Richard Jenkins has a face you know you've seen before. Over three decades, the actor has delivered some unforgettable performances, like the spectral patriarch who haunts the Fisher family in Six Feet Under and the closeted gay neighbour in The Shape of Water (2017), which earned him an Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. In The Humans, director Stephen Karam's dark drama now streaming on Mubi, Jenkins plays Erik Blake (Richard Jenkins), whose stony silences and vacant stares convey the anxiety of a man with a painful secret. His family gathers together to celebrate Thanksgiving, only to gradually splinter apart as the evening progresses. Erik spends his time fixating on his daughter's apartment and pinpointing its flaws, as if doing so might spare him from having to reveal his. Over Zoom, Jenkins spoke about his long history of playing lonely characters, the best bits of direction he's gotten from directors like Guillermo del Toro and the Coen brothers, and what acting has taught him over the years:
So much of acting is about conveying emotion but in The Humans, you're playing a man who's repressing his. He's harbouring this secret that he can't summon the nerve to talk about until the end of the film. What goes into building a performance out of silences?
You have to trust the story and the script. I mean, there's so much going on in Erik's head. It's a huge day and he has to reveal something he doesn't want to reveal and the world is collapsing on him. You just kind of open up and let it all percolate in your head. I remember when we made the film three years ago, I had a lot of questions, like: When he goes to check the score of the game, is that really what he's doing? Who calls him on the phone in the end? Stephen never really answered any of these, which I liked because I was able to make up this life in my head.
I don't use backstory. Everything I use comes from the script, from the text. It's all story. If it's not on the page, it doesn't matter. But if it's on the page — either what I say or do not say or what is said about me — then I use that to make this person come alive. Otherwise it just gets confusing for me.
At one point in the film, your character tells his daughter that she's lucky enough to have a passion to pursue and if she can't push through the setbacks, then she should just quit. You've spoken about your days as a struggling actor — was that ever a philosophy you applied to your own career?
Well, it never occurred to me to do anything else but act. It just never did. I think you'll find that this is the case with most actors. But I love what Erik says to his daughter. It seems mean at that time, but it isn't. And she appreciates it later on in the film. I had parents who weren't really thrilled that I was going to be an actor, but they supported me a hundred percent. I don't know what it would've been like had they not. It would've been probably harder than it was. Brigid (Beanie Feldstein), as a character, has a mom and dad who really support her, even though Erik doesn't really understand what she does.
I'm on vacation with my two children and four grandchildren right now and you know, all you ever want is for them to be happy. My mother used to ask me that question all the time — are you happy? And I would think, 'Yeah mom, I'm happy.' And she would ask, 'But are you happy?' I would say, 'Don't you want to know what's going on (in my life)?'' And she'd say, 'Not really, are you happy though?' I used to think it was so odd. But now that I'm a father and a grandfather, I understand. If they are really happy, then that makes you happy.
That's a beautiful sentiment.
And very simple. I remember when I was a very young guy thinking, 'Yeah ma, don't you wanna know anything else about me? No?'
You've also spoken before about there being a point where you were boring yourself with the work you were doing. How did your approach to acting shift after that?
I worked with a coach many years ago, Harold Guskan. He wrote a wonderful book called How To Stop Acting. And I had the luck of working with him when I was 22 years old. Later in life, when I felt like I was doing the same old crap, it got to the point where I was boring myself and I thought, 'If I'm bored with this, then what must the audience feel? They must feel pain to sit and watch.' So I went back to what he taught me. I said, 'I'm just going to do this, I'm going to figure this out.' And that is what I did. I have always loved being an actor and it scared me that I was boring myself. It was frightening to think that I wasn't giving enough to this profession To get anything back from it.
Throughout your filmography, you've played characters who are lonely. With Erik, you can sense the distance between him and the rest of his family. In a movie like Burn After Reading, you have an unrequited crush on a colleague, in Nightmare Alley, your character desperately tries to connect with a dead woman. What is the draw of cinematic loneliness for you?
When I was doing The Visitor (2007) was when I really understood what the camera was and what it could do and how to just live the character's life if you were being filmed. You don't have to do anything else. (Director) Tom McCarthy just really let the camera see who the character was without me having to show him anything, or do anything, or explain anything to the audience. I like that. I love that movies are intimate and personal, and when you're watching something, you feel like you're the only one looking at it. I'm an only child, so I spent a lot of my life alone and I don't mind being alone. It's not that I'm a loner but I know how to be alone. So maybe it's something that does appeal to me. I love that in the movie, Erik goes away and you can still hear the chatter in the background. There's all this talking and laughing and he's just there, lost in thought alone. The movies do this kind of thing so brilliantly. You can't do this in a play becauses the audience is sitting through monologues, but in the movie, Stephen was directing us and telling us what he wanted to see. Sometimes, you don't even see the characters' faces, you only hear them.
You've worked with some incredible directors across your career from del Toro to the Coens to Adam McKay. What are some of the most memorable bits of direction you've gotten?
Guillermo would say, 'Now I am happy. Now I am happy.' And that would make you happy and feel like life is pretty good. I'd ask, 'You want me to do it again, Guillermo?' And he'd say, 'No, now I am happy.' The director is actually the first audience, he sees what they see before they do. And he'll tell you whether he believes it or not. If you respect the director, then you respect their taste. I have enormous respect for the directors you mentioned and so when they were happy, I was too unless I felt like I wanted to do something else, or try something else. The Coens are very lowkey. They're like, 'Okay good, let's move on.' Very, very fun guys. It's really important for me to work with people who are fun and pleasant and who love what they're doing because they set the tone.
What are some skills that you've picked up as an actor that you probably wouldn't have if you were in another profession? I remember reading that Clint Eastwood taught you how to assemble a gun?
Well, I wouldn't be able to do it again. I learnt how to rope but I probably wouldn't be able to rope a calf now. But you do learn things. You learn something new from each movie you do, but as soon as you end the shoot, it's gone. You learn different accents, which I'm not good at. I don't have a good ear for them. You learn something about yourself in most movies because that is what you're putting onscreen. Sometimes, you put a part of yourself that you haven't explored as much, and many times, that's a revelation.