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Richard Jenkins: Standing Out By Blending In

In The Visitor, Richard Jenkins plays as an economics professor who discovers the apartment he rented in New York is already occupied. The starring role is a change for Jenkins, who has made his career playing smaller parts.

20:09

Other segments from the episode on February 13, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 13, 2009: Interview with Danny Boyle; Interview with Richard Jenkins; Review of the new music album, "For all I care."

Transcript

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'Slumdog' Director Danny Boyle on Filming in India

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross. The Academy Award presentations are coming up next weekend, and it could be a big night for our guest, filmmaker Danny Boyle. His latest movie, "Slumdog Millionaire," earned 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director. Boyle has been directing feature films since 1995 and is probably best known for the films "28 Days Later" and "Trainspotting." "Slumdog Millionaire" is set in India. It's the story of an orphaned boy, Jamal, from a Mumbai slum who grows up and becomes a contestant on the Indian version of the game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" In this scene, Jamal, played by Dev Patel, has just directly answer a question from the host, played by Bollywood star Anil Kapoor.

(Soundbite of movie "Slumdog Millionaire")

Mr. ANIL KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) You're absolutely right!

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) It's getting hot in here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEV PATEL: (As Jamal Malik) Are you nervous?

Mr. KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) What?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) Am I nervous? It's you who's in the hot seat, my friend.

Mr. PATEL: (As Jamal Malik) Oh, yes, sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: He's got Prem on the run.

Unidentified Woman: Finally.

Mr. KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) A few hours ago, you were giving chai for the phone wallahs, and now you're richer than they will ever be. What a player. Ladies and gentlemen, what a player!

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

DAVIES: Because he does so well on the show, Jamal is arrested on suspicion of cheating. His interrogation by the police reveals his remarkable story of escaping Mumbai's slums and making his way in a rapidly changing India. I spoke to Danny Boyle last year when "Slumdog Millionaire" was released.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, November 12, 2008)

DAVIES: Danny Boyle, welcome to Fresh Air. You know, this film kind of just grabs you by the collar early on with this opening - I guess it's the opening scene or an early scene in which you see some slum kids playing kind of a makeshift game of cricket...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: On, I guess, what looks like an airport tarmac. And the security guards come and say, you know, private land, get out of here, and they chase them into this shanty town. And there's this scene that, I don't know how long it takes, but it is the most amazing look at this massive, sprawling slum, and it includes aerial shots and chases through various places. I want to talk a little bit about - it just gets you into this city in a way that it's just visceral. Talk a little bit about that scene.

Mr. DANNY BOYLE (Director, "Slumdog Millionaire"): That was the whole idea really because we thought, you know, as Westerners going there, we only took, like, 10 crew. The rest of the crew are from - drawn from Bollywood. But I thought, as a Westerner going there and trying to make a film about a kid growing up there, they're just going to have to film the film as subjectively as possible and just literally tip the audience in off the edge of a cliff and just see how you get on. And the way we did that was through this chase sequence at the beginning, where you literally - there's no, like, wide shots where you go, hello, everybody, this is India. Hello, everybody, this is Mumbai, and you know, it's actually - so, you don't settle people into the film. You just hurtle them into it full pull, and that's what it's like arriving there.

I remember the first time I arrived. You were just overwhelmed by the sensory experience of the film, and you think, if I don't start moving very, very quickly, I'm just going to be swept away by this, you know? You have to catch up very, very quickly, and so, the idea was to propel the audience into the environment and leave you no choice, really. You're either going to leave the theater with a migraine or you're going to settle in and start to absorb this extraordinary city, you know?

DAVIES: You know, I don't want to get too technical, but it -when I looked at those chase scenes - and it's very tight quarters because people are crammed together, and their makeshift, you know, habitats are all very close - I couldn't imagine getting a sound boom and lighting and all the stuff that goes with the movie set. How did you film it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOYLE: With a very small crew. There are very narrow lane ways, and obviously - I mean, as you probably know, in any community, a film crew is disruptive. You know, it disrupts the rhythm and access for a community. We were still very disruptive, but we took a small crew, and we filmed with very small digital cameras, which allowed us to capture the dynamism of the place, really, as well as actually not disrupt it too much ourselves. And people were very generous and welcoming to us. We filmed in two slums, a small slum by the airport called Juhu and an extraordinary slum, which is a slum of at least two million people - some say it's the biggest slum on Earth - called Dharavi. And that, you just - I mean, the chance to film there is obviously visually stunning because you're able to show a world to people that they often just see from a distance and often just with this - rather kind of like distancing title of "a slum," you know? And it's rather a pejorative word in the way we use it.

