Wednesday, February 22, 2012

In Character: Richard Jenkins

Two weeks ago, I discovered this spread while reading Vanity Fair, and I was shocked that out of all the actors featured, I had only covered one of them in this feature. So I posted the picture on Twitter, and asked my followers to tell me which actor they wanted me to highlight next. The response was unanimous.

Richard Jenkins, with his distinct voice, hardened facial features and delicate sensibilities, has a career that has aged like a fine wine. The older he gets, the better his work is. I’ve seen him around for years, but it wasn’t until Six Feet Under that I began to take serious notice. Better late than never.

Five Essentials
Flirting with Disaster (1996)
Agent Paul Harmon
There are really two main sides to the Jenkins acting persona: the understated comedian, and the dramatic heavy-hitter. And as Paul Harmon, Jenkins delivers what may very well be the comedic performance of his career.

In David O. Russell’s screwball comedy, Jenkins plays one half of a gay couple (along with Josh Brolin), who are partners in life as well as Federal Agents for the ATF.  As Harmon, Jenkins finds himself in one awkwardly hilarious setting after another (including a hilarious bit in which he accidentally ingests acid), and he takes the whole thing in stride, delivering everything with deadpan glee. Had he acted out, the role would’ve faltered, badly. That it doesn’t is a great tribute to his skill.

Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
Nathaniel Fisher
Although Jenkins wasn’t in HBO’s often-remarkable Six Feet Under that much, his Nathaniel Fisher was easily the most important aspect of the show.

Because Nathaniel is killed in the opening moments of the series, we are forced to know him through the people that loved him – an eclectic bunch of mad-ass crazy misfits known as the Fisher family.  But occasionally, Jenkins would pop up as Nathaniel’s ghost, spitting philosophical garb at whoever would listen. (One of the show’s best qualities was that it never made clear if Nathaniel’s apparitions were indeed Nathaniel himself, or the subjective view of Nathaniel, through the eyes of whoever was speaking to him.)

At any rate, Nathaniel was a purposefully underwritten character that, in Jenkins’s hands, felt anything but.

North Country (2005)
Hank Aimes
North Country, like so many movies from 2011, is a weak film with flawless acting. Playing the father of a woman who endures physical and emotional discrimination in the factory they both work at, Jenkins initially plays Hank as a tired roughneck, just as pissed as the next guy that dames are now allowed on the lot. But after his daughter, Josey (Charlize Theron) is sexually attacked, Hank goes into full-on protective mode, which results in numerous moments of authentic, parental instinct.

There’s a scene in North Country where Hank finally speaks out against the men he has worked with all his life. It’s tender, stern and utterly heartbreaking. By far the film’s best moment.

Burn After Reading (2008)
As the dorky owner of Hard Bodies Gym (who is secretly in love with one of his employees) everything you need to know about Jenkins’s performance as Ted can be summed up in his first scene. As his idiotic worker, Chad (Brad Pitt) skims through a file containing “codes of shit,” Jenkins stands over Chad, repeating every so often that he’s “not comfortable with this.” By the time the scene ends, Jenkins has slithered to the room’s door like a scared kid being scolded by his parents.

The Coen brothers implore repetition in all of their comedies, usually to hilarious results (in addition to Jenkins’s outspoken uncomfortableness, Raul Aranas quietly saying, “It was just lying there on the floor,” over and over lends itself perfectly to the scene). Ted is everything that is good about a comical Jenkins performance. Sad, pathetic, earnest; rarely do we have so much fun laughing at such an ordinary men.

Eat Pray Love (2010)
Eat Pray Love isn’t a good movie. At all. There’s no need for me to elaborate on how bland both the story and the film’s lead actress are. It’s a pointless movie through and through, save one exceptional scene that (almost) makes viewing the rest of the film worth it.

Midway through the movie, director Ryan Murphy does a very smart, fleeting thing: he lets his actors act, void of any fancy camera tricks or narrative devices. During the scene, Jenkins, who up until this point has played his character as a cranky old codger, finally relents why he is the way he is, via a monologue that is utterly devastating. During this, the camera wisely does not move; it lets the scene play out with Jenkins in full focus. The moment is arguably the single best scene of Jenkins’s career. It’ll floor you.

The Best of the Best
The Visitor (2008)
It may come as no surprise that Jenkins’s best performance is the one that put him on the map. Don’t get me wrong, he’s been working steadily since the early ‘90s, but his performance as Walter revitalized his career, of which we all benefit.

Walter is a quiet, unassuming man slowly passing the time since losing his wife. He fumbles around, grades his students’ papers, lectures at NYU, fails at playing the piano, and so on. So when he catches a couple squatting in his New York apartment, he slowly finds a hidden fire in himself that he didn’t know he had. A lust for life, if you will.

