Richard Jenkins needs no introduction—if you believe he does, you simply haven’t been paying attention to the movies over the past four decades. The Oscar-nominated actor has deservedly earned the reputation of being one of the best character actors in the business, who can move from blockbuster roles to indies, from drama to comedy, with ease, skill and craft. His career has seen him work with the likes of the Coen brothers, David O. Russell, Matt Reeves, Andrew Dominik, Tom McCarthy and many more, all the while maintaining an ambition to play interesting characters, in distinct movies.
The actor’s latest effort, in “4 Minute Mile,” may not boast auteur credentials, but it’s another opportunity for Jenkins to sink into the kind of part best played by him. He portrays a down-and-out track coach, who takes on training a troubled kid with tremendous potential. Together they form an unlikely bond, one that gives them the strength to endure their individual personal struggles.
And as always, Jenkins delivers a lived-in performance, bringing some humor to the part of a coach who nurses a drink in one hand, and his regrets in the other. Last week, we caught up with Jenkins to talk about his role in “4 Minute Mile,” which is now available on VOD and is playing in limited release.
How did “4 Minute Mile” come your way, and what intrigued you about it?
Well, I always wanted to play a coach. I liked the character and I liked the idea of pushing yourself past what you think you can do. That means you think you understand what hard work is, but you really don’t as a young athlete. I was a swimmer when I was young. I was okay, I was good, I wasn’t great, but I regret not giving myself a chance to be much better than I was. Because I didn’t really understand what it meant to work hard.
So with that athletic background, it must have made it easier to understand the character.
Well, I understand that part of running. We had a woman [on the production] who’s a long distance runner, who helped us kind of understand running. But it’s not a team sport where we’re all in this together and it’s about teamwork — it’s just about what is your potential. You only have a few years to figure that out as a runner, swimmer or any other individual sport. And I just liked that idea and I did understand that part of it.
When we meet your character, he’s a pretty broken-down kind of guy. How did you get into that aspect of the character, how did you figure him out?
I’m pretty broken down myself so that wasn’t that hard to do. [Laughs] I’m 67 so that’s how old he was, [and] some people are luckier then others. I think he says in the movie, you’ve got to face what it is inside you or you’re going to be me, and you don’t want that. Here’s somebody who kind of understands it, but has never really done it himself. He kind of lives through others, that’s why he gets excited when he sees this kid, he sees the talent in this kid. He kind of hangs out at the track and he watches him practice and that’s his whole life. He sees this incredible talent and that kind of gets him going.
This is also a particularly modestly sized indie movie. Does that change how you work at all?
Fast, you’ve got to work fast. You know it’s quick, but I don’t mind that, and you’re kind of flying by the seat of your pants. And if there’s a scheduling problem you’ve got to kind of just pick the camera up and change immediately, and do something different. It’s a little more guerrilla and I don’t mind that at all really. Being on a film for fourteen or fifteen weeks can seem like, “Gosh, couldn’t we do this faster? There’s got to be a way to do this quicker.”
You’ve done both comedy and drama. Which do you find more challenging?
I don’t have one over the other, I kind of love doing both. I don’t consider myself a comedian, but you work with some comedians, and sometimes these guys are incredible on their feet, it’s just amazing, and that’s not what I do. But it’s always fun, and I don’t really care as long as the character is interesting. The truth is I like to have it a little of both in everything I do. I think that’s more like life. I don’t think anything is one thing or the other, so we tried to bring humor to even a guy like this. He’s a little sarcastic and a little snarky.
You were in “Step Brothers”…
I was. Somebody just reminded me on the street that I was in it.
Do people remind you often of that one?
All the time, yes. Depending on the age.
There had been some talk of a sequel at some point and I’m wondering if that ever reached your ears.
Adam McKay talked to me about it a couple of years ago. And then they did “Anchorman 2” and I haven’t heard anything [since].
If he called you up today would you be game for it?
I would work with those guys in a minute, I love working with them, I love Adam McKay and Will [Ferrell] and John [C. Reilly] and Mary [Steenburgen]. It was just fantastic. It was too much fun.
On a set like that you know where Will and John are just riffing, going off script and improvising. Are you able to keep up?
Well, if you don’t go off script it makes no sense what you’re saying. Adam McKay said, “I’d like to do it the way it’s written a few times and then go off script.” I said, “Adam, we never got through it once!” But they’re amazing at it, that’s what they do, and it’s brilliant. For me, you just have to hang on. I remember, we were doing this scene at the Catalina Wine Mixer, and Adam said, “Go tell John that you always wanted to be a dinosaur. “ I said “What?” He said, “Tell John you always wanted to be a dinosaur..” So I did and he…it’s such fun, oh my gosh, such fun.
You were Oscar nominated for “The Visitor.” Did that change things for your career at all?
It did, absolutely. You know it did.
In which ways?
It killed my career. [Laughs] No. I got more interesting things thrown my way, my options were larger—it didn’t make me Tom Hanks but I ended up being able to do things, work with people that I really respected and liked and got to do some interesting and great parts. I just did a miniseries on HBO with Fran McDormand that’s just fantastic [“Olive Kitteridge”].
So with that in mind, do you consider yourself still a working actor or have you reached a point where you can sort of pick and choose and turn down movies and go after other films?
Well, there are a number of things I’ve turned down. Sometimes you see problems in a movie and you see issues, but the part is like, “When am I going to get to play a part like this again?” Could I bring something to it? Could I find something in it that is really interesting for me and for an audience to watch? That’s how I choose things. Or if a director is somebody I’ve always wanted to work with then I’ll jump on it sometimes, but if I read a part and think, “God there’s a lot of people that can do this better than me,” I’ll pass. Or If I don’t know what I would bring to it. Sometimes you get offered things that you think, “Really? They want me to play this?”
You mentioned “Olive Kitteridge”—what you can say about your role and what the project is like?
Well, it was really Frances McDormand’s project. I mean Fran bought the rights to the, she and Jane Anderson wrote it, she brought in [director] Lisa Cholodenko, she took it to HBO, called me and asked me if I’d play Henry, her husband. And she’s got a great group. Lisa was terrific, Jane Anderson’s script was amazing. It’s a story of a family in a small town… and it spans about 25 years and it’s just really cool. I mean, it’s a story, it’s an actors piece, an actor’s story.
Are there any directors on your bucket list that you want to get on set with?
There’s a lot of great directors that I want to work with, but as soon as I mention them I never get a chance to work with them. I think I scare them [laughs], so I don’t say anything anymore. I wanted to work with Steven Spielberg and I actually wrote him a note once and never heard a word since [laughs].
Do you have a favorite role or something you’ve done that you wish got more attention? Either the performance or the film?
Well, of course, “The Visitor” got an incredible amount of attention. Sometimes it’s what I’m working on at the present. I loved doing “Olive Kitteridge,” it was 3.5 months playing this guy over a 25-year period. So it was really interesting, but there’s a lot of roles I liked, I really liked playing this coach and I don’t know how you felt about the movie, but I really loved playing this guy.
So it’s kind of like trying to choose your favorite kid.
That’s true. It’s like whatever you’re doing at the time you put your effort into. And you always go into everything [thinking] this could be really great, it may not be but it could be. Because you’re always surprised, not always, but sometimes. Something you thought was going to be good wasn’t, something you thought wasn’t, it is—you never know. I mean, if they knew, everything would be a hit.