Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Interview: Richard Jenkins on The Visitor
Richard Jenkins has had a fantastic 12 months, earning the biggest recognition so far in a long career for his great performance in Tom McCarthy’s film The Visitor. In the film he plays Walter Vale, a lonely academic who, through a strange set of coincidences, finds himself sharing his apartment with two Sudanese refugees. Fantastically, he’s nominated for Best Male Lead in next weekend’s Academy Awards, and I had a brief chance to talk to him about the role when he was in Scotland for the Edinburgh Film Festival last year:
The Visitor could be seen as a movie about asylum seekers - an ‘issue movie’ - but it’s really about people, isn’t it?
I never saw it as an issue movie, and Tom didn’t either. That’s not what’s interesting, and there’s a lot of movies like that. But if we get involved with someone’s life then we can see the effect something has on their life and that’s what he did so brilliantly with the movie I think. It’s like he put a face on the issue. It’s a relationship movie, and this just happened to be part of it. You do take it with you but it’s not the main thing you take away with you; you go away wondering what happens to these people.
What do you think happens to the characters?
I don’t know. It’s a question we get asked every time and it means that you care about these people, but until they make a sequel, I don’t know! I’ve had people say “I know what happens! He goes to Syria and he brings her… is that what happens?” and I’m like, “I don’t know! The movie ended!” But it’s so great to have people investing in those characters. And then some people say they don’t like the way it ended, but that’s life and that’s the way it happens. If the movie had been given a Hollywood ending I think it would have been much less effective.
Have you kept up playing the djembe since learning for the movie?
No. I played drums when I was young. I played for about five years when I was in Junior high. I quit when I was about 14, I wasn’t very good. But it helped me in this movie!
Walter goes through a lot of change in the course of the movie, but it’s all happening inside. How did you prepare and get confident that your performance could speak louder than words?
We had two weeks of wonderful rehearsal; we talked about the script, and read the script, and changed the script. But the truth is, you don’t really know what I’m thinking, but by the end of the movie you understand this man. Because I was thinking of a million things, and I wasn’t even sure what I was thinking at the time. But what I tried to do was just live this life and trust that an audience would understand what’s going on in this guy, without having everything spelled out for them saying “now I’m happy, now I’m sad” because I wasn’t sure half the time what I was feeling. Conflicted many times!
So it was Tom who said I had to trust the camera and that the audience would understand it. The thing is, people connect with other human beings and it’s a subconscious thing, it’s an emotional connection. We’ve all been in movies where everything is explained to us and we understand it, but it doesn’t mean anything to us. It’s that thing of wondering what’s going to happen next. Who is this guy? Who are these people? What is she really like? For me when I watch a movie that’s what I love, and that’s what you love about the great ones. I just saw Eastern Promises where Viggo Mortensen gives an extraordinary performance. I didn’t know what the hell was going on in his head, but I tell you something, by the end of the movie I understood that guy. I couldn’t take my eyes off him!
Will the great response to The Visitor affect roles that are available to you?
It’s kind of a gradual thing if it does. I’m 61. I don’t know how much of an effect it can have on me, and that’s not for me to speculate on. I try not to think about that because it just hurts your feelings in the end anyway.
I hope that Richard isn’t experiencing too many hurt feelings at the moment, but I think it’s unlikely, given his upcoming work includes a part in Joss Whedon’s latest, Cabin in the Woods, and his Oscar nomination will doubtless bring him to a much wider audience. The Visitor is released on dvd in the UK on 23rd February. I promise this is the last time I’ll go on about it, just make sure you check it out!