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In 'The Visitor,' Richard Jenkins Takes A Lead Turn

After appearing in supporting roles in more than 50 films, actor Richard Jenkins takes the lead in The Visitor, Tom McCarthy's film about a solitary economics professor whose world opens up when he discovers an apartment he rented in New York is already occupied.


Other segments from the episode on December 15, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 15, 2008: Interview with Richard Jenkins; Interview with Anne Mendelson.


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
In 'The Visitor,' Richard Jenkins Takes A Lead Turn


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. After seeing Richard Jenkins in small roles for years, he started to really make an impression on me when he co-starred in the HBO series, "Six Feet Under," as the father. His career has really taken off since then. This year alone, he was in the Coen Brothers comedy, "Burn After Reading," he played John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell's father in "Step Brothers," and in the independent film, "The Visitor," he got his first leading role. "The Visitor" came out recently on DVD. Richard Jenkins is nominated for an Independent Spirit Award as best male lead. And the director, Tom McCarthy, also received a nomination.

Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a lonely and inhibited widower who teaches at a New England college, but has kept his Manhattan apartment. An academic conference brings him to Manhattan. When he gets to his apartment, he finds two strangers living in it - a Syrian man and an African woman, both of whom are in the U.S. illegally. Walter invites them to stay in his apartment, and they become friends. The Syrian man, Tarek, plays African drums and starts teaching Walter how to play, which helps Walter break through some of his inhibitions. But when Tarek is arrested for a small crime he didn't commit, he's placed in a detention center for illegals. Walter finds him a lawyer and does anything he can to help. Tarek's mother, Mouna, who came to the U.S. with him, has been living in the Midwest, but she travels to New York to be with her son and stays with Walter. As Walter gets to know her, he begins to admit to himself and to her how empty his life has been. Here they are at dinner together.

(Soundbite of movie "The Visitor")

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

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

Mr. JENKINS: (As Prof. 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 Prof. 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 Prof. 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 Prof. 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 Prof. Walter Vale) 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.

GROSS: Richard Jenkins, welcome to Fresh Air. Congratulations on your terrific performance in "The Visitor." Your character is so inhibited and proper, and much of the time, he's feeling so empty inside. The scene that we just heard is a real turning point for you, where you tell yourself and tell somebody you really care about, about how empty your life has been, and it's an acknowledgment that you want to make a change. Can you talk about that scene a little bit?

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah. It wasn't in the original script, and we rehearsed this movie for two weeks. Tom McCarthy, the amazing writer-director of the film, was constantly rewriting, changing, fixing, getting to know us. We all actually became friends in the two weeks that we rehearsed, so - but this scene, we were talking about Walter, and I said, he really doesn't do anything. He never really works. And Tom said, yeah, I know. And we were just chatting about that and about, I don't know, two days later, he handed me this scene, and it was really interesting because it was - it wasn't there in the beginning, but it was such a huge step for him to take. And not only to take it, but to talk about it, to tell someone that most of his life has been a fake. So, it was an incredible turning point in the movie that really, it wasn't there when we first read the script.

GROSS: 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 happened 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 had to do as an actor to play somebody who's trying to reveal so little and in doing so, reveals a lot.

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah, it's - I said I don't know if I would have been able to do this ten 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. I worked with so many - not so many people, but some people who just don't trust a moment to sit and stew a little bit.

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: You're - yeah, geez. Is it that obvious? I am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: 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, you know. And then when I do it, whatever it is, wherever we go, wherever we travel, I think, god, this is why - you know, why didn't I 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, and she's come to your house as the piano teacher. She's a piano teacher, a classical piano teacher, your 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. 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's leaving.

(Soundbite of movie "The Visitor")

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms. SELDES: (As Barbara) 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 Prof. Walter Vale) OK.

GROSS: Ouch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Richard Jenkins and Marian Seldes in the opening scene of "The Visitor." The part in "The Visitor" was written for you by Tom McCarthy. Did he ever tell you why he wrote this for you, and what it was he saw in you as an actor that inspired this role?

Mr. JENKINS: Well, he said he wanted an everyman. And he, also, said I wanted somebody who could walk down the streets in New York and people wouldn't stop and stare. Because there are some people...

GROSS: Oh, that's got to make you feel great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: Well, you know, it's funny. We were on the street when he told me that. And as soon as he told me, some guy walked by and goes hey, I know you. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: So, there you go, touche, Tom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: But - but there's people in this movie that, you know, don't know they're in the movie. So, he wanted that somebody who could blend in.

GROSS: You mean, like, you're shooting on the streets, and there's passersby who don't know that they're...

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: They're not going to sue you, I hope.

Mr. JENKINS: Well, I - it's like, you can't clear the entire street. But it's funny - it's you know, it's the thing that if you go into a room, he should be the last guy you see in the room. And the only way you do see him is if the camera says, I think we're going to watch him for awhile. And that's not, I mean, that's - I understand that. I mean, I do understand it.

