The funny thing about actors is that they look like their characters, so while the name Richard Jenkins might not be that familiar, you’ll know his face; he has had a long career as a character actor, turning up in films as varied as The Witches Of Eastwick, Flirting With Disaster, Intolerable Cruelty, and The Kingdom. Now he is enjoying his first leading role, as depressed widower Walter Vale, in director Tom McCarthy’s critically acclaimed follow up to The Station Agent, The Visitor and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
‘It’s amazing,’ he smiles. ‘It just feels like a gift. Its not something I was complaining about – why don’t I play leads!? – I’ve had a wonderful career but this was something that, at this time of my life, was just an amazing gift.’
It’s been a long time coming, after all.
‘Tom and I were old acquaintances; he’s an actor, and we share the same agent. I met him for dinner in LA – we were both out there working on different movies, but staying in the same hotel. We went out for dinner and talked about everything – not about the movie – and then a year and a half later, he called and said, I wrote this part for you, do you want to take a look at it. And that was that.’
Of course, there is a certain freedom in working supporting roles, as many a character actor has found.
‘You come in, you do what you do, you eat a lot of sandwiches, sit around and laugh a lot and you go. Sometimes you’re on a film for eight weeks, sometimes for five days, depending, and your character is what he is; he doesn’t really change much. For the most part you serve the story, but if you’re lucky enough to play kind of interesting guys, that’s fine. But to get a chance to do something like this, where you’re on screen every minute, and the change is huge, in a very short period of time – that was a little daunting. I’d done it on stage, but never in a movie and I always wondered how it would feel.’
Jenkins’ character, following the death of his wife, has become very disconnected from the world, living what could best be described as a ‘beige’ existence.
‘But he’s trying to not give up, trying to find ways out of this kind of funk, but not trying that hard, or really looking in the right places.’
How did Jenkins find the character?
‘I’m a little beige –I’m beigy – I’m muddy coloured… I can understand getting stuck in a rut – not to the degree that Walter does, but I think we all can. Sometimes you have to shake yourself out of what you’re doing, just to kind of move on. So it wasn’t that difficult. What I did find interesting was the amount of self-loathing, the real disappointment in himself , and not being able to do anything about it. A sort of subconscious thing.’
Walter has experienced personal grief, but in many other ways – he is a professor at a respected academic institution, he owns a family home in Connecticut as well as a Manhattan apartment. Zainab and Tarek, the young immigrant couple who he finds illegally subletting his apartment, must wonder what on earth he has to be unhappy about.
‘I know. Zainab is very cautious – she knows the trouble that could come. But Tarek is just the opposite; he is amazing, so open and so generous, with his time, with his music, with his knowledge. And Walter is drawn to this guy – I want some of that, I don’t know what it is but I want it. And that’s what Tom likes to do; he likes to throw people who are different together.’
The actors were lucky enough to have two weeks’ rehearsal period on the film, a real luxury for which Jenkins was very grateful.
‘Especially for a film like this, that is all about relationships. It’s very intense.’
Part of Walter’s rebirth is through his discovery of djembe drumming. Tarek is a drummer in a jazz and invites Walter to come to a show; later he teaches him how to drum and gets him jamming with a group of drummers in Central Park, a bit of a leap for tweedy, conservative Walter.
‘I played the drums when I was a lad, but with sticks. I was ok, but not great. But it did serve me well, so it wasn’t an entirely wasted five years. I wanted to be better, but I never had a natural gift, so that was how Walter felt – a mixture of longing and fear.’
Jenkins started his career in theatre before moving into film and television (Six Feet Under); does he have a preference for one medium over another?
‘I love making movies, I love the whole gypsy existence, the group getting together and working together for eight weeks and then splitting. Sometimes you don’t see each other for four or five years and then you just pick up where you left off. I love that. I love going to different locations and going to new places and meeting new people. It’s maybe because I’m kind of like Walter. I need to be pushed. I’m here now in London, I did a play in India, in Syria – I never would have gone there. I love it. I do like that part of the profession.’
And in terms of direction, was he pushed by Tom McCarthy?
He laughs. ‘Like a slave driver! No, it was very collaborative, but he knew what he wanted, he knew what this film was, he knew what each character was, you know; and he would say what he thought wasn’t working. I trusted him, and if I was going to do a lead, I couldn’t ask for a better director.’
McCarthy is an actor himself; did Jenkins think this had any bearing on his directorial methods?
‘He understands how you like to be treated as an actor and that’s really helpful. He treated everybody differently in the cast, and that way he got the most out of everybody – I could see how he talked to different people in different ways, it was amazing.’
