Richard Jenkins is one of those character actors who seems to pop up everywhere. While he may best be recognized as the spectral dad in HBO’s Six Feet Under, he has also played supporting roles in a wide range of movies from the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading to the Farrelly Brothers’ Me, Myself & Irene. In 2007, Jenkins landed the lead part in The Visitor, the story of a widowed economics professor who takes in a pair of illegal immigrants. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott heaped praise on Jenkins’ performance, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor: “How does he do it? Great acting is always, almost by definition, something of a mystery, a blend of technique and instinct for which no identifiable formula exists.”
Jenkins has two films in theaters now: Norman, released last week, tells the story of a troubled high school kid whose father, played by Jenkins, is dying of stomach cancer, and The Rum Diary, which opens today, is an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s first novel, starring Johnny Depp as a gonzo journalist in Puerto Rico and Jenkins as his downtrodden boss. Davy Rothbart spoke with Jenkins about his recent work, the actors he admires, and why he doesn’t mind if people think he looks strange.
What attracted you to the role of the father in Norman?
I thought the script was beautifully written, and the relationship between father and son felt right to me. It’s a difficult, almost unbelievable story — Norman’s mother has already passed away and his dad is about to — but those things really happen, and kids wind up in that situation. I liked the moments of levity that work their way into the film, and how the dad connects with Norman through humor — they’re both fans of Monty Python. It was actually heartbreaking to play the part. I really found myself hurting for the kid.
Did you ever see your own kids go through tough times as teenagers?
Oh, absolutely. Any parent sees it. There’s nothing worse. Now my kids are 35 and 26, and the older they get the more helpless you feel, because you don’t have control anymore. There’s a saying: “You’re only as happy as your saddest child.” That’s definitely true.
Did your dad ever offer you advice that helped you get through a rough patch?
I was an only child, and I spent a lot of time alone. My dad was an only child, too, so we didn’t have a big family, and I was really close with both of my parents. Like any kid, I thought I knew more than they did. But whenever I was going through a hard time, my father would say to me, “You will learn more from this than you would with success. Don’t hide from it. You have to make this matter.” And I’ve never forgotten that.
Is he still living?
Well, he passed away about 10 years ago. I went back to DeKalb [Ill.]. My mom was sick at the time and had just had a stroke, and since I don’t have any siblings it was just me taking care of things. It was strange — I was in his room, and I opened the top drawer of his desk, and there was his Army ID and all of his watches and cuff links and pins he’d been given from different organizations. I knew where he’d gotten every one of them and what each one meant, and I realized I was the only person in the world that really knew the story of his life. I didn’t have a brother or sister to say, “Hey, remember when he got this pin from the Rotary Club?” and that felt so sad to me.
Losing a parent makes you realize how temporary everything is — you’re looking through someone’s whole life in a drawer, and they’re very simply gone. I took three or four things from that drawer with me, and have kept them over the years. I was in my early 50s at the time, and I’ll tell you, the realization hits you like cold water in the face: Someday your son will have to open a drawer like that. At least my daughter and my son will have each other and won’t be going through it alone.
You’re known as an actor who doesn’t always get the starring role but who is consistently excellent. Who are some lesser-known actors that you have a lot of admiration for? The best sixth men of the silver screen?
You know who I love? Dianne Wiest. I’ve worked with her twice. She’s one of the greatest out there — an amazing talent every time I see her perform. There’s nothing she can’t do. Stanley Tucci is another guy who can do anything and do it with ease. For me, though, the guy who inspired me to take up acting was Michael Caine. In college, I was teetering on the edge: Do I want to be an actor? Do I not want to be an actor? And then I saw Michael Caine in Alfie, and I thought, Wow, that’s what I want to do with my life, even if I knew I’d never reach that level of proficiency. I think it’s one of the brilliant performances of all time. I probably watch that movie once a year.
I’m also a Brando guy. I saw On the Waterfront and was blown away — the guy’s in another universe. Another movie he’s great in that’s not as well-known is Reflections in a Golden Eye. It’s a John Huston movie, with Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Harris, and Brian Keith — a brilliant, psychedelic film where Brando plays this army officer and is just fantastic. But he’s great in every role.
My favorite recent performance has to be Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. The role feels so lived-in, so constant and effortless. He really nailed it. He was nominated for an Oscar the same year I was nominated, and I remember seeing The Wrestler and thinking, I have no chance.1
Sean Penn won that year for Milk.
We all have movies for times in our lives when we really need something. There’s an Italian film called Bread and Chocolate starring Nino Manfredi. The guy he plays doesn’t know if he wants to be Italian or if he wants to be Swiss — the Swiss people seem to have a better life than the Italians, and so he tries to be something he isn’t. At the time I was watching it, I didn’t know where I was going or who I wanted to be, and for that reason I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. I can’t even say if it was a good film or not, but it really spoke to me.
Are there any directors you’d especially like to work with?
I’ve always wanted to work with Steven Spielberg. He tells stories so beautifully. I can see a Spielberg movie five or six times and just be completely lost in it — from Jaws to Saving Private Ryan. Just the first 20 minutes of that movie are enough to mesmerize you. I also love Martin Scorsese, but I’m from Illinois, and I think you have to be from New York to be in one of his movies.
I’m sure that folks offer you a lot of scripts to read. A friend told me he was given a script where the character they wanted him to play was described as a “ratty loser,” which is not exactly a compliment. How are your characters described in the screenplays you look at?
They always say he’s “strange-looking.” Or they say, “mild-mannered but crazy.” And then I often see things like, “Not even attractive when he was young.” First of all, I don’t know how you play that.
Is that really going to make you jump at the part?
Actually, it does whet my appetite, if you want to know the truth. At least I know I won’t have to shave or spend a lot of time in the makeup chair.
Davy Rothbart is the creator of Found magazine, editor of the Found books, author of the story collection The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, and a frequent contributor to public radio’s This American Life. He’s also the founder of an annual hiking trip for inner-city kids called Washington II Washington. In November, he’s visiting 15 cities in the Midwest and East Coast on the Found vs. Found tour.
Previously from Davy Rothbart:
What’s Your Deal? With Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko
What’s Your Deal? With Joseph Gordon-Levitt
What’s Your Deal? With Dominic Fredianelli
What’s Your Deal? With Bismack Biyombo