Richard Jenkins reflects on life and career

By Ginger Simons

Richard Jenkins returned to the town of his birth Oct. 30 in celebration of the film series the Egyptian Theatre has hosted in his honor. The Theatre inspired a young Jenkins to pursue acting, and as their most recent installment of the festival, Jenkins appears as Giles in “The Shape of Water,” the film to win him his latest Oscar.

Jenkins earned his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his role as Professor Walter Vale in the 2007 drama “The Visitor.” He was later awarded the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie in 2014 for his role as Henry Kitteridge in the limited drama series “Olive Kitteridge.”

Though the town has changed since Jenkins’ childhood years, much of it remains as he remembers.

“It’s still DeKalb,” Jenkins said. “I can still go back to my two houses that I grew up in. My elementary school is still where it was; there’s still a field behind my old house. It’s still the same.”

Jenkins was born and raised in DeKalb and attended DeKalb schools until college. Following his graduation from DeKalb High School, he attended Illinois Wesleyan University and now lives in Rhode Island with his wife.

Many stories from Jenkins’ early career come from his time with the Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island. He spent 14 years acting onstage and eventually took to directing. His last appearance in a staged production was “Fool for Love” in 1985 with Trinity Repertory.

Well acquainted with the random chaos and happenstance that propel one through adult life, Jenkins encouraged aspiring actors to find what makes sense to themselves and do it.

“I decided to be an actor without any experience,” Jenkins said. “There wasn’t anything that I planned that worked out. What I did was I stopped thinking about it, and I started thinking about what I could control. It’s not about finding the job; it’s about finding who you are as an actor.”

Jenkins said until he saw his first play at age 15, his inspiration to become an actor came from his frequent trips to the movie theater. He credits the Egyptian Theatre, 135 N. Second St., with cultivating his early love of film.

“The Egyptian Theatre is kind of imposing to a little kid,” Jenkins said. “[They had] all of the mummies everywhere and it was bigger than life. You saw the world through the screen. As soon as I saw the movies, I wanted to be an actor.”

Now a two-time Oscar nominated actor, Jenkins has a story for every project he’s ever worked on. He praised director Guillermo Del Toro for his vision and compassionate approach to working relationships.

Jenkins said working on “The Shape of Water” was a dream and had only compliments for the rest of the cast and crew of the film. Though he credits Del Toro with having an airtight vision, Jenkins said the director generously allowed his actors to explore the characters they played, allowing Jenkins to explore Giles.

“Giles has his own life,” Jenkins said. “[He has] his own world [and] his own concerns. He wasn’t just there to serve Sally’s story, even though he does do that too. He thinks he’s on the verge of a breakthrough as an artist, and he’s going to marry the guy in the pie shop, and this woman shows up and wants you to save a fish?”

Jenkins said he would like to collaborate more with several people he’s already worked with including Frances McDormand. As far as people he has never worked with, Jenkins said he aspired to do a film with Meryl Streep.

Jenkins has worked with McDormand on four projects, including the miniseries “Olive Kitteridge” and the Coen Brothers films “Burn After Reading” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”

“[Joel and Ethan Coen] are so easy to work with,” Jenkins said. “I didn’t know what to expect [when working with them], but they’re really funny, and they’re really easy, and they shoot so fast. They know what they want, but at the same time, they let you do your work. I adore them.”

While Jenkins had plenty of stories about his setbacks in Hollywood, he also shared many of the joys his work has brought him.

“It’s a fantastic profession,” Jenkins said of acting. “There are a million ways to live your life in [acting] and not just in Hollywood or Broadway. There are a million wonderful ways to live your life as an actor.”