There are some actors who are fortunate to work steadily in this business, earning a decent living that enables them to pay bills, work with A-list movie stars and filmmakers, and have a great health plan to cover themselves in an emergency. If they're really lucky, like Richard Jenkins, they land a series such as Six Feet Under, and have the security of a steady gig for a few years. For a character actor like that, who is neither a hot young buck, or a traditional leading man, it's probably the best one could hope for in Hollywood.
However, one might say that Jenkins, who has worked consistently since the 1980s, has finally come in to his own in 2008, which culminated in last week's Oscar nomination for his riveting turn in The Visitor. It was a fitting tribute to the actor, who last year starred in such high profile films like the blockbuster comedy Step Brothers with Will Ferrell, Burn After Reading with George Clooney and Brad Pitt and even providing a voice in the animated The Tale of Despereaux. Yet despite those A-level projects, it was the little film that very few saw this past spring (and many discovered later on DVD) that is finally giving Jenkins the kudos he's always needed to stand out from the crowd. The Visitor, mini-major Overture Films' drama in which Jenkins is the biggest name on the marquee, has earned him wins and nominations from various film festivals, critics groups, Hollywood guilds and the now the golden goose itself, a nomination from The Academy.
In the film, Jenkins plays a college professor who forms a bond with an illegal immigrant couple he finds living in his apartment. The actor delivers perhaps the quietest performance of all his other fellow nominees. Sean Penn in Milk, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler provide the loud and showy performances, while Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is showy from a physical standpoint. But Jenkins' Prof. Walter Vale doesn't achieve greatness like Harvey Milk, or a fall from grace like Richard Nixon or age backwards like Benjamin Button. He is just a normal, every day man whose life is quite unremarkable, actually. He's quiet, unassuming and just the kind of guy you would pass on the street and not give any second thought too. Yet in not drawing attention to himself, Jenkins has crafted a character that we can't help but be drawn to. Underneath that emotionless face, we feel so much of what he is hiding - the connections he longs to make, the love he desires to have, the touch he wants to feel. He never shows this to us on the surface, but it is there in bold, just emanating from him. To feel...the sense that underscores all others and what drives a performance that touches each of us right down to the core.
"Richard Jenkins turns in such a subtle, yet powerful performance," says Chris McGurk, CEO of Overture Films. "It takes a skilled actor to convey heartbreak and loneliness with so much restraint. He is the heart of the The Visitor."
The Visitor, the first release of Jenkins' 2008 filmography is surely a career-elevating performance. For a man whose face is more recognizable than his name, 2009 should mark a turning of the tide for Jenkins thanks to his Oscar nomination. Even though filmmakers like David O. Russell, the Coen and Farrelly brothers all cast Jenkins multiple times in their movies, it took a character driven indie to finally give Jenkins the recognition he deserves.