[Editor’s note: The following article contains some spoilers for “The Humans.”]
Icebreakers don’t work with Richard Jenkins, at least not in the way one might expect. They don’t need to: He’s always present and ready. Still, they don’t hurt, and when the lauded character actor and two-time Oscar nominee popped into a recent Zoom with IndieWire, attempts were made to allay light dismay over technical difficulties — this interviewer was not, unfortunately, popping into frame as quickly as Jenkins — with a question about a wholly unexpected topic: His turn as an assassin in Clint Eastwood’s 1997 drama “Absolute Power.”
While we were meant to be talking about Stephen Karam’s skin-crawling family drama “The Humans,” having just recently watched “Absolute Power” and been — as ever — blown away by Jenkins’ uncanny ability to slip into any and all roles, I simply wanted to mention the project and how thrilling he is in even a small part.
Jenkins took that mention and ran with it, happily zipping through five minutes of memories of the project, including handily reenacting a scene in which his character is forced to assemble a comically large rifle in hopes of using it to off Eastwood’s character. More than two decades after filming the movie, he still laughed heartily remembering how easily Eastwood could put together the gun, leading Jenkins to wonder why the hell his multi-talented director didn’t just do it himself.
“I get to the take, and Clint said, ‘Before when you do it, take a bullet, hold it up to the light, blow off the dust like that, and put it in the gun,'” Jenkins recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, why don’t you do it? Because you just did it great, and I don’t know…'” Jenkins did it. The second the scene ended, the barrel fell off the gun. But they got the scene, and Jenkins got yet another skill to add to a prodigious set.
He doesn’t forget that stuff, clearly. Perhaps that’s the key to his decades-long career; the man isn’t just a sponge, he seems to revel in the actual process of learning new things, tapping into new emotions, becoming a new person. That’s all on full display in Karam’s feature film debut, based on his Tony-winning one-act play of the same name. Jenkins stars as Erik, the patriarch of the Blake family, which has come together in youngest daughter Brigid’s (played by Beanie Feldstein) new apartment to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Tensions are already high and feelings are fraying: Brigid and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun) might be thrilled about their new place, but it’s essentially a haunted house, while older sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) is still bruised from a bad breakup and an unfulfilling career and Richard’s mother (June Squibb) appears to be declining before everyone’s eyes. And that’s where the drama starts.
Tucked inside what already feels skin-crawling and off-kilter, there is so much more: Erik has a secret, and as it slowly starts to reveal itself, “The Humans” becomes even more chilling, unnerving, and very real. For Jenkins, that’s a real gift, a singular guide to every second of his performance.
“Oh, [the secret] is just there all the time. There all the time,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not even that specifically, it’s just the mood you’re in, where you are. It’s just you can’t get out of that feeling of hopelessness, and of being trapped, and of ruining things. He keeps leaving. He keeps saying, ‘I’m going to check the score of the game.’ Is that why he is leaving? Why does he keep going upstairs? Why does he look out the window? What’s going on in his head?”
As the film moves closer to its big revelations, Erik becomes somehow both more unmoored and hyper-focused on keeping things along some sort of navigable path. During a post-dinner peppermint pig-breaking sequence, Erik redirects the reason for the tradition — to wish for good fortune in the coming days — to instead issue a very thinly veiled plea that takes on a different cast in the following moments.
“He says during the pig ceremony, ‘I want to thank this family for the unconditional love,'” Jenkins said. “That’s more of a hope than it is a thank you.” Soon after, Erik and his wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, reprising her role from the original play) tell Brigid and Aimee what’s really going on. It’s not exactly cathartic, as Erik attempts to blunt the bad news with all manner of bargaining, much of it steeped in his Catholic faith.
“Religion is so much a part of their lives, and that’s where they turn,” Jenkins said. “And they say that it’s fine. It isn’t fine. It isn’t fine! But will they go on? Yes, they will. And because he does love them. He loves them, and they love him.”