But in India, it's just a location word; it's a geographic word. It just means that's where they live, because the places inside are full of energy, life, dynamism. They're very organized cottage industries. They don't have enough resources; there isn't enough sanitation; there isn't running water or not sufficiently enough running water; the electricity is intermittent and slightly dangerous. But those things are not their fault. The things that they have responsibility for they organize amazingly well, and the thing works. And it works so well that it can absorb a film crew no problem, you know, and let us not only get on with the film, but benefit from their help in making the movie, you know?

DAVIES: The characters in the film initially are presented to us as kids, like, little kids, preschool-age kids.

Mr. BOYLE: Yeah.

DAVIES: And these are tremendous actors, if they are actors. How did you cast those roles, these slum kids?

Mr. BOYLE: Well, initially, the film was written in English, completely in English. And when we got there - I mean, that was how we raised the money from - we raised the money from Pathe in Europe and from Warner Brothers in America. But when we got there, it was clear that the seven-year-olds - because they're seven years old, really, six and seven years old, the kids - they didn't really speak English that comfortably. A lot of the people the - speak English very well there, as you see in the rest of the film, and it's quite easy to present the film in English, because it's a natural part of life there to speak English. But the little ones hadn't picked it up fully yet, and so, it felt a bit stilted and a bit awkward. And the casting director, Loveleen Tandan, she said, listen, if you want to make that work, you need to translate that into Hindi. She said, I know you can't because of your deal and, you know, the reception of the film in the West, but if you want the film to come alive, translate it into Hindi. So, we took a deep breath, translated it into the native language, and it just came alive, the kids. Suddenly, these kids from the slums, who we could - you know, you saw when you were going around, we could start auditioning them as well, and the electricity just jumped off the rehearsal room, you know, where we were auditioning.

DAVIES: Well, you know, you mentioned that you, you know, you took these digital cameras into this - you know, these slums and shot these scenes, and you used these kids, you know, from those communities. Did people ever regard you as exploiting them, and did you ever feel that tension yourself?

Mr. BOYLE: It's an obvious thing that you're very conscious of going in there, and I'd been very lucky. I'd made another film with kids in the UK called "Millions," ironically, and I'd been introduced there to the rules and regulations of working with kids in the United Kingdom, and I believe they're very similar to the United States. They're very restrictive; you only can do a few hours with them. And what we did is, because we knew those regulations didn't exist there, we took our regulations with us, and we self-imposed them, really, to make sure that we didn't exploit the kids.

DAVIES: I kind of - I meant it more broadly - I mean, more that you're, you know, Westerners with, you know, money and resources coming into a community of incredible poverty and sort of capturing it for your own benefit. I mean, did it feel uncomfortable?

Mr. BOYLE: In theory, that's the case. I never - I kind of like went into it in an almost naive way, really. It felt - the first time I went there - the first time you go is, you go to check the script, that it's truthful and believable, what you're - and I'm very conscious of that, that it has to meet that question; it has to meet that test, really. And it felt it; it felt like it was born of true experiences. It felt like it didn't flatter to deceive, that it wasn't exploitative in terms of, you know, trying to use people for easy emotions. It felt like it was a truthful depiction of a city and of a character, really.

So, given that you're always exploiting people in every film you ever do, given that that happens anyway, per se, just because you're making a film, it felt - no, it felt reasonable what we were asking people to do, and that provided that we took back a picture of it that was really complex and multifaceted because the city is impossible to define by one person. You just cannot do the definitive picture about the place, but if you can capture a bit of it and you do it - you include enough of the experiences that you see there, you'll have a reasonable picture of - a reasonably truthful picture of an incredibly complex society, really.

DAVIES: You know, what's remarkable about the story here is that you see the characters as young kids in a slum when they're just in terrible poverty, literally living at a landfill and, you know, going through the trash for things of value. And as they grow up, you see the city change, and I think what's really remarkable about this, it's not a story just of Indian poverty, but incredible growth and change, and there are skyscrapers and hip nightlife and crowded freeways. And the character ends up, of all places, in a call center. I mean, just talk a little bit about kind of the breadth and scope of the India that's presented here.

Mr. BOYLE: The way you describe it, that's exactly what you get. You get these incredible, extreme combinations, which is, you get the most abject poverty, people living on landfill sites, and then you get these extraordinary capitalism growing and building there. You know, you - we can see we've got a problem at the moment in the West with capitalism is that it's hit a wall because, in order to operate at its best, it needs to constantly expand, so it's definitely got room to expand in India, and it is doing. And they'll hit a wall at some point, and it will be very interesting to see how they deal with it. But for the moment, it's actually got this expansion, throwing up this enormous contrast between the life that this kids live to begin with and then what they emerge into when they're 18.

