How Richard Jenkins Unsuccessful Early Years as an Actor Led Him to Where He is Today

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“Acting for me is something that is difficult, it’s complicated, and yet it’s very simple. It’s a strange thing.” – Richard Jenkins

Richard Jenkins was one of the many nominees for The Shape of Water, and though he didn’t go home with the Oscar he can take pride in the fact that his performance as a closeted gay artist in the early 1960s helped drive the film’s Oscar-winning success. In a revealing conversation with Market Watch, Jenkins details his past as an unsuccessful actor and how that experience led him to the critical and commercial success he is currently enjoying today.

Early on, Jenkins was inspired but some of the greatest screen actors of all time when he watched their performances. He recalls, “Sometimes you read things that people don’t even notice in a performance, that you just are moved by or understand that this actor is really living his or her life on the screen. The first time I realized that was when I watched Brando in On the Waterfront. Spencer Tracy was another one who just — every time I see him, I see something new in what he does.”

Nonetheless, Jenkins points out that all that inspiration didn’t make his path to the profession any easier for his father to accept — however, this was something Jenkins didn’t even know until a few years ago. He reveals:

“When I was about 12, I came home from middle school and told my parents I wanted to be an actor. My father didn’t say it to me, but he told my mom, ‘No. I’m not going to allow that. He’ll starve to death.’ I grew up in a small town in Illinois where being an actor was not something people did. So, he worried and he was very upset. My mother called the English teacher, which was the drama teacher at the middle school and said, ‘You have to talk to my husband. He’s not being reasonable.’ She put her on the phone and my father said, ‘I will not allow this. This is not going to happen. It’s not a way for a grown-up to make a living.’ She said, ‘Okay, you can forbid it if you want to. But if you do, you have to remember that he will never forgive you for the rest of his life. Now if you’re willing to deal with that…’ I never knew that. My father was my biggest fan, I always thought. He was so supportive. I didn’t find this out until after they died and when I was nominated in 2009. They did an article in my hometown paper and they interviewed the drama teacher. She told the story to the newspaper.”

Of course, as an actor Jenkins has done award-winning dramas like The Shape of Water as well as side-splitting comedies, like Step Brothers. In The Shape of Water, his character is an artist who has to weigh his artistic talent versus making a living. As an actor, he says he can relate. He points out, “As they say, ‘If you buy the premise, you buy the joke.’ 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. I know how hard it is to make a movie. Every time I say, ‘I can’t believe they got this far with this project’ because it seems impossible. So, I’m pretty forgiving. The truth is everybody tries really hard to make a good film. You’d make yourself crazy if you went into every film that you didn’t think was the greatest film ever with a chip on your shoulder. You couldn’t get any work done. To me, it was always a chance to act, to get better, to discover something new. When you’re in it, you’re in it.”

On top of that, Jenkins points out that it’s not always the size of the part that matters. For example, Jenkins has seen incredible actors perform in very small roles because even to land that small part required effort. He says, “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.”

Still, despite his current notoriety and success, Jenkins did not become an established actor until the mid-1980s. In the meantime, he struggled to make ends meet. He remembers, “I couldn’t do anything else. I drove a laundry truck for awhile, and I did it for four months and I had five accidents. I backed into the boss’s car one day [laughs]. It never, ever occurred to me to do something else. I’ve been fortunate and I’ve worked most of my life. I didn’t make any money, and I was broke for a long, long time because I did mostly theater for years. My career started moving when I was 35 or 36. It was scary. We had a baby and my wife and I thought, “How are we going to do this? How are we going to send this kid to school?” But my wife was a teacher, thank God, because that saved us.”

Jenkins is blunt about what he believes is the reason he didn’t “make it” at first — he just wasn’t very good. He says, “I was in a repertory theater and I did four plays a year, five sometimes. I did that for 14 years. I was awful for much of it, and started to realize I was awful and wanted not to be awful [laughs]so what do you do about this? 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?'”

However, Jenkins is thankful that he had the opportunity to fail so many times. He continues, “If this profession kicks you sometime in your life, and it’s going to, it’s better to get it over with when you’re young. Things happen so fast in this profession and other times, things take forever. I think there’s a real benefit to taking some time. Acting for me is something that is difficult, it’s complicated, and yet it’s very simple. It’s a strange thing. I don’t think you ever really say ‘Now I know how to do that.’ Once you say that, you’re done. “

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About Author

In college, overachiever Christopher McKittrick double-majored in Film and English because he loves to read, write, and watch movies. Since then Chris – who was born and raised on Long Island, New York and currently lives in Queens – has become a published author of fiction and non-fiction, a contributor to entertainment websites, and has spoken about literature, film, and comic books at various conferences across the country when he’s not getting into trouble in New York City (apparently it’s illegal to sleep on street corners...) For more information about Chris, visit his website here!

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