This is the perfect segue to my interview with Tom McCarthy. I wait for him in a hotel suite which is furnished with a fabulously colourful sofa; having just bought a flat I am obsessed with furniture. He advises me against purchasing this particular sofa – apparently its not very comfortable, even to lie on. McCarthy looks astonishingly young to have such an illustrious career, like an enthusiastic postgraduate. What inspired him to write a film about an aging widower?
‘The tough part about that is going back and thinking ‘where did I start?’ – it’s like doing an excavation on your process a little bit. It’s funny because recently I was going through my IPhoto and I found a picture of that drum circle with those guys (the scene where Tarek takes Walter busking in Central Park) from like 2004. So I was like, wow – why did I have that idea, then – cos I don’t take pictures in New York unless it’s for something – so it’s like piecing your own history together.’
The Visitor is almost a film of two halves: one the joyous story of Walter’s renaissance, and the other is the immigration plotline which could be quite a dry story, but McCarthy has managed to integrate them.
‘I think it did start with this character, Walter, who has had a very full life, but is sort of disconnected from his life. And then this character, Tarek, he was sort of the second character who popped into my head. I went to Beirut – I was sent there to screen The Station Agent – and I met all these wonderful people, and went back subsequently to work with them, and in the course of that time I met all these great people; Tarek is sort of an amalgamation of the spirit of several friends I met there. So it started with Walter and Tarek, but at the same time I remembering seeing this movie, Saturn Rouge, made in Tangiers I believe, and Hiam (Abbass who plays Mouna) was the lead in it. I remember thinking wow she’s amazing, I love her. So I started watching all her movies. So probably Tarek and Mouna came about just about the same time.’
He continues: ‘And then I actually went to Paris to write; just to get out of New York and get out of my country and get a little space – and I love Paris – but a big part of that was because she lived there and I was able to sit down and have a couple of chats with her – this was well before the script was finished.’
So was this McCarthy’s dream cast?
‘Not with Haaz (Tarek) and Danai (Zainab) – I didn’t know them, and had to cast them, but with Richard and Hiam, yes, almost from the beginning. So I guess that’s a long way of saying that it starts with character for me, and then inherent in that are storylines. For instance the immigration storyline came about much later. I went to one of these detention centres just out of curiosity, walked in and had such a reaction to it, I thought, I have to put this in my story. Ok, it’s going to change the tone, but then I knew I ha a complete story, when I knew I was going to make these worlds collide.
I was having trouble writing at the time, you know – I was a disgruntled American. I really felt disaffected by what was happening in our country, and I was struggling to write fiction. So this was a lesson for me as a writer; I felt that in some small way I was doing my part here, I had something to say and wasn’t just sticking my head in the sand, or making a piece of escapism.’
The most frustrating aspect of Tarek’s situation is that he is, in fact, illegal and has no right to be in the US. And yet the frighteningly anonymous system that he – and Walter – attempt to fight against makes no allowances for the fact that, illegal or not, Tarek is still a person.
‘Exactly! Let’s keep reminding ourselves of our humanity, because there are these cases. My mother recently forwarded me an email from one of her friends, and it said ‘I just saw The Visitor, and I loved it. It has not changed my stance on illegal aliens.’ Which is just such a scary and great term – it completely dehumanizes and vilifies – illegal AND alien! ‘But, I would have liked Tarek to stay.’ That’s kind of fascinating, a bit bi-polar, and completely understandable.’
One of the great things about the film is that it’s very honest about the characters’ own prejudices – Mouna, Zainab and Tarek aren’t saints.
‘One of my favourite moments that we kept in the movie was the scene when Mouna sees Zainab for the first time, and she’s kind of ‘this was not the Zainab that I thought! I thought she was maybe going to be Egyptian! She’s from a little bit further west than I was expecting!’
And Zainab, in particular, is very prickly, even with Tarek. As an illegal, she has learned to be wary.
‘I loved that part of Danai’s performance; it’s so brave to me. She doesn’t apologise for this character, she lets circumstance and situation explain who she is, down the road. That is such a genuine portrayal of a woman in her position and she doesn’t ever wink at the audience. She’s scared out of her mind and for all the right reasons. In fact, if Tarek had a little bit of her fear and reticence, he probably wouldn’t be in the position that he’s in.’
The Visitor has worked in America where many others, dealing with similar, post-911, politicized storylines have failed. McCarthy puts this down to the characters.
‘I think because first and foremost it’s about these four people; how they connect. One of the circumstances is that one of them is detained, but outside of that, it’s really watching these characters. Whenever we do public screenings, people always want to know what happens with Walter and Mouna – do they see each other – why didn’t he marry her? Well, that’s not really possible. Does he go to Syria? Well, maybe.’
He’ll just have to write a sequel.
He laughs: ‘With a huge budget!’
The Visitor review
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