The quiet, brilliant desperation of Richard Jenkins
As the chatty neighbour in del Toro's The Shape of Water,
the actor once again highlights his ability to convey male vulnerability
Richard Jenkins wasn't expecting Sally Hawkins to slap him. In their new film The Shape of Water (opening in Toronto on Friday), Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute cleaning woman at a secret aerospace lab in 1960s Baltimore, and Jenkins is Giles, her chatty neighbour, a commercial artist, gay but in the closet. Giles thinks he's Elisa's mentor but, like everyone else, he underestimates her. A mysterious creature is chained in the lab's depths, Eliza needs to free him and, in an emotional scene, she implores Giles to help her.
"We rehearsed it over and over," Jenkins says by phone from his home in Rhode Island, where he lives with his wife of 48 years, the choreographer Sharon Friedrick, and where they raised their two children, now grown. "But when we did it, it was nothing like we rehearsed it. Nothing."
To taunt her, he looked at his watch. She hit him. He pulled back. She grabbed him. "The stakes just got so much higher," Jenkins says. "That's what you hope for, that's what you want acting to be: two people really alive with each other, really there, living their lives together on the screen."
If you want to convey male vulnerability, Richard Jenkins is your guy. He's an intelligent actor, a reactive one, and he can play all kinds of parts. When he plays wisdom and warmth, he puts grit in it – he kept Julia Roberts grounded in Eat Pray Love. In his most-seen role, Nathaniel Fisher, the deceased patriarch in the HBO series Six Feet Under, he was deceptively tame yet wild underneath – ungrim death. But in conversation, his stabs at humour can come off as awkward – "I'm just making this crap up," he says at one point – suggesting that he's not used to being the centre of attention.
Mostly, Jenkins excels at playing the guy in the corner, the guy at his desk who keeps his head down. The guy with goodness at his core, but weakness, too, possibly due to some wound the character keeps hidden, a sourness he tries not to taste.
Maybe he's a loving father or husband. Maybe he loves even when it's hard, as in his Emmy-winning role in the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, opposite Frances McDormand. Maybe the character comes out of his shell, as he did in Jenkins' Oscar-nominated role in The Visitor.
In The Shape of Water, Giles tries to create beauty – in his work, in the Hollywood musicals he watches, in the pie he devours – but he lives his life in shades of brown. Like the best Jenkins characters, he's just trying to get through his day, do something right, be as kind as possible. Sure, he's quietly desperate, but who isn't?
The Shape of Water was directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro. Jenkins praises his humaneness, his 360-degree view of the world. "Guillermo blew me away," Jenkins says. "There's nothing he doesn't have an answer for. He reminded me of Mike Nichols, who I did two films with [Wolf and What Planet Are You From?]. I never heard Mike repeat himself. Guillermo is like that. He's thought about a lot of stuff in his life. He thought a lot about this movie. I just settled into his world."
Jenkins didn't know "how beautiful this story would be until I saw it," he continues. "The way Guillermo shot and cut it, it's mind-blowing. To be a part of something like this at this time in my life is a gift. I'm in a lucky time."
Jenkins turned 70 this year. At an age when most actors are fading away, he's more popular than ever. "Working in theatre or movies does help you stay young," he says. "I'm always the oldest person on a set now. At this time in my life, it's great to be in rooms with these creative 45- or 25- year-olds who are full of energy and commitment."
Admittedly, the number 70 freaked him out. No other number had. "I went, 'Oh, my God, I now have the lifespan of a dog,'" he chuckles. "But there's a lot I love about being my age. I love the fact that I have a life to look back on. I love that I've learned from experience. I'm still confused about a lot of stuff, but there are things in my work and life that are so much clearer than they've ever been: Who I am. What I want. What I believe in. How I perform my job. How I understand my wife. I can see with the help of a lifetime of experience." Dry pause. "I just don't like being 70."
Born and raised in DeKalb, Ill., Jenkins met Friedrick at Illinois Wesleyan University. They married at 22. "We have a common language of history; we see things with the same perspective," he says. "That didn't mean much when we were younger. But now it's pretty cool. There's somebody else in the room who understands what you're talking about when you're talking about 1962. You'll hear a song you both know, that nobody else in the room knows."
By the end of The Shape of Water, Giles has remade himself into an everyday hero. Finally, he really sees Elisa; he finds empathy for the ordinary and the extraordinary. "A movie can be healing, absolutely," Jenkins says. "That's the point of drama. Greek drama was about society, it taught morality, it was there to change the way people saw things. I don't think the people have changed all that much since then. Art does have an impact. Some people deny that. But I think it does."