One brother - because this is a story of two brothers - one brother, like you say, ends up in a call center, where, again, although he's just a chai wallah - you know, a guy who goes around serving the tea - he's actually picking up information, which, ironically, again, helps him when he gets on the show later. But his other brother, having gone through this terrible, violent incident in his childhood, has turned to violence himself and has become part of this gangster regime which runs - a lot of Mumbai's run by gangsters, you know, and mobsters who are benefiting from this huge explosion of capitalism there at the moment and this huge building program that's going on.

So, it's an incredibly complex and rich society with - and you have to acknowledge it - a horrific side, and you can't exclude some of the cruelty that you see, you know, in one way. But then, there's this other side of it, which is that life is being lived at this enormously vivid pace and you've got to just try and include all that and bring it back to people really and show - because the world is opening up more - there's more of the West heading into India, and there is more of India heading for the West, as well.

DAVIES: Were there particular challenges to shooting in India that were new to you?

Mr. BOYLE: I didn't think of them like that, very deliberately, because everybody says you're going to have problems. There's obstacles; there's challenges; there's difficulties, and I just thought, don't think like that, really, because I sensed the way to get the best out of it was to kind of like embrace everything there. So, we'd have these enormous setbacks, and you'd just think, you know, sometimes like your normal reaction...

DAVIES: Like what?

Mr. BOYLE: Well, just permissions and kind of impossibility of certain kinds of filming, and it's just endless, and the guys who run the production for us, who were this local company called India Take One Productions, they would run the whole permissions and the whole official side of the film on a kind of parallel track to the actual filmmaking. It was like a parallel universe that never - you never really had to - you could visit if you wanted to, but you could make the whole film without seeing that. And it was usually dependent on large sackfuls of cash, to be absolutely honest, this parallel universe. And that's the way the system seemed to operate. For instance, we asked - got permission - we applied for permission to shoot from the air in Mumbai, and it's very difficult because it's an island, which people don't realize, and there's lot of naval bases around it. The government is paranoid about national security, understandably, and so, they won't let foreigners up in helicopters.

So, we nominated an Indian camera man to go up and do it for us, but it took over 14 months to get permission, and they gave us permission about 10 days before we opened at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals this year, so that was no good to us at all, but the Parallel Universe company were delighted because they will now sell on that permission to some shady company who are making some film about Mumbai, and so, the system moves on in its own inexorable, inexplicable, incredible way, you know.

DAVIES: Well, so, how did you shoot without permission?

Mr. BOYLE: Exactly, I know.

DAVIES: I see.

Mr. BOYLE: These things happen, though, you know, and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Danny Boyle, director of the film "Slumdog Millionaire." More after our break, this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Our guest is Danny Boyle, director of the film "Slumdog Millionaire." It's nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, November 12, 2008)

DAVIES: You grew up in northern England, is that right, with middle-class parents?

Mr. BOYLE: No, kind of what you call working-class parents, actually, but I grew up in just a small town outside Manchester. Yeah, my parents were Irish immigrants, really, who settled in Manchester, as many, many, many people did, you know, yeah, working-class parents, decent working-class parents.

DAVIES: And went to religious school and, at some point, considered the priesthood, but found your way into movies. How did it happen?

Mr. BOYLE: Into movies instead, yeah. There's a number of directors, actually, who've nearly become priests, but they become directors instead, which is an interesting connection between those two. I was - my mom was - the dream of her life really was that her eldest boy would become a priest, and I was destined for that. But fortunately, I was saved from the priesthood by a guy who said, maybe don't do this; maybe wait a bit and see what you think. And then, of course, girls, music, you know, all those kind of things arrive in your teenage years, and so I made my way. I started in theater, actually, and then I moved into television and then film. In the UK, it's a much easier transition, and a number of the directors you probably heard of started in theater, directors like the late Anthony Minghella, Stephen Daldry, Sam Mendes. They often start in theater and television in Britain and then move across to films, you know?

DAVIES: A real breakout film for you was "Trainspotting," which is based on the novel by Irvine Welsh. It got you a lot of attention and a lot of critical acclaim, and I thought we would just listen to a scene. This is very - kind of in the opening of the film, when its central character, Mark Renton, is sort of describing choices that these kids are making in life.

(Soundbite of movie "Trainspotting")

Mr. EWAN MCGREGOR: (as Mark Renton) Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on higher purchase in a range of fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the (bleep) you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing (bleep) junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, (bleep)-up brats that you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life. But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?

(Soundbite of song "Lust for Life")

DAVIES: And that's from the film "Trainspotting," directed by our guest, Danny Boyle. This, of course, is a story about five friends, five young guys, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Some of them were in and out of heroin use, and there's a compelling scene early on that immediately immerses you in this world of heroin users, the one early on where they're in the apartment. Would you just talk a little bit about creating that world?