Now, usually this is conveyed in more overt ways. Expensive cars are bought, young women are slept with, a new wardrobe is purchased, and so on. But The Visitor is too patient for that, and Jenkins is too fine an actor to have Walter be anything but a cliché. So what we’re left with is an actor in full command of his character; tolerant, absorbing, and just all together endearing.  The final scene of this film encapsulates the anger, torment, and rage that Walter has bottled up inside of him as effectively as damn near anything I’ve seen. It is precisely how you get nominated for an Oscar. Jenkins didn’t have a shot in hell at winning that year, but I suspect he’ll be back soon enough.

Other Notable Roles
In Let Me In
Sea of Love (1989)
There’s Something About Mary (1998)
Me, Myself & Irene (2000)
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Changing Lanes (2002)
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Step Brothers (2008)
Let Me In (2010)
Hall Pass (2011)
The Rum Diary (2011)

Previous installments of In Character include:
William Fichtner
Guy Pearce
Shea Whigham
Viola Davis
Gary Oldman
David Morse
Michael Shannon
Emily Mortimer
John Hawkes
Jeffrey Wright
Elias Koteas
David Strathairn


  1. Richard Jenkins is one of those great actors who blends into movies so well. I've seen a lot of the movies on this list, but I'm not sure I could name that he was in them beyond the big ones like The Visitor and a few others. Still, he's very consistent, and it was great to see him get the recognition with The Visitor.

  2. Can't say I've seen him in much, but like all the others in this series I'll definitely look out for him. I'm certain I've heard his name often before though, which is always a good sign. As usual great work Alex.

  3. @Dan Yeah I completely agree, he's so good he's almost too hidden. I was really happy when he received the nomination for The Visitor. Well deserved.

  4. @Tyler Thanks buddy! He's a really good actor, but definitely not as well known as he should be.

  5. I love this guy. It's one of the few actors who does just as well in drama as he does in comedy - when he yeelled "You are a waste of human sperm!" in The Rum Diary I simply couldn't stop laughing. And he was one of the very few good things about Eat Pray Love. Wonderful write up!

  6. @Sati. Thanks! I liked him a lot in The Rum Diary too (although I didn't really like that movie at all). And yeah, he barely makes Eat Pray Love worth it.

  7. He is a perfect example of Character Actor. You probably may not realise him by the name but then you see him and you would have seen him in at least dozen movies. Great Actor !!

    Haven't seen the Visitor though. In my list now.

  8. @SDG Glad you like him so much, he's really a talented guy. If you like Jenkins, you'll love his work in The Visitor.

  9. Great In Character, but how is Step Brothers not Best of the Best??

    "When I was a kid, when I was a little boy, I always wanted to be a dinosaur, I wanted to be a Tyrannosaurus Rex more than anything in the world, I made my arms short and I roamed the back yard, I chased the neighborhood cats, I growled and I roared, everybody knew me and was afraid of me, and one day my dad said "Bobby you are 17, it's time to throw childish things aside" and I said "OK Pop", but he didn't really say that he said "Stop being a f*cking dinosaur and get a job"."

  10. @Robert Haha he's definitely hilarious in it but, and I hope this doesn't crucify me, I detest Will Ferrell and his films. I do not find him funny at all, in any way. I think his humor is one-note, forced and awful.

    But that's just me :)

  11. Great spotlight, man. I became a fan thanks to his work in Six Feet Under, which is just an incredible show in its own right. Jenkins is enjoyable in any role, no matter how poor the overall movie is.

  12. @Eric Couldn't agree more. I'd love to go back and watch every episode of Six Feet Under in a few marathon sessions. That was a damn fine show.

  13. I do love Richard Jenkins. I can't think of a bad performance he's done. The Visitor is my fave performance of his while I also loved his work in North Country. Notably when he just finally learns the truth about happened to his daughter and just snaps.

  14. @thevoid99 Yeah that scene he has in the courtroom in North Country is devastating. Great great actor.

  15. I finally watched The Visitor again (I had a teacher show it to my class back in high school) and was just stunned by Jenkins' performance. Seriously, this guy needs to be put in more lead roles, he's always fantastic. Even when he's playing more one-dimensional characters he manages to bring a sense of depth that elevates the movie, if only slightly - Eat, Pray, Love being the prime example as you mentioned. Hopefully more people get it into their heads that this guy is fantastic and will start putting him in more prominent roles in their films. Jenkins FTW!

    1. Indeed! Everytime I watch The Visitor, I'm all but devastated by his work in it. I mean... that final scene is just fucking perfect.

  16. I love Richard Jenkins. I was so happy when he finally got an Oscar nomination for The Visitor even if you are right that he had no chance in hell of winning. Another recent movie that i really loved him in was the very underrated Let Me In. A lot of people just dismiss it as an unnecessary remake, but i thought the performances from both him and Elias Koteas were fantastic.

    1. I actually liked Let Me In a lot. It was nothing at all like most modern American horror films. I assumed they were going to speed up the pace and Hollywoodize it, but I love that they stayed true to the original. Jenkins and Koteas were so good.