“I never looked at this as ever leading to anything,” actor Richard Jenkins said about making “The Visitor.” “I trained myself years ago not to do that because I know how disappointing it all can be. So even though it’s hard not to with people saying, ‘Oh you’re gonna get this, you’re gonna do that.’ But you just can’t. You have to just do the work and be thankful that people respond to it. That’s what you have to do.” It’s been well over a year since “The Visitor” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it’s quite evident people have responded to it. When it was released in theaters this past April, it quickly became one of the year’s biggest specialty hits. And now Jenkins’ performance has garnered a string of year-end notices, including nominations for a Spirit Award, Critic’s Choice Award, and earlier today, a Screen Actor’s Guild Award. Jenkins sat down with indieWIRE to discuss his well-deserved good fortunes.
In “The Visitor,” Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a widowed college professor who travels to New York City to attend a conference, only to find a young couple, Tarek and Vale (Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira), staying in his apartment. The couple turn out to be illegal immigrants, and Walter allows them to continue living in his home, leading to his emotional entanglement in their lives and legal issues.
The film was written and directed by “The Station Agent“‘s Tom McCarthy, whom Jenkins had met a few years prior to “The Visitor.”
“It’s a story I’ve told a million times,” Jenkins said when asked about meeting McCarthy. “But it’s the truth. And I don’t mind telling it, I just wish I could make it different. Tom and I were acquaintances. Not friends, but we were acquaintances. We have the same agent. And we were in L.A. making two different movies and staying in the same hotel. We ran into each other in the lobby.”
The two ended up having dinner, and a long conversation. Not about anything in particular, and certainly not about “The Visitor.” “A year an a half later, my agent called and said Tom wrote this part for me,” Jenkins explained. “He wants you to read it and tell him what you think. So I read it and I said ‘Really?’ I said to my wife, ‘You have to read this now because you have to tell me if it’s as good as I think it is.’ And then [Tom] called and asked me if I wanted to do it and I said, ‘No one is going to give you the money to do this movie with me in this part.’ And he said, ‘That wasn’t my question. My question was do you want to do it?'”
Jenkins did. And after two weeks of rehearsals and six weeks of shooting, his doubts that “The Visitor” could be made with his involvement had officially been squashed.
“I don’t know if ten years ago I would have trusted myself enough as an actor to do what I did [with this film],” Jenkins said. “To let it unfold and let it happen and not try and put anything on it. I always felt it was such an intimate story and such a personal story that it felt like window peeping. The audience should feel like they are looking in and that at some point someone in the movie is going to turn around and say ‘what are you looking at?’ I just thought it was that kind of intimacy.”
That intimacy was also due in large part to Jenkins’ co-stars, Sleiman, Gurira and Hiam Abbas, who plays Tarek’s mother and Walter’s would-be love interest. “Tom had two weeks rehearsals and he needed that because all of us were strangers,” Jenkins said. “I mean, I knew Tom but not well. Haaz didn’t know Tom. Danai didn’t know Tom. Hiam didn’t know Tom well. And he put us together and we became friends. We didn’t just rehearse. We ate together, we hung out together. We were with each other all day and in the evenings for two weeks. So by the time we started to film, we were ready. We were friends… And I think it shows on screen, the kind of connections that were made for this movie.”
Jenkins’ connection with McCarthy was heightened due to the fact that both men have in large part built careers as character actors. Jenkins’ over thirty-year resume includes everything from “Hannah and Her Sisters” to “Flirting With Disaster” to “North Country,” while McCarthy has played bit parts in “Meet The Parents,” “Good Night, And Good Luck,” and numerous others. Perhaps most interesting is that the two men’s most arguably recognizable parts have both come from HBO series: Jenkins’ role as the Fisher family’s deceased patriarch on “Six Feet Under,” and McCarthy as a plagiarizing journalist on the fifth season of “The Wire.”
“I love ‘The Wire,'” Jenkins said when the connection was noted. “I made it a point to watch it this year [when McCarthy was on it] and I never knew if he was plagarizing. You know when he got so upset when they accused him and were checking his notes? Remember that that scene where he screamed!?”
More over, Jenkins admits he and McCarthy “speak the same language.” “It’s like, you know how you like to be treated when you’re an actor. And that’s what he does. But he worked differenty with all of us, which I found really interesting… He kind of figured us all out. So I think his being an actor was a big help. But, you know, I’ve worked with some directors who had never acted who were fantastic with actors. And some who had acted who…”
When the film finished and Jenkins saw an early cut, he said to McCarthy, “God, your’e so patient with the camera.” McCarthy turned to him and asked, “Well, what did you think I was going to do?” “I know that’s what we talked about and I know that’s how we shot it,” Jenkins explained. “But nowadays everybody’s gotta move from one thing to the next so fast that I was just so impressed by his willingness to let the story unfold.”
As “The Visitor”‘s own, external story began to fold, Jenkins nervously awaited reactions. “I always said I had no expectations but deep down, you don’t do a movie and not hope people like it. You hope that when they see it they connect with it. Because if you do something – and this is the part about the business – you know, if you do something and nobody likes it, you take it personally. You do. Because it’s like saying, ‘I don’t connect with anyone out there.’ And that’s a terrible thing as an actor. Because that’s your job.”
Though people began to connect with “The Visitor” immediately when it screened in Toronto in September of 2007, it was a patient journey beyond that. After Overture Films purchased the film, they decided to wait for a Spring release to avoid the onslaught of Oscar season, a tactic that obviously has paid off.
“I had no idea what Toronto was going to be like,” Jenkins recalled. “The response [there] was kind of amazing to me. To be in the middle of that audience and to have them respond like that was incredible. And then when Overture bought it and said ‘I don’t think we’re going to release it this year, we’re going to wait until the Spring.’ I mean, it was just never ending… It was like after you make it, will a film festival accept it? And then after they accept it, will they like it? And then will anybody buy it? And then you open it and will the critics like it? And then will the audience come? And now there’s this awards business. It’s like every time you turn around there’s a new bit of pressure.”
But Jenkins is not complaining. “I have to say it’s it’s new for me, so it’s been incredibly exciting and gratifying to have people respond to this film the way I responded to it when I read it,” he said. “I hadn’t read anything like this. But you just don’t know… Each step is new and its different. I think it’s like – maybe it was Tom McCarthy who said this – it’s like the video game when you shoot down the ducks and they just keep coming up… Just one thing you have to deal with after the other… But every step has just been really strange and terrific. It’s been more than I expected.”
So as “The Visitor”‘s journey finally begins to wind down, what does Jenkins expect next? “I’m looking for social security now, that’s what I’m looking for,” he joked. “No… I just finished a movie with Lasse Hallstrom and I just loved making it. And after ‘The Visitor’ I did ‘Step Brothers,’ which was a crazy time. And I did ‘Burn After Reading‘ which I loved. But whether I’ll do leads anymore, I don’t know. I mean, I’m 61. This was a gift.”