Jenkins makes the most of singular opportunity

In the opening moments of "The Visitor," actor Richard Jenkins stands at a living room window, nursing a glass of red wine, staring into the middle distance. As scenes go, it's a brief one. A man stands, looking out a window. Nothing happens.

And yet, everything happens. Or at least everything the audience needs to know about Jenkins' character, Walter Vale. He's alone. Isolated. Depressed. He's craving connection but can't break through. It's all there, in the way he stands, the way expression barely plays across his face, and especially in his eyes — eyes that seem to contain worlds of pain, loneliness, grief.

A few seconds later, he's taking a disastrous (and very amusing) piano lesson, and the audience realizes: We may not know Walter Vale, but we care about him. A lot.

You've seen Richard Jenkins. He was the dead patriarch on HBO's "Six Feet Under" and the beleaguered gym director in 2008's "Burn After Reading." He's played lots of dads ("Step Brothers," "Rumor Has It," "North Country"), cops ("The Mod Squad," "Me, Myself and Irene") and scores of other supporting characters during his 25 years in film.

Now, with his first lead, Jenkins is an Oscar nominee.

"It's unbelievable," said the 61-year-old actor. "This happens to other people, not to me."

Jenkins caught the eye of the academy — along with the Screen Actors Guild and Broadcast Film Critics Association — with his performance as buttoned-up, burned-out professor Walter Vale in the indie film "The Visitor." The character is quiet yet arrogant, a man who oozes loneliness but can't seem to connect with anyone until a chance run-in with an immigrant couple awakens a new energy in him.

The best sign of a completely immersive performance is when an actor not only disappears into his or her character but allows viewers to forget the screen altogether and project themselves into the story.

It's not Richard Jenkins in "The Visitor," or even Walter Vale — it's us, discovering New York as if for the first time, leaving our comfort zones to find improbable emotional connections, even making a tentative stab at late-in-life romance. When Jenkins seems to be just standing there, he's really showing viewers the tip of an iceberg that begins with deep preparation, developing layers of inner and physical life for his character that he brings to even the most uneventful moments.

McCarthy had dinner with Jenkins, then penned the part with the actor in mind.

"The guy has a real integrity in his life and in the way he approaches work, and it just felt really right for the character," McCarthy said. "So when I went away to write, I kind of heard that voice and could see those eyes and that face, and it just made it really come alive for me on the page. It's almost like having your character in 3-D."

It was an ideal opportunity, Jenkins said, one he never expected or sought. Though he often wondered what it would be like to carry a movie, he was happy — and steadily employed — as a character actor.

"This was like a perfect storm of circumstances" to take on a leading role, he said. "At this time in my life, I saw it as an incredible opportunity and a gift."

Share This Story