Being a character actor with such movies as There’s Something About Mary, North Country, Flirting With Disaster and the recent Will Ferrell hit Step Brothers in his long and eclectic filmography, Richard Jenkins has a tendency to get sort of recognized as he goes about his daily life. The backhanded compliments can provide ample comic relief. A stranger will ask him, “What have I seen you in?” Jenkins might name, say, the Jim Carrey comedy Me, Myself & Irene, and the stranger will proceed to argue, “You weren’t in that! Why would I ever watch something like that?” Because of his resemblance to a certain comedian, a woman on a plane recently queried, “Were you on The Bob Newhart Show? Because you look like Bob Newhart.” (He wasn’t.) And, of course, there is the pièce de résistance: “You’re my favorite actor! What’s your name again?”
Jenkins—who has appeared in more than 50 films to date—got his start in the movie business relatively late in life. After graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University and completing a year of graduate studies in theater, he moved with his wife, a choreographer, to Providence, Rhode Island, to join the Trinity Repertory Company. (One of his early productions there was a musical about the serial killer Charles Manson; JoBeth Williams was also an apprentice.) When Jenkins was 35, his current manager signed him after seeing his performance in a production of Philip Barry’s Holiday, at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut. He played the role that Cary Grant had in the movie version, but, Jenkins jokes, “I like to say Cary Grant was playing my part.” (Another of the manager’s clients, Viggo Mortensen, actually photographed Jenkins’s head shots.) He has worked steadily in film since a featured role as the cynical neighbor in 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick, but it was only recently, with The Visitor, that Jenkins, now 61, achieved any sort of leading-man status on the silver screen.
A quiet hit on the art-house circuit that opened in April and steadfastly remained in theaters for the entire summer, The Visitor, directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent), tells the story of Walter Vale (Jenkins), a widowed Connecticut economics professor who is sleepwalking through life. He begrudgingly goes to New York for an academic conference, only to find a young immigrant couple, Tarek and Zainab, squatting in his pied-à-terre. Instead of calling the police, Vale strikes up an unlikely friendship with the duo; when Tarek faces deportation, Vale gets involved in the man’s defense. The film will be released on DVD in October.
The role came about rather unexpectedly, says Jenkins over lunch at a café in Providence, where he and his wife still live. Jenkins happens to share an agent with McCarthy. In 2005 actor and director ran into each other in the lobby of a Los Angeles hotel and decided to have dinner. Two years later, the agent called Jenkins to say that McCarthy had written a script with the actor in mind and wanted him to play the lead. “I remember saying to my wife, ‘You have to read this right now. You have to tell me if this is as good as I think it is,’” recalls Jenkins, who has a charming affability that stands in contrast to Vale’s muted mien. Then he phoned McCarthy, with whom he hadn’t spoken since their impromptu dinner. “Tom said, ‘Whaddya think?’ I said, ‘Nobody’s going to give you the money to do this movie with me in this part.’ He said, ‘That wasn’t my question. The question is, do you want to do it?’”