Richard Jenkins, a son of Dekalb, Ill., scans the elaborately detailed prix-fixe menu at Maze at the London Hotel in Manhattan and chuckles to himself.
“I feel like such a rube,” he says, reading in a bemused voice, “Marinated beet root with ricotta?”
Not that he’s unsophisticated – just a low tolerance for pretension. It’s a menu meant to impress – or intimidate – but Jenkins takes the reins and orders – tortellini of beef short ribs, slow poached chicken breast, pumpkin panna cotta – then sips a Diet Coke and talks about “The Visitor,” his well-reviewed film from earlier in the year that’s now out on DVD.
“How often am I offered roles like this? Once,” he says. “This is the only time I’ve ever been offered a part like this.”
Written with Jenkins in mind by writer-director Tom McCarthy (with whom Jenkins had an acquaintance and shared an agent), “The Visitor” is the touching, nuanced story of Walter Vale, a socially withdrawn college professor in Connecticut who arrives at an apartment he owns in Manhattan to discover squatters. The two undocumented aliens, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira), have been rented the apartment under false pretenses, unbeknownst to Walter. The lonely academic tells them they can stay on until they find a place of their own, if they don’t mind sharing with him while he’s in town for an academic conference. In the course of a few days, he befriends them – then becomes their lifeline when Tarek is arrested in a subway misunderstanding and sent to a detention center for immigration cases.
“When I first read it, I thought it was incredibly respectful of the audience,” says Jenkins, 61. “What I liked was that it was told without explanation. There was never a moment where he was clarifying it for the audience. Things like exposition, how you find out information you need to know: No one said, ‘I know your wife died and you’ve been moping around.’ Believe me, I’ve had to say lines like that in other movies.
“But this was so organic in the way Tom laid it out. That skill and artistry – it’s very unique in a script.”
With his sad eyes and receding hairline, the angular Jenkins could be that high school teacher you remember so fondly or the next-door neighbor you’ve come to rely on. He has an everyman quality which, combined with a chameleon ability to slip into any role put before him, has made him a favorite of directors, who are finding bigger and better parts for him in a wide variety of projects.
In 2008, beside “The Visitor,” he has played a long-suffering physician coping with the shenanigans of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in “Step Brothers,” and a lovelorn fitness center manager whose crush on Frances McDormand puts him in harm’s way of John Malkovich’s hatchet in the Coen brothers’ “Burn After Reading.”
“I’m a lucky guy,” he says with a shrug. “I love that I got to do totally different kinds of characters in these projects. I’ve always done that. I’ve never been pigeonholed. Three totally different movies – I kind of shot my wad this year.”
Jenkins lives outside Providence, R.I. He spent 14 years at the Trinity Repertory Theater as an actor and another four as its artistic director, working initially under artistic director Adrian Hall.
“I’d never been exposed to that aesthetic, in the way he looked at theater,” Jenkins says. “It was a new thing to work with somebody like this, who was constantly trying to figure out the actor-audience relationship and what we could do in theater that you can’t do on film. Everything we did felt like this could be the greatest theater ever done. It may not have been – but he had the ability to make you feel that way.”
In those years, he played a little of everything: Biff in “Death of a Salesman,” Hickey in “The Iceman Cometh,” roles in “Waiting for Godot” and “American Buffalo”: “I had the opportunity to do so many things I never would have been cast in somewhere else,” he says.
Are there any that he was just plain wrong for? He laughs and nods.
“I did ‘A Doll’s House’ at Yale Rep with Dianne Wiest, with Lloyd Richards directing,” he says. “I was awful. I didn’t trust myself enough. I never stopped long enough to figure it out. It was overwhelming how bad I was. I’m a slow learner. It’s taken a lot of years for me to figure out who I was as an actor.”
Early on in his Trinity Rep tenure, he was lured to California to try to break into movies by a friend’s promise of plentiful work.
“I got my ass handed to me – I was there nine or 10 months beginning in 1975 and it was just awful,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Well, this is not happening.’ I’d always wanted to be in movies but I’d never figured out how to get into them. After that, I thought there was no way. So I went back to the theater. And a guy saw me and asked me if I had representation and signed me. So it was like, once I stopped thinking about it, then it kind of happened.”
Since the mid-1980s, Jenkins has worked regularly in film. But it was the HBO series, “Six Feet Under,” that truly put him on the map. As the sardonic (and dead) mortician Nathaniel Fisher, he was an always-welcome spectral presence, who always seemed to have just the right down-to-earth bit of advice for his always-struggling son Nate.
“I knew it was a good script because it was different from anything else I’d read,” he says. “But I didn’t know how people would respond to it. Even after I saw the pilot, I wondered, ‘What are people going to think of this?’ Really, I’m the worst person at predicting how something is going to do. If there’s something I can be wrong about predicting, I will be.”
Jenkins has no interest in going back to theater. Which is fine because he has no shortage of movie work.
“I did love it,” he says. “I love going to the theater since I stopped being in it. I love seeing things. But I don’t know if I have the stamina to go back and do it again. And I love making movies.
“I can remember, as a kid in DeKalb, going to the movies and watching movies over and over, back when you could do that. I think I saw ‘Goldfinger’ three times in a row just to hear them say, ‘Pussy Galore.’ She’d introduce herself and my friends and I would turn to each other: ‘What did she say?’ We sat there just to here her say her name.”
“The Visitor” was shot on the streets of New York on a budget too small to enable McCarthy to close off streets or subway stations to get his shots.
“A lot of times, the camera was set up across the street and we just shot,” Jenkins says. “I think Tom wanted somebody like me, who could walk down the street and not have people stop and stare.”
Since “The Visitor” was released, Jenkins gets stopped more, he admits: “Although a lot of times people recognize me but they don’t know from what. ‘What have I seen you in?’ It makes the moment longer. It’s fine. I’m an actor and that experience isn’t really complete until someone sees it.”