Actor Richard Jenkins Sounds Off About 'The Visitor' Actor Richard Jenkins received the Oscar nomination for his performance in The Visitor. Jenkins, who has played supporting roles for about 30 years, talks about his experience in his first lead role.
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Actor Richard Jenkins Sounds Off About 'The Visitor'

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Actor Richard Jenkins Sounds Off About 'The Visitor'

Actor Richard Jenkins Sounds Off About 'The Visitor'

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The Oscar category for Best Actor this year is loaded with terrific nominations - Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, Frank Langella, Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins. Jenkins has been nominated for his performance in "The Visitor." He plays Walter Vale, a quiet economics professor who discovers two people living in his rarely used New York apartment.

(Soundbite of movie "The Visitor")

(Soundbite of woman shouting)

Mr. RICHARD JENKINS: (As Prof. Walter Vale) Sorry. I'm sorry.

Ms. DANAI JEKESAI GURIRA: (As Zainab) You get away from me. You leave me alone.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Prof. Walter Vale) It's OK. I'm, I'm...

Ms. GURIRA: (As Zainab) Get away from me. My boyfriend is coming home.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Prof. Walter Vale) I'm not going to hurt you.

Ms. GURIRA: (As Zainab) Who are? What are you doing here?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Prof. Walter Vale) This is my apartment.

HANSEN: This is not only Richard Jenkins' first Oscar nomination. It's his first lead role in a film. For some 30 years, Jenkins has played supporting and character roles in film and television. You may remember him as the dead father in the HBO series "Six Feet Under." Richard Jenkins is in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. RICHARD JENKINS (Actor): Thank you.

HANSEN: Congratulations.

Mr. JENKINS: Thank you, again.

HANSEN: So how does it feel?

Mr. JENKINS: Oh, how does it feel? It feels weird.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: It's fun. It's been a lot of fun, actually.

HANSEN: When you were a kid, did you practice Oscar nomination acceptance speeches in front of a mirror?

Mr. JENKINS: (Laughing). I mean, I was a bit of narcissist. But I (laughing) I don't think I went that far.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Have you written the - written your speech yet?

Mr. JENKINS: Well, you know, I mean, yeah - no.

HANSEN: No (laughing).

Mr. JENKINS: No (laughing).

HANSEN: No, no. Tell us how you got the role of Walter Vale?

Mr. JENKINS: Well, Tom McCarthy, the writer-director and I were acquaintances. And we ran in to each other in the lobby of a hotel in L.A. We were both doing movies. So he said, you want to go get something to eat? And I said, yeah. So we went out for dinner and talked for a couple of hours, and two years later, he called me up and said, I wrote this part for you.

HANSEN: What did you think when you saw the script?

Mr. JENKINS: I hadn't read anything that good in - I couldn't remember how long.

HANSEN: Uh huh(ph).

Mr. JENKINS: I just absolutely loved it.

HANSEN: What do you think is the key to the character Walter Vale?

Mr. JENKINS: Well, I think he's really complicated, and I don't think Tom shied away from that. I don't think he tried to make him like a perfect person. There's a lot of self-loathing. He picks on a young student for no reason, you know, just to make himself feel better, I think. And so he's a complicated guy, and I just love the way he was written.

HANSEN: Hmm(ph). He's complicated, but your acting is very subtle. I mean, the complication is almost his inner life. I mean, this is not a part that has a lot of histrionics.

Mr. JENKINS: No, no it isn't. Movies do this so well that, as an actor, you have to trust that it will do this, and that is when you go into a room with a lot of people, Walter Vale is not the guy you would notice. But the camera says, I think we're going to follow this guy for awhile. And you just live your life. It's kind of like reality TV on film. (Laughing)

HANSEN: Hmm. Isn't that what Tom McCarthy said that he didn't want a big star for this role? I mean, not that you're not a star. You are.

Mr. JENKINS: And he got it.

HANSEN: No, no, no. Come on.

