American actor Richard Jenkins, 74, has been a screen regular since the 70s, but his big breakthrough came in 2001 playing deceased funeral director Nathaniel Fisher in the TV series Six Feet Under. He went on to receive an Oscar nomination for best actor in The Visitor (2007) and won an Emmy in 2015 for his role in the drama series Olive Kitteridge. Jenkins has worked with directors including Woody Allen, Kathryn Bigelow, the Coens and Mike Nichols, and next month can be seen in Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley. His latest project is playwright Stephen Karam’s film of his own one-act play The Humans – set in a newly rented, unfurnished apartment in New York’s Chinatown – in which Jenkins plays a man contemplating the state of his life at a family Thanksgiving.
You live in Providence, Rhode Island, where you’ve worked a lot in theatre, right?
I’m from Illinois, but I’ve been out here for 50-some years. I was a member of the acting company here for 14 seasons, and later I ran it for four seasons. My wife [Sharon R Friedrick] is a choreographer, and we still direct and choreograph some stuff there. We rethink musicals, like Oliver! and Oklahoma!. We love working together. When I directed alone, it was in your own head, but when you’re doing it with someone else, you talk about it for months before you even start rehearsals. It’s really wonderful.
And did your wife get you into dancing?
That’s where we met, dancing in college. We were doing the Garden of Eden Ballet in Can-Can – I was the snake and she was Eve.
The Humans is deeply unsettling, with an incredibly claustrophobic labyrinth of a set.
I think the world is closing in on my character, Erik. There’s a fear of losing his family – the one thing that he could count on his whole life, the one thing that sustained him. Because of what he did [in his past], he could lose all that. It’s more terrifying than any supernatural being or ghost or horror film.
You’re part of an extraordinary ensemble cast: Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yeun and, a less familiar name to cinemagoers, Jayne Houdyshell.
She’s incredible, isn’t she? She did the play of Humans 600 times but she accepted us as her family immediately. Being in that apartment for a month, you either became friends or enemies; we became a group of six friends, really close.
What is it about Thanksgiving that makes it come across in films as the most traumatic experience possible?
Well, it forces you to be there with one another. Some people refuse to go. I’ve been fortunate, I always look forward to them. There are no gifts, you just go and sometimes you see someone you haven’t seen in a while. It is brutal if the relationships are strange and there are differences. You all go your separate ways and say: “Oh my God – but next year we’re going to go back and try to do it again.” In that sense, it’s hopeful to me.
In Nightmare Alley you play a man named Ezra Grindle. He’s extremely wealthy, dangerous, haunted by the past – and has a fearsome beard.
Yeah, that was a beard. That was me – the hair wasn’t, but the beard was. It was longer because of Covid, because we stopped shooting. I had one more scene to do and they pulled the plug in March. Nine months later I went back, so I had to trim the beard, it was loooooong.
This is your second film with Guillermo del Toro, following 2017’s The Shape of Water.
He’s eternally fascinating. I remember when I walked into The Shape of Water, into my character’s apartment, for the first time. Sally [Hawkins]’s was next to mine, hers was in blues and greens, mine was in browns and reds, everything was natural in it, paints and books and televisions, but nothing was real – it was a piece of art. I thought: “Is this what it was like to work with the great masters in the 40s?”
I hear Michael Caine was one of your influences when you started out…
Sometimes movies come along when you need them. I wasn’t sure of acting, if I had any talent, I just didn’t know. I was in college at the time and I saw Alfie. I was mesmerised. I thought: “Yes, I want to be an actor, that’s who I am.” Michael Caine came along when I needed and said: “Go ahead.” I’ve never met him but I think he’s amazing.
People must have really started to recognise you as the dead undertaker in Six Feet Under.
I was at a real funeral once, and somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Are they filming this?” I met a woman at an airport and she was crying. She said: “Why did you stop that series? Why is this over?” People were passionate about it.
After that show, you must have been offered a lot of roles as careworn fathers.
Even though I’ve played a father a few times, it’s not the same father. My father was a real worrier, and my mother didn’t worry about anything. I’m a bit of a doom-and-gloomer myself. When I read The Humans, I thought, I just want to play Erik, I understand this man.
And next we’ll see you in a TV series as the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s father.
It’s a Ryan Murphy project for Netflix. Ryan used to be a journalist and it’s really thorough: an investigation not just of Dahmer, but the damage that he caused, to the victims and their families – and to his parents. It was emotionally hard. The question for me was: if Jeffrey Dahmer is your son, do you stop loving him? And the answer’s no, you just don’t.
How was 2021 for you?
It’s been… interesting. Like everybody, I feel like I’m still wrapped in a big ball that I can’t get out of – but it’s been good, I’ve been spending time with my family and that’s always great.
And your hopes for 2022?
That I make it to 2023! One of the things I love about what I do is that you just don’t know what’s around the corner. It could be nothing, it could be pain and agony – or it could be something really cool. I hope we can get out of this pandemic. I worry about the arts. How about this: I hope it’s better.
The Humans is released on 31 December