While the revelation sequence and everything that follows puts Jenkins squarely in the center of the ensemble-led film’s action, he was eager to deflect praise toward Karam’s script, including the final moments that allowed Jenkins that sense of positive possibility for the future of the Blakes. “Stephen kind of let me figure this stuff out as I went,” he explained. After the revelation, “Brigid runs up the stairs like she’s got to get out of the place, runs to the roof. Aimee’s like, ‘I’ve got to go for a walk.’ It’s like you’ve lost your children. They’re gone. And then, when all is lost, Brigid opens the door and says, ‘Dad, the car is here. I’m going to ride with you to the station. Come on, Dad. We’re waiting for you.’ And the thought that came to my head was she still loves me. She still loves me.”
It’s about as close to sentimental as the film gets, but Jenkins’ understanding of the meaning of what Karam has written does telegraph a certain kind of optimism. “That’s the brilliance of the way this guy writes,” he said. “She didn’t open the door and say, ‘Yeah, I still love you, Dad, but we’ve got a lot of issues and we’re going to have to work them out,’ that’s not how he writes. It’s brilliant. He writes like people from Scranton, Pennsylvania, talk. People hide things when they talk, and that’s what he does in the script. And it’s through that that you see the truth.”
Linda Kallerus, A24
It’s that essential truth that Jenkins loves, the sort of thing he’s always seeking. “It’s kind of nice to think you’re not alone in this world of human beings,” he said. “Everybody has dealt with something in this movie: health, relationships, money, betrayal. It’s pretty human stuff, and it cuts close to the bone. It’s not like [these characters are being] invaded by aliens and that’s the horror; it’s the worst horror in the world, which is your own life. What it does to you, what it can do to you.”
And, much like Erik, he keeps going back to the love at the center of the film. “On top of it all, they love each other,” Jenkins said. “They really love each other. Most of the problems, the big problems in this film, it’s Erik’s fault. He did it to himself, and to them, and he knows it. He knows what he did, and he loves his family. I think it’s so human. I keep saying that word, and it’s like, ‘Okay, buddy, it’s the title of movie.’ But I get it. I get it!”
That Jenkins is still feeling so close to the material more than two years after it shot in New York City in September 2019 is no surprise: the veteran actor doesn’t shake his projects off so easily, especially lately. Though he’s worked steadily in film and TV since the ’80s, Jenkins has become a more visible star in recent years: first with a 2007 Oscar nom for his work in “The Visitor,” followed by an Emmy win in 2014 for “Olive Kitteridge,” and then his multi-nominated work (Oscar, Golden Globe, SAG) in “The Shape of Water.” After decades in the biz, it’s true: He’s getting a bit more picky.
“I am choosy, I am,” Jenkins said. “Because I’m at an age where I only do something if I want do it. There did come a time where I could be more choosy. It’s something that I appreciate and don’t take for granted. … I really do appreciate it. And if I don’t, my wife will remind me that I should, and that if somebody had told the younger me that this is where I would’ve ended up, I would’ve kissed their feet. I’m a fortunate guy.”
Searchlight Pictures, via Vanity Fair
One pleasing side effect from Jenkins’ growing pickiness is that he gets giddy when talking about every project, right down to the smallest details. While he was unable to share big notes about his other 2021 feature — “Nightmare Alley,” which reteams him with his “The Shape of Water” filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and gives the actor a juicy, terrifying supporting part — Jenkins was visibly thrilled when literally talking about the weather in the film.
“‘Nightmare Alley’ has a lot of rain, and it’s fantastic,” he said. “I wasn’t in the rain part, thank God. It was in Toronto in January. It was cold! But it’s beautiful. It’s absolutely beautiful. Well, it’s Guillermo. This is like a piece of art, and it was just a ball. We had a really great time.”
His affection for del Toro, like many of the filmmakers he continues to work with — Karam seems destined for a Jenkins repeat, simply based on how delighted Jenkins was with the first-time filmmaker — is also tied up in that ability to choose what he wants to do. Mostly, Jenkins wants to have fun.
“I think that’s the first thing you hope: I hope this is fun,” he said. “Later in life, you can’t get that time back, and I want it to be as enjoyable and interesting and stimulating as it can be. Because I now have the lifespan of a dog, and I’m talking about a really not that even that healthy of a dog!” He added with a grin, “There’s a lot of things you can do in your life that you’d be miserable doing. This isn’t one.”
“The Humans” is now in select theaters and streaming on Showtime.