Richard Jenkins on His Humble Start as an Actor

April 30, 2018

Character actor Richard Jenkins’ name might not ring a bell, but he’s performed in an enviably steady stream of mostly supporting roles since the 1980s. Most notably, he was nominated for playing the lead role, Professor Walter Vale, in The Visitor; and just recently, he was celebrated for his portrayal as a longing single artist, Giles, in The Shape of Water. But perhaps Jenkins’ most revered for his hilarious Step Brothers performance as a stupified father of imbeciles, Dr. Robert Doback.

Versatility and consistency are Jenkin’s trademark. Drama, horror, science fiction, and comedy all suit him well; he tends to play sheriffs, detectives, attorneys, fathers, mob bosses, principals, and doctors. He was a newspaper editor in The Witches of Eastwick, a psychiatrist in There’s Something About Mary, a technician at the control panels in The Cabin in the Woods, and the deceased patriarch Nathaniel Fisher on HBO’s Six Feet Under.

But in real life, those who work with Jenkins often describe him as well loved; certainly, he has a self-deprecating sense of humor. In a MarketWatch interview, the now 70-year-old actor recounts his acting roots, how he honed his skills slowly but surely over the course of 14 years in repertory theater work.

“I was awful for much of it, and started to realize I was awful and wanted not to be awful,” he remembers. Determined, Jenkins took on a more purposeful attitude towards acting. He now appreciates his incubation time saying, “I had a chance to really fail as a young actor. Just doing it over and over again and saying, ‘I’m not happy with this. How do I get better?’”

After all, Jenkins always dreamed of being an actor. He insists, “It was the only thing I wanted to do.” In particular, he wanted to be in the movies. Taking whatever small, low-paying roles he could get, Jenkins recalls, “That’s the way it works. You have to do things sometimes that you don’t totally believe in, but you approach everything as if it has a chance to be really wonderful. I remember doing stuff way in the beginning of my career, some TV stuff that was not fabulous, but I was thrilled to be able to act. It was great.”

Jenkins praises his wife who worked as a teacher and helped them pull through the hard financial times. When they had a baby, the couple wondered how’d they’d be able to meet their child’s needs. “It was scary. We had a baby and my wife and I thought, ‘How are we going to do this?’” Fortunately, at about the age of 35, Jenkins’ film career started to pick up with roles in ‘80’s films like Silverado and Hannah and Her Sisters.

With his long filmography, Jenkins knows what it takes to work consistently in this industry. And he looks at each of his fellow castmates with much respect. “When you’re working with somebody who has maybe one scene–I’ve never been in a movie where a day player was not fantastic. There are so many people that want that part, and this person got it. And this person is good. It’s amazing and true, especially in Hollywood. It’s precious, and there are a lot of actors out there and a lot of them read for that part. So when the guy or woman who got the part comes in, they’re always fantastic.”

But even now, Jenkins admits with each new role he finds himself feeling terrified with thoughts like, “They’re going to find out I’m a fraud.” However, he has a trick to shift his state of mind: he thinks of himself as an artist rather than a craftsman. He insists, “You look at things differently.” It certainly works for him!