GROSS: My guest is Richard Jenkins. He's nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his starring role in "The Visitor" which is out on DVD. He became well-known for his role as the dead father on HBO's "Six Feet Under." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

GROSS: My guest is Richard Jenkins, and his film "The Visitor" has just come out on DVD. He's also recently co-starred in "Burn after Reading" and in "Step Brothers." I remember not long ago putting on the TV, and there was a movie on and I was thinking, wait a minute, that's Richard Jenkins.

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: And it and it was...

Mr. JENKINS: I do that sometimes. I watch...

GROSS: Really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah. I go, this movie looks familiar. And then, god, there I am in it. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah, I remember you... I don't remember what the movie was, I just remember thinking, wow, that you were really young in it. It was from a long time ago.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: That was me.

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

Mr. JENKINS: Pfft, you didn't notice me.

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

Mr. JENKINS: I don't know. I'm - some of the early films I guess, maybe some of the later ones, too. Let's see, I played the psychiatrist in "There's Something About Mary." I had one scene in that. "Silverado" my first movie...

GROSS: That was a western.

Mr. JENKINS: Where I said, howdy, and then seven weeks later, they shot me. It was, kind of - I had two scenes in that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: Actually, I was - my first film when 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 a - I played Kelly, anyway. But I was a cover set and Larry Kasdan, who's a wonderful director and a wonderful man. It was my, 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 - I couldn't leave because a cover set means that, if there's bad weather, they'll shoot your scene indoors, and I was in it, never - I just stayed around. And I stayed in the hotel and didn't know anybody because everybody else was out making the movie. People would say, who are you? 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you have a good book to read?

Mr. JENKINS: Well, I didn't plan on it. I thought I'd do the scene, go home and come back for the other one. So, I was stuck in the hotel. There was tons of snow in Santa Fe, New Mexico that time, I remember. It was just like incredible amounts of snow. But Linda Hunt, who I'll be forever grateful to, was so sweet and took me out to eat a few times because she saw this lonely guy kind of wandering the halls of the hotel.

GROSS: Oh, god. I relate to that, kind of, stuck in the hotel experience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: "The Visitor" is a drama. But you're also known for your comedies like "Step Brothers" has just been released on DVD.

Mr. JENKINS: Mm hmm.

GROSS: 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. 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) Oh, such a power. It's raw power.

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

Mr. RICHARD JENKINS: (As Dr. Robert Doback) OK, here's the deal. 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) I'm not buying that crap anymore.

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

Mr. WILL 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.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Dr. Robert Doback) All right, that's it. You two guys leave me no choice. No television for a week.

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

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

Mr. REILLY: (As Dale Doback) You're high.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Brennan Huff) Are you out of your minds?

Ms. STEENBURGEN: (As Nancy Huff): It 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) No! OK. This house is a prison.

GROSS: My guest Richard Jenkins in a scene from "Step Brothers," which just came out on DVD. Now, I read that you and your co-star in this movie, John C. Reilly, go way back, that you knew John C. Reilly when he was four, and what, you a 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, well, he was the vice president of a laundry in Chicago. And 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 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 him. 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: 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 someday, 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 Bothers"? It obviously wasn't your connection with John C. Reilly because you 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 just said, why don't you come do this? So, I said, that'd going to 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. You hang on is what you do. There's - I mean there's so much going on that it's amazing. 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. You're telling me this is - what you're doing is great? And I think John said, oh, come on dad, everybody can hear. You know, it's like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: No matter what you said, they had an answer for everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Another recent comedy that you're in is the Coen Brother's, "Burn After Reading." And in this film, you play the manager of a gym called Hard Bodies. Frances McDormand is one of the employees. You're in love with her, but she's clueless about that. And she appears to have no feelings for you. And in this scene, she's confiding in you that she needs plastic surgery, and she needs it really badly. Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of movie "Burn After Reading")

Ms. FRANCES MCDORMAND (Actress): (As Linda Litzke) I need those surgeries, Ted.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Ted Treffon) You're a beautiful woman. You don't need it.

Ms. MCDORMAND: (As Linda Litzke) I have gone just about as far as I can go with this body.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Ted Treffon) I think it's a beautiful - it's not a phony baloney Hollywood body.

Ms. MCDORMAND: (As Linda Litzke) That's right, Ted. I would be laughed out of Hollywood. I have very limited breasts, a ginormous ass and I've got this gut that swings back and forth in front in me like a shopping cart with a bent wheel.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Ted Treffon) You know, there's a lot of guys who like you just the way you are.

Ms. MCDORMAND: (As Linda Litzke) Yeah, losers.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Ted Treffon) I don't know. I mean, am I a loser?

Ms. MCDORMAND: (As Linda Litzke) Oh, Ted.

Mr. JENKINS: (As Ted Treffon) You know, I wasn't always a manager of Hard Bodies, let me tell you...

GROSS: It's a great scene. I love it when she's said, yeah, they're all losers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What's it like to work with the Coen Brothers? How did they direct you in a comedy?