Mr. BOYLE: It's based really on this extraordinary book by Irvine Welsh, who was himself plagued by a relationship with the drug. And he, frankly, says that you never ever - although you give it up, it never ever leaves you. You know, it's always waiting there for you at your lowest moments for your return to it. And it was a book of enormous truthfulness and power and surprise, really, because he told the story completely from the inside of the people. So, you sensed very controversially their joy in their dependence on it, what they got from it. So, it's a disgusting but also an incredibly vivid and alive picture of these people, really.

DAVIES: You've done such an interesting mix of films. You've got "Trainspotting," which is this intense look at heroin users, and you've got "Millions," which is this beautifully touching, kind of, child fable, science-fiction film, "Sunshine," and then "28 Days Later," which is this film of flesh-eating zombies. What's next for you? Musical theater?

Mr. BOYLE: I'd love to do a musical. Seriously, I think the Holy Grail for virtually all directors is a musical, a modern-day musical, with new music. I've directed a couple of musical sequences. There's one, obviously, like you were saying, at the end of "Slumdog Millionaire." And I've done a couple in the theater. I did a little one in "Life Less Ordinary" here with Cameron Diaz and Ewan McGregor. And when you're directing those sequences, it's such a buzz. There's something about directing something with rhythm. It's so releasing, really. I'd love to do it. But it's the most - it is the Holy Grail, and I don't think, certainly in the modern day, it's very difficult to know how anyone would ever get there quite with that kind of pure experience of a brand new musical with brand new music. And it's interesting. The ones that have worked, like "Moulin Rouge" and "Mamma Mia!," are using music that we're already familiar with.

And that's really interesting because, you know, that's how they sell movies in Bollywood, which does use music in every film, virtually. They put the soundtrack out a month beforehand. Everybody buys the soundtrack, learns the songs, then turns up to the new movie, so they can sing along, so they're familiar with the music. It's really interesting watching that in Bollywood, how it operates as a system. No, but I was going to do an animated film, actually, which would have completed a surprising selection of films for people, but in fact, that all fell apart. So I would think I'll do a kind of thriller next, really. I feel the temptation to do an out-and-out thriller in some way, you know.

DAVIES: Well, Danny Boyle, I guess we're out of time. I wish we could talk some more, but thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BOYLE: Thanks, Dave.

DAVIES: Danny Boyle's film, "Slumdog Millionaire," is nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture. I'm Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of song "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate")

Ms. WENDY LEWIS: (Singing) Love in our life...

DAVIES: That's Wendy Lewis with the jazz trio, the Bad Plus. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews their new album, and we talk with Richard Jenkins, who's earned an Oscar nomination for best actor for his performance in "The Visitor."

Ms. LEWIS: (Singing) For even a second without it.
But life without death is just impossible.
Oh, to realize something is ending within us,
Feeling yourself disintegrate.
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..TIME:
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..NIEL:
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..NTWK:
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Richard Jenkins - Standing out By Blending in

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. Richard Jenkins has been acting in film and on television for 35 years, mostly in supporting roles. But when he finally got a leading role in a feature film, he made the most of it. He's earned an Oscar nomination for best actor for the independent film, "The Visitor." Jenkins' profile has risen since 2004, when he co-starred in the HBO series, "Six Feet Under." Since then, he appeared in the Coen Brothers comedy, "Burn After Reading," and he played John C. Riley and Will Ferrell's father in "Step Brothers."

Terry spoke to Jenkins in December. In "The Visitor," Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a lonely and inhibited widower who teaches at a New England college but has kept his Manhattan apartment. When a conference brings him to New York, he finds two strangers living in his apartment, a Syrian man and an African woman, both in the U.S. illegally. Walter becomes friends with them and begins to overcome some of his inhibitions. Eventually, Tarek is detained in a center for illegal aliens, and Walter ends up having dinner with Tarek's mother, Mouna, who has come from the Midwest to help her son.

(Soundbite of movie "The Visitor")

Mr. RICHARD JENKINS: (As Professor Walter Vale) Mouna, um, I'm taking a leave of absence for the rest of the semester.

Ms. HIAM ABBASS: (As Mouna Khalil) Really? Why?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Walter Vale) Well, I thought I might spend some more time in New York.

Ms. ABBASS: (As Mouna Khalil) Walter, you don't have to do this. You're busy.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Walter Vale) I want to.

Ms. ABBASS: (As Mouna Khalil) But you have to be in Connecticut. You have your teaching, your book.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Walter Vale) No, it's fine, really.

