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Visiting With Richard Jenkins

30 Sep, 2008 By: Billy Gil

Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman in The Visitor

It’s always exciting to see a talented character actor finally get his dues. It happened to Chris Cooper with Adaptation and to David Strathairn with Good Night, and Good Luck.

Now it’s Richard Jenkins’ turn. The veteran actor of such fare as “Six Feet Under” (he played the dead dad, Nathaniel Fisher) and light comedies such as Cheaper by the Dozen and Me, Myself & Irene wowed audiences with his brooding portrayal of a defeated man in 2007’s The Visitor, which is coming to home video Oct. 7, from Anchor Bay Entertainment (DVD $29.97, Blu-ray Disc $39.98).

Special features on the releases include the featurettes “The Visitor: An Inside Look” and “Playing the Djembe”; deleted scenes; and commentary by Jenkins and writer/director Thomas McCarthy.

“I read and the script and said, ‘nobody’s going to give you money to do this movie with me in the part,’” the humble Jenkins recalled telling McCarthy when he asked Jenkins to be in the film. “He said, ‘that’s not my question.’”

McCarthy cast Jenkins as Professor Walter Vale, a widower with no interest in his work, or much of anything else. A chance work trip to New York from Connecticut brings him to stay in an old apartment he used to live in and still owns — which is now housing a young immigrant couple fooled into renting the place, much to his surprise.

The ensuing drama yanks Jenkins’ professor out of his waking coma as he befriends them and becomes an advocate for the young man of the couple, who is arrested and later detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“I understood him,” Jenkins said of the character. “I have a tendency to kind of be in the background myself. New things kind of terrify me, and I kind of have to be pushed into them.”

Jenkins’ slow and subtle awakening is played with expert nuance, which dragged up the “O” word when Awards season arrived.

“To even have people say that to you is incredibly flattering,” Jenkins said. “I had never carried a film before.”

Jenkins now seems ubiquitous at the multiplexes, playing a sweet, sad gym boss in love with Frances McDormand’s ditzy gym bunnie in the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, as well as featuring in the Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly comedy Step Brothers.
“I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t been typecast,” Jenkins said, but added that he likes playing “the kind of guy you don’t pick out of a room.”

“They’re just kind of there, and if it weren’t for the director, you might not notice them,” Jenkins said.

Still, Jenkins’ body of acting work is diverse, and he recommends fans check out on DVD the 1996 comedy Flirting With Disaster (starring Ben Stiller, on DVD from Disney), North Country (which garnered Oscar nominations for McDormand and Charlize Theron, and is on DVD from Warner) and “a little bitty film that nobody’s seen,” The Mudge Boy, an indie drama starring Emile Hirsch (on DVD from Strand Releasing).

“I read someone called me ‘gentle Richard Jenkins,’” the soft-spoken actor said. “Oh, I can be mean too.”

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