Mr. JENKINS: No, he did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: He said he want it on every man. Actually, we were standing on the streets of New York, he said, I also wanted somebody who could walk down the street while the camera is on and people wouldn't stop and say, oh my God, who is that? Hey, look at that guy. And as soon as he said that, some guy walked by me and went, I know you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: I said, oh, oh, recasting.

HANSEN: The plot is really interesting. Walter, who is very disaffected, he's very unhappy in his job. He goes to his apartment, and he finds Tarek, an illegal immigrant from Syria and Zainab, an illegal immigrant from Senegal. And part of the plot is Tarek is arrested for allegedly trying to get on the New York subway without paying. He's sent to a detention center, and this is all happening in the shadow of 9/11. And Walter seems to get energized by trying to help Tarek.

Mr. JENKINS: I think Walter thinks that now I'm here. I have a college degree. You know, I'm an economics professor. We'll take care of this. Now, you got me involved. And he can do nothing.

(Soundbite of movie "The Visitor")

Mr. JENKINS: (As Prof. Walter Vale) I'm here for Bed 38, Tarek Khalil.

Unidentified Man: Visiting hours start at 5:00 p.m.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Prof. Walter Vale) Well, I'm sorry. Excuse me.

Unidentified Man: Visiting hours are at 5:00 p.m.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Prof. Walter Vale) I understand, but this is extremely urgent. Could you please check for me? Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.

HANSEN: Watching your char - I mean it's a Hollywood term, the arc of your character?

Mr. JENKINS: Mm hmm(ph).

HANSEN: You know, go from - and there's not much change in like, your facial expressions.

Mr. JENKINS: Well, you know, the temptation is to explain who you are as opposed to just be who you are. And I'm a slow learner, and I don't know if 10 years ago, I would have trusted myself enough just to let this guy, just to let this life unfold.

HANSEN: In a lot of it, we see it's not the words that you speak, it's how you behave.

Mr. JENKINS: Absolutely, yeah. And that's Tom. I mean, Tom McCarthy is the most patient filmmaker. And when I saw this in a rough cut, I said you really - oh my, I see you really let the camera stay there. It lingers. So you see what these people - you can just watch them.

HANSEN: A lot of people know you - as I mentioned in the introduction, a lot of people know you from "Six Feet Under," and they saw you in "Burn After Reading" and "Flirting with Disaster," "There's Something About Mary." I mean, people are now going to go watch these movies again to see you. Are there roles that you think really allowed you to grow as an actor?

Mr. JENKINS: In some way, you learn from everything you do. And sometimes it's not a positive (laughing) learning experience. My father always said, you can take away something positive from every experience. And of all the things he said to me, that is proven to be true.

HANSEN: Did he - your family approve of your desire to be an actor?

Mr. JENKINS: You know, it's funny. I - since the nomination, my hometown newspaper did a story.

HANSEN: That's DeKalb, Illinois?

Mr. JENKINS: DeKalb, Illinois, yes. And I didn't do any theater in high school, but I did a play in junior high school. And the teacher is still in DeKalb, and they interviewed her, and she said that after I did this play, my father called her and said he was worried because I was talking about wanting to be an actor.

She said I told him, let him do it. Don't - and he never did. He never said don't do this. I don't support you. I don't think it's a good idea. He was - they were behind me 100 percent, so - but I had no idea that he had had this conversation with her.

HANSEN: Interesting. What are you going to wear to the Oscar ceremony?

Mr. JENKINS: Well, you know, it's - I've just been trying on tuxedos. And the new style is everything is short. The jacket is short. The pants are kind of low cut, and as my mother would say, all the kids are wearing them. It looks great on young people. When I put it on, I look like Jethro from the "Beverly Hillbillies." I need, like, a rope belt (laughing), but I did. I found a tuxedo that looks great with white socks.

HANSEN: (Laughing) Richard Jenkins, Oscar nominee for Best Actor for his role as Walter Vale in the film, "The Visitor." He joined us from our New York bureau. Best of luck to you, and thank you so much.

Mr. JENKINS: Thank you for having me.

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