Ms. ABBASS: (As Mouna Khalil) This is not your problem, Walter. It's OK that you're busy.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Walter Vale) I'm not busy, not at all. The truth is I haven't done any real work in a very long time.

Ms. ABBASS: (As Mouna Khalil) But you just presented your paper at the conference.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Walter Vale) No, no. No, I didn't even write it. I just read it. I've been teaching the same course for 20 years, and it doesn't mean anything to me. None of it does. I pretend. I pretend that I'm busy, that I'm working, that I'm writing. I'm not doing anything. I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, December 15, 2008)

TERRY GROSS: Richard Jenkins, welcome to Fresh Air. Congratulations on your terrific performance in "The Visitor." During a lot of the movie you're so inhibited that you're not physically expressing yourself; you're always, like, restraining yourself physically, and you're very quiet, so you're not verbally expressing yourself much either, and a lot of what happens registers on your face, and we could just see that you're holding things in. And I'm just kind of interested about the work that you have to do as an actor to play somebody who's trying to reveal so little and, in doing so, reveals a lot.

Mr. JENKINS (Actor): Yeah. It's - I said I don't know if I would've been able to do this 10 years ago. I don't know if I trusted myself enough as an actor to let the camera just, I mean, just let it happen, just live your life on screen and trust that an audience will understand what it is you're going through and who you are and all of those things. It's tempting to explain what you do, and it's a bad temptation. So, it was a real test to see if I could just let it happen.

GROSS: I'm going to really go out on a limb here and say that I bet you're a little inhibited yourself. How right is that?

Mr. JENKINS: I - you're - yeah, geez. Is that obvious?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: I am. Yes, yes, I am. And I understand it. I understand someone who's a little stuck. I think we all get that in our lives, not to the degree of Walter Vale, maybe, but I need to be - in fact, my wife always says, let's do this, and my first answer is, oh, God. And then when I do it, whatever it is, wherever we go, where we travel, I think, God, this is - you know, why didn't do this earlier? So, you're right, I am a little inhibited and a little stuck in my ways and need to be shaken up once in awhile.

GROSS: I want to play some of the opening scene of "The Visitor." This is a wonderful scene with the actress Marian Seldes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And she's come to your house as the piano teacher. She's a piano teacher, a classical piano teacher, kind of old-school, very proper, and at the piano lesson - and you're learning as an adult, so, like, you're just getting started on piano, and she's telling you things like, keep your fingers rounded, you know, because that way the train can go through the tunnel of your fingers. She said, that's what I tell all my kids who I'm teaching...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And you just stare at her because, like, you're not a child. Even though you're just learning, you're not a child; you're an adult who's learning. And it's always so challenging when an adult tries to learn something new. So, after this, like, very uncomfortable lesson, she goes to the door and you're standing - you're inside the - you're both standing outside the door, and you have this conversation as she is leaving.

(Soundbite of the movie "The Visitor ")

Ms. MARIAN SELDES: (As Barbara) Next Tuesday, then, same time?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Walter Vale) No. I don't think I'm going to continue with our lessons.

Ms. SELDES: (As Barbara) Oh, no. You're giving up?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Walter Vale) No.

Ms. SELDES: (As Barbara) Oh. OK. Well, goodbye.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Walter Vale) Goodbye.

(Soundbite of door closing)

Ms. SELDES: (As Barbara) Ah, Mr. Vale, may I ask, how many teachers have you had before me?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Walter Vale) Four.

Ms. SELDES: (As Barbara) Well, for what it's worth, learning an instrument at your age is difficult, especially if you don't possess a natural gift for it. I'm not saying this to be mean, but if you do decide to give up, I'd really like to buy your piano.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Professor Walter Vale) OK.

GROSS: Ouch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's Richard Jenkins and Marian Seldes in the opening scene of "The Visitor." I remember not long ago putting on a TV and there was movie on, and I was thinking, wait a minute, that's Richard Jenkins.

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: And it was...

Mr. JENKINS: I do that sometimes.

GROSS: Really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: I watch T - yeah. I go, yeah, yeah, this movie looks familiar and then, oh, God, there - I'm in it.

GROSS: I remember you're - I don't remember what the movie is, I just remember thinking, wow, you were really young in it. It was kind of long time ago.

Mr. JENKINS: Some people say did - I saw that movie and you had a hairpiece, and that was not a hairpiece. That was me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What are some of the roles you were in that we didn't notice you in?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: You didn't notice me.

GROSS: You know what I mean, like, now you realize, oh, that's Richard Jenkins, but we didn't realize it then.

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah, I don't know. Some of the early films, I guess, maybe some of the later ones, too. Um, let's see, I played the psychiatrist in "Something About Mary." I had one scene in that. "Silverado," my first movie, where I said...

GROSS: That was a Western.

