For Richard Jenkins, breaking into the movie business took years of rejection, bit parts and relative obscurity.
But Hollywood eventually came calling in the 1990s and Jenkins has been in demand ever since, logging impressive performances in everything from “Step Brothers” to “Six Feet Under” to his Oscar-nominated work in “The Shape of Water” and “The Visitor.” He may find himself back in the awards race with “The Humans,” a big-screen adaptation of Stephen Karam’s Tony-winning play and a film that finds the 74-year-old Jenkins front and center as the emotionally scarred patriarch of a family that is gathering together in a well-worn Chinatown apartment for Thanksgiving. There, they bicker, make up and engage in awkward exchanges about politics and religion — not unlike the conversations unfolding around a lot of dinner tables this week.
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The movie, like the show, deals frankly and often humorously with themes of guilt, betrayal and an ever-present economic anxiety, issues that attracted Jenkins to the project. In advance of “The Humans,” which debuts in theaters and on streaming on Wednesday, Jenkins spoke to Variety about working with Karam, drawing on his own experiences as a struggling actor to create his character, and his upcoming work in “Nightmare Alley.”
What attracted you to the project?
This is not a pejorative term, but the ordinariness of this family. There’s millions of them in America. Every issue they had is in the realm of what families go through. Some deal with more. Some deal with less.
Stephen Karam isn’t just adapting his own play, he’s also making his feature directing debut. What was it like to be working with a first-time filmmaker in that context?
We didn’t know what it would be like, but we quickly realized that he knew what he wanted and he understood what this movie was. He had been thinking about what this would look like on screen for a long time. What he couldn’t do on stage, he wanted to do in the film. For me, it wasn’t a play that was filmed. It was a film. The camera was his friend. He understood the camera. It was ballsy and beautiful, the way he shot this.
Money is such a major part of this film. At one point, your character says something to the effect of it should cost less to be alive. Did you feel like economic anxiety was a central theme of the story?
Absolutely. There are so many families in this world where money is an issue every day. And here’s a man who is at an age where he should be enjoying some fruits of his labor, but because of his own horrible mistakes, he’s put his family at risk of not being able to afford a place to live. They’re on the precipice. Anything can happen. They love each other, but he’s terrified he’s going to lose his family. To be in a position where you can’t help your children is a terrible place to be. None of us want that when we have kids. When I was a struggling actor, I always knew that I had somewhere to go if it all just collapsed. There are a lot of people that don’t have that safety net and it makes life a lot harder.
When I had children, it was like, how am I going to raise these kids? How can I afford it? It was terrifying. It’s still terrifying. You never feel secure. It’s a habit. Luck was a huge part of it for me. There’s a lot of people who are unlucky and struggle. I think somebody said, the nice thing about having money is you don’t have to worry about money. But that’s not true for most people.
You spent years in repertory theater. Did that training help with making “The Humans”?
It does help. I have been on stage for years, but for 15 years, I did four or five plays a year. Once I started doing movies, I stopped doing theater. Once we got on the set, it was like a play rehearsal to me. That was a time to explore and worry.
That’s interesting that you say worry. You’ve been at this for years, do you still feel a lot of anxiety about your work?
I don’t feel anxious when I’m performing. I feel anxious about doing something because I know what it takes for it to be really good. I get anxious before I do something all the time. All the time. I thought it would go away, but it doesn’t. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It tells me that I still really love what I do, and I still love the challenge of it.
You had success relatively late in your career. You’ve said that you didn’t start booking film and television work until you were 35, and you were 60 when you received your first Oscar nomination. How did those years of struggle impact you?
You really appreciate having some success and having options, because for years I didn’t. I worried about where was my job coming from. What was I going to do? How was I going to support myself? How was I going to educate my kids? My wife, god love her, was a teacher. She did that and taught dance at a high school for 18 years and if it wasn’t for her, I don’t know what we’d have done. This profession is going to kick you around some time in your life, so it’s better to get it over with when you’re young. It makes me appreciate doing this — somebody’s talking to me about a movie I made. That’s pretty great. I’ve gotten jaded to some things, but my wife reminds me to stay grounded. I remember complaining about doing press for something and she said if somebody had told you 30 to 40 years ago, you’d be doing this, you would have kissed their feet so shut up.
Where does “The Humans” rank in your filmography?
It’s one of my favorites. I loved the experience and I love the final outcome, and that’s what you hope for.
Without revealing too much, your character Erik has a personal connection to 9/11. How did that day shape him?
What a tough life this guy has and a lot of its his own doing but at the same time he survived 9/11 and he had no business surviving 9/11. He understands that, but he’s scarred by it and he worries about his kids. It’s shaped his life in huge way.
People have described this as a “dysfunctional family” story. Do you agree?
I never felt they were dysfunctional. I felt like they were a family. It’s obvious to me that they love each other and they worry about each other. At the same time, they can be nasty to each other and do things that are nasty and selfish. It’s called “The Humans” for a reason. That’s what we do. That’s who we are.
You are going to be playing a very different kind of father, Lionel Dahmer, in “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” How did you prepare for that role?
That was hard. Emotionally, it was hard. For me, the question was, if your son is Jeffrey Dahmer, do you stop loving him? And the answer is no. That was a fascinating trip to go on. I really like [how] Ryan Murphy, who produced it, dealt with the scope of it. It doesn’t just deal with Jeffrey. It deals with the victims and their families and the terror and pain he caused. And this young kid Evan Peters, who plays Jeffrey, is incredible.
You’re also reuniting with your “Shape of Water” director Guillermo del Toro for “Nightmare Alley.” What was that experience like?
I saw it last night. I adored it. Guillermo is like nobody I’ve ever met. When you work with him, you come away thinking, “Well, that was a treat.” He’s one of the masters of the movies. He’s learned so much about film, but he’s made it his own. This film is epic and extraordinary. He’s always fun to work with except that he likes water and he likes cold. In “The Shape of Water,” we were wet the whole time and in this one we shot in the snow in Toronto, it was freezing. Guillermo would be out there without a jacket on and we’d be running for cover to get warm. He knows everything about literature or art. You can ask about anything. Baseball, I don’t think he’s as good about.
You have 115 credits in IMDB. Do you ever forget you were in a movie?
I’ve actually jumped while watching a movie where I think, “Have I seen this before?” And then I appear on screen. It startles me because I will have completely forgotten making it. Of course, some movies you want to forget.
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