's what was so frustrating: the realization, finally, that you are helpless. I say to Zainab, "We'll get him out. Don't worry about it." It's like, "I'm here now. We'll get him out." But the truth is, he's helpless, he's absolutely helpless, and that realization is powerful. Until he faces that guy, Walter thinks everything's going to be okay.

Guillén: Your interaction with Mouna (Hiam Abbass) is wonderfully palpable, especially in that scene when she comes to guide you away. In her wisdom, in her embodiedness, in her awareness of grief and loss and the hard face of bureaucracy, she can come in and help you transition.

Jenkins: She's so selfless in this movie. That's a tribute to Hiam. She's had a very interesting life herself. There is a wisdom about her and there is an understanding of the world about her that Walter or I don't have; that I didn't bring with me to this movie. She says, "There's nothing we can do. Come on." Later she asks me—which I always thought was incredibly selfless—"Are you okay?" She asks me if I'm okay. But the way she does it seems—I don't know—it's hard to do. I know that if I were in that situation, it would be a hard thing for me to pull off as an actor and she does it effortlessly in both of those scenes because I think it has something to do with her experience in the world.

Guillén: What's next for you? What are you working on now?

Jenkins: I'm not working on anything right now; but, I'm in the new Will Ferrell movie Step Brothers—which, of course, is just like The Visitor—with John C. Reilly. Then I'm in the new Coen Brothers movie Burn After Reading that opens in September.

Guillén: I look forward to your performances in both of those and commend you again for your stellar performance in The Visitor. I'm afraid you're going to be put on the rack in the year to come with all the attention, which has its plus and minuses.

Jenkins: [Laughs.] Yes, it does. It was an incredible experience and—as I said to Tom—I waited my professional life to do something like this, to be in a movie like this.

Cross-published on Twitch.


Anonymous said...

Lovely conversation, Michael. I'm glad you enjoyed the film. Jenkins is perfectly cast. I saw him in the trailer for the Will Ferrell movie and had to smile.

Michael Guillen said...

Thank you, Rob. I'm averse to Ferrell; but, if Jenkins is in it, maaaaybeeee....