Mr. JENKINS: I said, howdy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: And then, seven weeks later they shot me. It was the - kind of my - I had two scenes in that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: I'd say I was - my first film and I was on the lobby card in the theaters. It was me, face down in the street.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, no one's going to recognize you that way.

Mr. JENKINS: No, no, no, that was - I played Kelly, the - anyway, but I was the cover set and Larry Kasdan is a wonderful director, a wonderful man. It was really my first studio movie, and I had - I literally had two scenes where I said howdy and then they shot me. And I was around - I couldn't leave because a cover set means that if there's bad weather, they'll shoot your scene indoors and I was - and it never - I just stayed around, and I stayed in a hotel and didn't know anybody because everybody else was out making the movie. People would say, who are you? Are you - I am in the movie, yeah, I'm in the movie. But that was my first - didn't even know you got per diem.

DAVIES: Richard Jenkins speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break, this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with actor Richard Jenkins. He's earned an Oscar nomination for best actor for his role in the film "The Visitor."

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, December 15, 2008)

GROSS: "The Visitor" is a drama, but you're also known for your comedies, like "Step Brothers."

Mr. JENKINS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And let's just hear a scene from it. In "Step Brothers," you and Mary Steenburgen play divorcees - you're not divorced from each other; you're each divorced from somebody else - but you each fall in love and decide to get married and move in together. You each have an adult son, and each of those adult sons are kind of, like, big babies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like, they're basically, like, overgrown teenagers; they still live at home; they don't have jobs; they're really cranky. And so, the boys, played by John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell, have to share a bedroom now that you've moved in with Mary Steenburgen, and they don't like each other. They don't get along, and they've just had a really big fight on the lawn, and you're really angry with them. They're sitting in front of the TV watching TV when you walk in intending to punish them, and here's the scene.

(Soundbite of movie "Step Brothers")

Mr. WILL FERRELL: (As Brennan Huff) (Growling) Such power. It's raw power.

(Soundbite of TV turning off)

Mr. JOHN C. REILLY: (As Dale Doback) Dad, what are you doing? It's Shark Week.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Dr. Robert Doback) OK, here is the deal.

(Shouting) You have one month to find jobs, or you're out on your asses. I will arrange interviews for Monday, and you will go.

Mr. REILLY: (As Dale Doback) Dad, why are you talking to me like this? I'm your son.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Dr. Robert Doback) (Shouting) I'm not buying that crap anymore.

Ms. MARY STEENBURGEN: (As Nancy Huff) You yelled "rape" at the top of your lungs.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Brennan Huff) Mom, I honestly thought I was going to be raped for a second. He had the craziest look in his eyes, and at one point he said, let's get it on.

Mr. REILLY: (As Dale Doback) That was about the fighting. I'm so not a raper.

Ms. STEENBURGEN: (As Nancy Huff) (Shouting) All right, that's it!

Mr. JENKINS: (As Dr. Robert Doback) You two guys leave me no choice.

(Shouting) No television for a week.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Brennan Huff) and Mr. REILLY: (As Dale Doback) (Shouting together) What?

Ms. STEENBURGEN: (As Nancy Huff) We are so serious, guys.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Brennan Huff) (Shouting) You're high!

Mr. REILLY: (As Dale Doback) (Shouting) Are you out of your minds?

Ms. STEENBURGEN: (As Nancy Huff) This goes in Robert's wall safe...

Mr. FERRELL: (As Brennan Huff) Come on.

Ms. STEENBURGEN: (As Nancy Huff) And it's going to stay there.

Mr. REILLY: (As Dale Doback) (Shouting) No!

Mr. JENKINS: (As Dr. Robert Doback) OK.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Brennan Huff) This house is a prison.

GROSS: My guest Richard Jenkins in a scene from "Step Brothers." Now, I read that you and your costar in this movie, John C. Reilly, go way back, that you knew John C. Reilly when he was four, and what, you drove a truck for his father or something?

Mr. JENKINS: I did, I did, yeah. John is from Chicago, and I'm from Illinois, and we were - this was at the end of the shoot of "Step Brothers," I said - I was asking him about his family and he said that his father had died fairly young and he said, you know, not a lot of my friends knew my dad. I think his wife, he said, had met him once. And I said, well, what did he do? He said, he was the vice president of a laundry in Chicago. I said, oh, because my father-in-law worked for Union Linen in Chicago. And he said, my dad was vice president of Union Linen. And then I said, your dad was John Reilly. I worked for your dad. I drove a truck in the summers for vacationing drivers, and he was my boss. And one weekend, my father-in-law had a cottage on a lake in - on the Illinois-Wisconsin Line. And John Reilly brought his boat up to the lake and his whole family and John was there, and he was four. And I helped put the boat in the water and, you know, spent the weekend with them, amazing.

