Hardworking actors Jenkins, Leo payed dues

Richard Jenkins says he’s always surprised when anyone recognizes him. Pleased, but surprised. And sometimes, when they know him, it pays dividends.

“There was this group of young girls I met recently, and they were going on and on about ‘Step Brothers,’” he says, referring to the summer comedy in which he played John C. Reilly’s beleaguered father. “But as they were walking away, one of them turned and said, ‘And we loved you in ‘The Visitor.’ 

“That was kind of nice.”

More than nice. Despite being a recognizable face on the large and small screens, Jenkins’ name has remained the equivalent of a state secret. But like several of his fellow first-time SAG nominees this year, the right role has pushed his profile onto a higher plateau.

For supporting actress nominees Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson, it’s been “Doubt” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” For actress contender Melissa Leo, it’s “Frozen River.”

All are in radically disparate movies, but which possess a common link: performances by actors who have paid dues, created art in virtual anonymity and hit the perfect note in a line of work where the wisest policy is to accept all, or at least most, offers. And then make it work.

“That’s it,” says Davis, whose single scene in the John Patrick Shanley film has confirmed a singular talent. “I take whatever I can get and try to turn it into something good. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about — to take what you can get and do the best you can with it. Maybe eventually you can morph into the kind of actor who can be picky — ‘I only want to do this kind of role, I only want to work with this director’ — but for most actors, I’d say, it’s about sticking in there. You don’t plan your career. God bless anyone who can. But along the way you find you’ve amassed a body of work. Everything else is a happy surprise.”

Leo, whose hardbitten immigrant smuggler in “Frozen River” is perhaps the most complex in what the actress has admitted is a long line of “tough broads,” says that “I didn’t make my career; my career made me.” She says the attention she’s getting for Courtney Hunt’s debut film is “delightful” but that it’s also the product of a tenacious approach to employment.

“When I went on ‘All My Children’ in 1984,” she recounts, “there were people who said, ‘Oh, a soap opera,’ but I said, ‘Wait a minute: This is an incredibly important employer in our field — actors, crew people. And you get to practice your acting every day. Every day.’ And all I tried to do every day was take what was sometimes innocuous dialogue and be truthful with it. Make it real.”

Jenkins says that, like most actors, he’ll look at a script and see if he can bring something to it. “Depending on where you’re at,” he explains, “you might take anything. But like most actors, I think, you want to see if something’s right for you. Sometimes you say no — someone else might be better suited.” Not that he’s intimidated by roles. “No, the only time was when Tom McCarthy gave me the ‘Visitor’ script and said ‘I wrote this for you.’ I said, ‘What if I can’t do it?’”

But Leo points out that even among the fellowship of the relatively obscure, there’s an inequality. “I haven’t met many male actors who haven’t had more options,” she says. “There’s a narrower window for women.”

And even narrower for black women. “I took it because it’s a great role for an African-American actress,” Davis says of “Doubt’s” Mrs. Miller. “And, of course, I had to compete with every black actress in America. If a role is good, everyone comes out for it.”

None of the SAG nominees are going to become household names on the basis of one film, although it would make some situations easier.

“There was a woman on my elevator this morning,” Jenkins said recently while walking along Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. “And she said, “I know you … I know you … but I don’t know your name …’ She kind of got angry about it. I was like, ‘Lady, what did I do?’”

Like his fellow actor’s actors, Jenkins has simply done his job.

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