Richard Jenkins had some experience trying to play the drums before he took on the role of Walter Vale, a widower whose life is changed by percussion, in “The Visitor.”
“I thought there was something really interesting about the drums,” says Jenkins, a veteran character actor who also played the role of the deceased father on “Six Feet Under.”
“I was never any good at it and it used to bother me. My parents bought me a drum set. It was the worst investment they ever made.”
But his layered performance as Walter, an economics professor drawn out of a melancholy funk when he returns to New York to discover a young couple living in his apartment — one of them a Syrian man who plays the African drum. Jenkins’ work is as quiet and restrained as the djembe is loud and bold.
“I read the script and said, ‘Oh, God, I can do this,’ ” Jenkins recalls. “I like the idea that, not that he’s dead, but he’s searching for something to make his life interesting and worthwhile.”
Jenkins, 61, had met writer-director Thomas McCarthy when they were staying at the same hotel in 2005, although they had been acquainted from being repped by the same agent. The two went to dinner, talked casually, and the next thing Jenkins knew, McCarthy came back to him with a script and a part written with Jenkins in mind.
“I said this is a gift,” Jenkins recalls. “I was very happy in my life and career. It was amazing and something I wasn’t expecting.”
What he also didn’t anticipate was the level of camaraderie present during the making of “The Visitor.”
“We rehearsed for two weeks, which is rare in movies,” Jenkins explains. “(McCarthy) used his time really well, not just with the script and what we were doing, but we also went out to eat together, hung out and became friends.”
The film touches on issues involving Sept. 11 and immigration, but at its core, it is about human warmth and longing. And Jenkins says the film wouldn’t be what it is without the spirit of friendship that developed among cast and crew.
“If you go out with Tom,” he says, “you’ll wind up with 10 friends you didn’t know before. He’s very charismatic, very curious. He loves people and loves New York because there are so many cultures there. He said the world would be a better place if more people got together for coffee.”
Favorite film this year
“I haven’t seen anything. I’ve been on the road so much. I just saw ‘W.’ and thought Josh Brolin was great.”
“You’re enough. From an acting coach. You’re all you’ve got. Don’t be afraid of who you are. You’re your own instrument.”
“Anything done well. In my profession, I have to say anybody that I’m jealous of, that inspires me. I know it’s great when I get a real tinge of jealousy and think, ‘I don’t think I can do that.'”