Richard Jenkins on His Long Career, Auditioning and the Film That Made Him Want to Become an Actor

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Richard Jenkins

“I guess one of the things that I love about this world is that you never know what’s coming up around the corner… I’ve always really liked that about this profession, that the future is an unknown.” – Richard Jenkins

In an interview with Deadline, two-time Academy Award nominee Richard Jenkins acknowledges that he’ll likely always be best known for his role in the 2008 comedy Step Brothers (he says that people will come up to him and say “I saw you in your movie”). Of course, the actor has played dozens of other notable roles besides Dr. Robert Doback, and in his conversation with Deadline he went into a deep dive into his past as an actor, including what snapped him out of a brief period when he considered not pursuing acting.

Jenkins reveals that initially his father did not support his decision to pursue acting. In fact, his father told him, “People don’t do that. I mean, this is a small town in Illinois.” However, Jenkins explains that his mother called his school’s drama teacher and said, “‘My husband’s being unreasonable.’ The teacher said, ‘OK, put him on the phone.’ And she told him, ‘All right, you can put your foot down, but if you do, you have to be willing to accept the fact that your son will never forgive you for the rest of his life.'”

Nonetheless, not long afterward Jenkins would have his own doubts in his pursuit of acting — but one film changed that. He recalls, “I was in college—my freshman year, I think. I was feeling like maybe this wasn’t the thing for me. Maybe I was afraid. I didn’t have any experience. I was just kind of stewing about it. I went to the movies by myself, and I saw Alfie, with Michael Caine. That performance… I thought, ‘If in my life I could do something even close to that, something that would have the effect on people that his performance had on me…’ That was the night I said, ‘OK, I’m going to do this.'”

20 years after the release of Alfie, Jenkins would appear in Hannah and Her Sisters with Caine, during a period when Jenkins was acting in a number of high-profile projects. He remembers, “It was an incredible time. But when you’re doing it, you’re trying to get the next job. I had kids, so I was trying to feed them. On Silverado, I think I said, ‘Howdy,’ and eight weeks later, I said, ‘You can’t do that.’ Then they shot me. That was my part, and I sat around in a hotel for seven weeks. Yeah, it was an amazing time. But when you’re caught up in it, it doesn’t seem like an amazing time—until you look back on it.”

Like most actors starting out, Jenkins auditioned for whatever he could. He says, “I would go into an audition, say, ‘Freeze!’ and then leave. Everybody’s typecast to a degree, but I’ve been fortunate to play a lot of different kind of dudes. Whatever came along, I did it. I didn’t have the option of saying no, I just had to do whatever I could get. And it was always fun. I loved auditioning. I didn’t mind because at least it was a chance to act. I always looked at it that way.” His only “day job” was a short stint as a truck driver. He jokes, “I drove a laundry truck for about four months in the beginning, and I had five accidents. I even backed into the boss’s car once—when he was in it. I said, ‘I guess you’re going to fire me,’ and he said, ‘No, no, no.’” I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘Because if you leave, I have to do it.’ So, that was my only job, and I was not good at it.”

Jenkins continued to work steadily and finally had a critically-acclaimed performance that was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in the 2007 film The Visitor. His Six Feet Under co-star James Cromwell, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for 1994’s Babe, told him that it would bring a bit more credibility among his peers. He shares, “James Cromwell said to me, ‘You’ll find that people listen to you a little bit more on set than they did before.’ That was the first change I noticed.”

And while Jenkins is still game for trying all types of new roles, he says there isn’t a single genre that doesn’t interest him as an actor. He admits, “You know, I don’t think like that. I never did. Never thought in the theater, ‘These are roles I’d like to play.’ Same with movies. I guess one of the things that I love about this world is that you never know what’s coming up around the corner. And that was true when I wasn’t working. I mean, it could be something really awful. Grim. Bad news. But it can also be exciting. I’ve always really liked that about this profession, that the future is an unknown.”

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