GROSS: So, you knew John C. Reilly when he was four, but you had no idea that that was John C. Reilly until the end of the shoot?

Mr. JENKINS: Yes. Well, I said that I wondered what was - I could never understand what that little kid was tugging on my pant leg and he said, some day I'm going to be making a lot more money than you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: But now I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How did you get cast in "Step Brothers"? Obviously, it wasn't your connection with John C. Reilly because he didn't know you had a connection yet.

Mr. JENKINS: Well, I think it was Will Ferrell, had something to do with it. And I went out to L.A. and did a table read of the movie. They do it with an audience. It's really interesting. They do it like a play. And then they - he said, why don't come and do this? So, I said, that'd be great, and I just had so much - too much fun, probably, but it was really a ball.

GROSS: Did you have to do any improv in it?

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah, it's - you hang on, is what you do, yeah. But those two guys are - they're incredible. I mean, they're just incredible. They always had an answer, no matter what you said. There was a scene where once I said - they were talking about how wonderful their music was, and I said, I put, you know, an implant in a young girl, she could hear for the first time today, and you're telling this is - what you're doing is great? Then I think John said, oh, come on, Dad, everybody can hear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: You know, it's like no matter what you said, they had an answer for everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The role where I think I finally realized, oh, this is Richard Jenkins - well, first of all, in "Flirting with Disaster," but that was, like, in the '90s, and I like you a lot in that, but I didn't quite follow through on it, you know what I mean? I didn't recognize, OK, that's Richard Jenkins. But...

Mr. JENKINS: You disappoint me.

GROSS: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: No, really, that's very disappointing to hear that you didn't follow through. It's one thing to like me, but you have to follow through.

GROSS: I have to follow through.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But in "Six Feet Under," that's when it really registered because, you know, it's a recurring role, and so...

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah, that's because I wouldn't go away.

GROSS: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like, you die and - "Six Feet Under," for anyone who hasn't seen this HBO series, was a series about a family that runs a funeral home. And you play the father and husband in the family, and you're killed off in the first episode.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, you're the...

Mr. JENKINS: First, yeah, five minutes of it.

GROSS: Yeah. You're the mortician, but you get - you're in the car, you're fidgeting, you're lighting with a cigarette, you're distracted, and a bus rams into you, and that's the end of you. But you reappear, not only later in that episode in a ghostly apparition, but you keep reappearing through the series as a ghostly apparition and in the dreams of your family, and you talk with your sons. So, let me just play a scene from that opening episode. So, this is your first, like, ghostly appearance. It's in the morgue. Your son Nate, played by Peter Krause, has come to the morgue to officially ID your body, and the ghost of you is standing next to your corpse, talking to your son. Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of TV show "Six Feet Under")

Mr. JENKINS: (As Nathaniel Fisher) Well, well, the prodigal returns. This is what you've been running away from your whole life, buddy boy. Scared the crap out of you when you were growing up, didn't it? And you thought you'd escape. Well, guess what.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: (As Nathaniel Fisher) Oh, nobody escapes.

GROSS: And the escape stuff is a reference in part to death, but also to the fact that your son has kind of moved away and he's just kind of come back. When you got this part, I think you were supposed to just, like, be killed off in the first episode and that was that. How did it end up being a recurring ghostly role?

Mr. JENKINS: Well, yeah, you're right. I was just supposed to do the pilot, but Alan Ball said, you know...

GROSS: He's the creator of the series.

Mr. JENKINS: He's the creator of the series, and he said when your father dies, you don't stop thinking about him. So, would you come back and do some more episodes? And I said I'd love to, because I read the pilot and I just - I thought it was brilliant.

GROSS: Sometimes I really don't like ghostly roles, and other times I really love them, like, I grew up with the series "Topper"...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: On television. I don't know if you watched that.

Mr. JENKINS: I grew up with it, too.

GROSS: Did you? Oh, I just used to love that show.

Mr. JENKINS: Yes, I did.

GROSS: It's about two people who die in a skiing accident...

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: And return as ghosts and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Haunt...

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: Haunt their friend. So, did you realize that this - I mean, this - "Six Feet Under" was a turning point in my appreciation of you. Was it a turning point in your career?

Mr. JENKINS: Yes, it was. I think, like you, people finally put a name to the face, and it was amazing. I - you know something? It's just - I've been thinking about this, and I've talked about it before, but I never knew who this character was. I never knew what this guy's life was like, because every - all the clues that you have for a character are on the page when you read the script. That's where it is. And he - depending on who thought about him, he changed. It was according to...

GROSS: Oh, interesting point.

