In 2008’s The Visitor, Richard Jenkins plays a college professor nearing the end of his career whose life suddenly takes on a new significance when circumstances force him to embrace life anew.
Rather magically, it summed up the career of Richard Jenkins. A latecomer to acting having given up truck-driving in his thirties, he gradually created a roster of small but memorable parts, popping up almost Zelig-like in some of the best films of the past 30-odd years.
Jenkins-hunters can spot his face among the crowds as far back as Silverado and Hannah & Her Sisters. By the time he finally bagged the lead in The Visitor, Jenkins had over 60 movie credits to his name. In many of those movies, Jenkins was the best thing in them and demand for his services soared with each performance.
Blessed with the unremarkable countenance of the perpetually thwarted American everyman, Jenkins specialised in quiet, middle-aged men with a lot going on under the surface. Given half a chance to let rip though, he delighted in going full-tilt, occasionally maximising the comic possibilities of a cheap toupée.
By the turn of the century, he was starting to get recognised as ‘That guy from….’ and ‘Weren’t you in…?’ In 2001, his star took a sharp rise when he appeared in the hit TV show Six Feet Under as the father of the dysfunctional Fisher family, whose death in the first five minutes didn’t stop him making regular memorable appearances from beyond the grave.
Since then, largely confining himself to (always interesting) supporting roles, Jenkins has crafted a reputation as one of the finest character actors in the world. His name in the credits means that there is at least one solid gold reason to buy a ticket.
In his latest film, he takes another rare leading role in The Last Shift as Stan, a lonely man about to retire after 38 years working the night-shift at a fast food joint, whose burgeoning friendship with his young replacement (Shane Paul McGhie) leads to a belated reassessment of his life choices. We spoke to the man himself about the role, and you can see the interview below.
Critics have rained praise upon his performance, but ’twas ever thus. He’s never been anything less than remarkable, as these six examples will show.
The Last Shift is available to Rent on Digital now.
The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
Jenkins’s CV was impressively thick with minor credits by 1987 but he was still obscure enough that the on-set security guards didn’t recognise him and refused him access to the Witches of Eastwick set! George Miller’s hit supernatural comedy gave Jenkins his biggest opportunity to take his skills for a proper road test.
He was marvellously ineffectual as the downtrodden husband of the religiously demented Veronica Cartwright. His desperation to maintain a benign smile in the face of increasingly diabolical events eventually takes a turn for the murderous after his wife is possessed and starts taking to vomiting buckets of half-eaten cherries all over their tastefully appointed living room.
Step Brothers (2008)
One of the most impressive weapons in Jenkins’s armoury is his bone-dry comic delivery. The Coen brothers have regularly tapped his magically light touch to great effect. Very often, you’ll find him popping up in a movie for one scene and stealing the whole thing, as with One Night at McCool’s as a pervy priest, or in There’s Something About Mary as Ben Stiller’s hilariously disinterested psychiatrist.
In fact, he became a Farrelly brothers staple, also starring in Me Myself & Irene and Hall Pass (in which he was the only highlight). His most notable comedy role was in Step Brothers as the paterfamilias whose patience is stretched past snapping-point by the two infantile man-children (Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly) living in his house. His reaction, when they accidentally trash his yacht is one for the ages.
The Visitor (2008)
Having spent the past 25 years propping up bigger names as a supporting player, Jenkins finally got his shot at a lead role. It could have been written specifically for him. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing Walter Vale. At the time, Jenkins told director Tom McCarthy “I have waited my entire professional career to be a part of something like this.” His patience was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Walter is a widowed college professor whose very existence is dissolving into the ether until he discovers Tarek and Zeinab living in his old apartment. Their subsequent friendship, culminating in Walter being taught how to drum a mean djembe, is interrupted when Tarek is interred unfairly in a detention centre. Walter is suddenly confronted with the brutal reality of post 9/11 US immigration policy.
Let Me In (2010)
“When I was a kid, I loved horror films. I used to stay up on Saturday night to watch.” Jenkins has rarely scratched his horror itch but when he has, it’s always been memorable. He was, for example, an effectively straight counterpoint to the demonic insanity going on all around him in The Cabin in The Woods.
The year before, he gave one of his most affecting performances as Thomas, the devoted human companion of Chloë Grace Moretz’s permanently teenage vampire in Matt Reeves’s excellent (albeit somewhat redundant) remake of Let The Right One In. Undone by a moment of clumsiness, he suffers a desperately unpleasant fate, made doubly tragic by his dual role as Kodi Smit-McPhee’s future.
The Shape of Water (2017)
Loneliness has haunted many of Richard Jenkins’s most memorable performances. He told Vanity Fair, “I’m an only child; I spent a lot of time alone. I understand being alone. I understand not liking it, wishing for something else.”
Possibly the most heartbreaking result of this fascination was his Oscar-nominated role in Guillermo Del Toro’s romantic creature-feature as Giles, a solitary, unsuccessful advertising illustrator whose doomed obsession with a local barman leads to a humiliating punch-up and a fridge full of uneaten key-lime pies.
One of last year’s most unique comedies was this typically left-field spin on the grifter-movie from Miranda July, which provided some much-needed light relief from all the other goings-on in the world. Given an opportunity to sink his teeth into a shambolic character like Robert Dyne, Jenkins dived in with relish – apparently he signed up after reading just two pages of the script.
A family of low-level hustlers struggling to make ends meet are thrown into chaos when another member is recruited into the team. Jenkins is wonderfully discombobulated when the daughter he has treated since birth as one-third of a team of con-artists suddenly wants him and his wife to act like normal parents.