''The Visitor'' star finally became a leading man

By Vanessa Juarez
Updated November 14, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST

Richard Jenkins is seated in a booth in a midtown Manhattan hotel bar, spinning the stem of his glass of cabernet. An older man sitting with his wife at a nearby table gets up and hobbles over on a cane. ”Where are you playing the drums tonight?” he asks. It’s a reference to last April’s small, critically acclaimed gem The Visitor, in which Jenkins’ character learns to play the African drum known as the djembe. The film, which made $9.4 million during its 26-week release and even cracked the top 10 last May, marked the first time in Jenkins’ 34-year screen career that a movie was his. In his first-ever leading role, the actor played a depressed, widowed economics professor who takes in a young immigrant couple and becomes embroiled in their complicated lives. It’s a familiar type — the man who loses his wife and turns in on himself — but Jenkins managed to evoke a sense of what it’s really like to live in the day-to-day trenches of such an isolated existence.

Jenkins has had a rich, colorful career, but he never seemed like an actor who’d get interrupted during dinner. After growing up in De Kalb, Ill., and getting his start at Rhode Island’s Trinity Repertory Company, he became one of those ubiquitous character actors whom only a few know by name: the gay federal agent in Flirting With Disaster, the psychiatrist in There’s Something About Mary, the deceased patriarch in HBO’s Six Feet Under, and on and on. This year alone, Jenkins played Will Ferrell’s stepdad in Step Brothers and a gym manager in Burn After Reading. Though Jenkins has worked with just about every big-name filmmaker and actor in Hollywood, Visitor director Tom McCarthy was still considered brave for elevating him to leading man. But it turns out McCarthy had written the part with Jenkins in mind. ”I’ve always had respect for Richard,” he says. ”There was never a question about whether he could do this. Richard has proven himself.”

Jenkins, who still resides in Rhode Island with his family, gets that his sad-funny Everyman face has become a reassuring part of moviegoing, that every time he appears it’s as if some beloved uncle of ours has snuck on screen. He’s just surprised it’s worked out. Says Jenkins: ”Somebody asked me, ‘You think luck plays any part…truthfully?’ Like I’m going to say no. Yeah! Luck is huge.” Earlier in the day, Jenkins had gone to a party to mark the release of The Visitor on DVD. He knew the event also doubled as a kickoff for a Best Actor campaign, and he’d been terrified to attend. ”They want to — what? — talk to me?” he says, rolling his eyes. ”What am I going to do, bore the crap out of everybody?” Ask him about the future, and Jenkins is just as deadpan: ”People say I’m going to get a lot of leads. I’m 61. I mean, what am I going to get? This was a gift.” Yeah, for us.