Mr. JENKINS: One's perception of him.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. JENKINS: And you know, if I was talking to my daughter, it was different than if I was talking to David or if I was talking to Nate. It was just totally different. And sometimes I was really kind to them; sometimes I was brutal with them. There was no - I mean, you just never knew what he was really like, which I loved; I thought that was really fascinating, but it was difficult.

GROSS: As you get better known, is it changing your sense of yourself to have more and more people recognize you?

Mr. JENKINS: No, no. I mean, it's - I've been doing it long enough. So, I mean, I've been - I - it's just strange. I was at the funeral one time, and a woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked if they - are they filming this?

GROSS: What?

Mr. JENKINS: Because of "Six Feet Under."

GROSS: Oh, gosh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: So, no, it hasn't changed, no. I'm 61, so what? But it is nice. I have to say, it is nice. I mean, we don't do - we don't act in a vacuum, and it's not finished until people see it, and to have people respond positively to what you do as an actor, that's kind of why you do it.

GROSS: Richard Jenkins, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. JENKINS: Thank you. Thank you for having me on.

DAVIES: Richard Jenkins is up for an Academy Award next weekend for his leading role in the film, "The Visitor." He spoke with Terry in December. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead on the new album from the jazz trio that does pop and rock songs, the Bad Plus. This is Fresh Air.
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The Bad Plus Covers Up in "For All I Care"

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Since their founding in the year 2000, the piano, bass and drums trio the Bad Plus have specialized in playing pop and rock songs by the likes of Abba, Black Sabbath and Nirvana. They cast an even wider net for material on their new album. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead admits the band is growing on him.

(Soundbite of song "Semi-Simple Variations")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: "Semi-Simple Variations" by American composer Milton Babbitt; it's one of three salutes to 20th-century classical music on the Bad Plus' new album "For All I Care," alongside pieces by Stravinsky and Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. Ethan Iverson breezes through the difficult piano music, while bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King rock it up like Emerson, Lake & Palmer playing Mussorgsky.

(Soundbite of song "Semi-Simple Variations")

WHITEHEAD: The band intercuts that modern composed music with more typical Bad Plus fare, songs by Nirvana, Wilco and the Flaming Lips. On those numbers, they're joined by Minneapolis rock singer Wendy Lewis of the band Redstart. Having Lewis out front frees up the trio to be a rhythm section, hitting some tricky grooves.

(Soundbite of song "Lithium")

Ms. WENDY LEWIS: (Singing) I'm so happy
'Cause today I found my friends.
They're in my head.
I'm so ugly, but that's OK
'Cause so are you.
We broke our mirrors.
Sunday morning...

WHITEHEAD: "Lithium" by Kurt Cobain, the Bad Plus' George Gershwin. You could think of this trio as a rock band of jazz musicians. They can build it up and break it down like arena champs, but keep in reserve a jazz band's way with polyrhythms and stretching the harmonies.

(Soundbite of song "Comfortably Numb")

Ms. LEWIS: (Singing) When I was a child,
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look, but it was gone.
I cannot put my finger on it now.
The child is grown; the dream is gone.
I have become comfortably numb

WHITEHEAD: Tackling Pink Floyd, the Bad Plus remind me of Sonny Rollins playing Al Jolson or Dolly Parton. They treat seriously materials someone else might think ridiculous. On the album, "For All I Care," the Plus tests their deadpan approach on four relics of the 1970s: Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," tunes by Yes and the Bee Gees, and Heart's "Barracuda," recorded last spring before anyone knew the song would be a political football in the presidential race. Their most audacious cover is the quietest, country songwriter Roger Miller's "Lock, Stock and Teardrops." Wendy Lewis and the band turn it into a slow-drag art song.

(Soundbite of song "Lock, Stock and Teardrops")

Ms. LEWIS: (Singing) Someday I'll wake up, find my strength and move along.
And lock, stock and teardrops, I'll be gone.

WHITEHEAD: Underplaying material didn't use to be the Bad Plus' strength, but they do keep stretching, sounding here and there like a chamber group, a frat-house band and Marianne Faithfull. I'm not crazy about all of their new album. They treat the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love" a little too reverently, but I don't know who else could cover Roger Miller and Milton Babbitt in one set. With broad repertoire like that, they might even get around to playing jazz tunes some time.

(Soundbite of song "Barracuda")

Ms. LEWIS: (Singing) You're gonna burn, burn, burn, burn, burn it to the wick.
Ah, barra - barra - cuda.

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is currently on leave from teaching at the University of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed the new recording by the Bad Plus called "For All I Care." Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Sue Spolan directed the show. Our digital production project supervisor is Julian Herzfeld. Terry Gross returns next week. I'm Dave Davies.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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