Mr. JENKINS: Well, they're very - they're amazing because their movies are so specific, but they are so laid back and want to see what you bring to the film. And they're, again, they're just - the set itself is a great place to be, where you feel like you can really do work. And they love - they're great audiences. They love to watch what you do, and they actually, they called me. Joel and Ethan called me and said, we wrote this part, we'd like you to do this part of the manager of a gym. And I said, oh, that'd be great, I'd love to. And then I read it. And they called back, and said, could you, you know, really work out for this part? I said, I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: And they said no, you know, like really, like kind of, maybe lift weights. I said, I do. I said, it's not going to change.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's really funny.

Mr. JENKINS: This is it. And they were - they laughed. They were like OK. Oh no, OK. It's all right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Richard Jenkins will be back in the second half of the show. He's nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his starring role in "The Visitor" which is now on DVD. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air. Here's some music featured in "The Visitor" by the late Nigerian musician Fela Kuti.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross back with Richard Jenkins. He's nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his leading role in "The Visitor" which is now on DVD. This year he was also in the Will Ferrell comedy "Step Brothers" and the Coen Brothers' comedy "Burn After Reading."

Jenkins is now in his 60s, and the "The Visitor" is the first film in which he is the leading man. He's been in lots of films, but until a few years ago, people were more likely to recognize his face then his name.

The role who I think I finally realized, oh, this is Richard Jenkins. Well, first of all "Flirting with Disaster" but that was like in the '90s, and I liked 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.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: Actually, 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I had to follow through. 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: Yes, that's right. Like you die and then - "Six Feet Under" for anyone who hasn't seen this HBO series, it 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, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: The first, you know, five minutes I think.

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 is the scene.

(Soundbite of TV show "Six Feet Under")

Mr. RICHARD JENKINS: (As Nathaniel Fisher) Well, well, the prodigal returns. This is what you've been running away from your whole life, buddy boy. Tsk. Scared the crap out of you when you were growing up, did it? And you thought you'd escape. Well, guess what? Well, 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 you father dies you don't stop thinking about him. So, would you come back and do some more episodes? And I said, I'd loved 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" on television. I don't know if you watched that.

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

GROSS: Did you? I just used to love that show, and it's about two people who die in a skiing accident and return as ghosts and 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. Ah, 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 one's perception of him.

GROSS: Oh, interesting point. Right.

Mr. JENKINS: Not - you know, if I was talking to my daughter it was different than 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: How did you first know you wanted to act?

Mr. JENKINS: Hmm. I think - thinking about it - I think I always wanted to, and I just didn't know what you called it. I used to tell people I would want to be whatever profession I think grownups would think was wonderful. Oh, that's so nice, you want - you know, but I always liked performing. I always liked movies. I didn't see much theater when I was young. I only saw film.

GROSS: Is it because of where you grew up?

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah. Yeah. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest. It didn't have a lot of theater and – but we went to the movies every weekend, and did – it just didn't matter what was playing, you just went. And that's kind how I saw the world that way, you know.

But I went to college as a theater major. I don't know how I got in as a theater major. I had done one play in high school where I had like five lines or something. And I was in this class of theater majors who were more experienced than I was, and I was just kind - I sat in the back like Walter Vale. And…

GROSS: That's your character in "The Visitor."

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah, in "The Visitor." Yeah. And I didn't participate, and you were supposed to audition for everything and I mean - it was just always awful. I was too scared to even try it.

At the end of the year, the head of the department called me into his office. Dr. John Fica(ph), a wonderful man, a fabulous man. And he said, who are you? You know, I mean, I know you're in my class, but I see your name, but you haven't done anything. You haven't participated. You haven't auditioned. Why? And I said I don't know how because I thought you were supposed to teach me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: And he said - he kind of laughed and he said, well, you have a point. But, anyway, he - that's how it kind of - he said, if you don't participate, you should make room for somebody who wants to. And that kind of got me going and…

GROSS: So, what happened next?

Mr. JENKINS: He said, come to Summer Stock, and we'll see how it works out, and if you decide this is what you want, fine. If not, then you have to, you know, move on to something else. So, I did. I came to Summer Stock and, you know, did a couple of small roles and built scenery and, you know, worked the lights and loved it. And that was it for me.

But, I remember seeing "Hamlet," my freshman year in college, a production of "Hamlet," and that's really the first kind of big piece of theater I'd ever seen. I mean, I had seen - well, here this is interesting, I get - to me anyway, I don't know if anybody else, but I did have an experience. I went to see "Bye Bye, Birdie" in Chicago when I was maybe just before I was a teenager, maybe 12, 12 years old, something like that, as I recall.

And I was – we left the theater and my mother had left a package in this - back in the theater, so I went back for it, and they were having, I assume understudy rehearsals on the stage after the show. And they were - these kids who were a few years older than I was up there laughing and joking and having a great - and it was just - it was - I just stood there mesmerized for - till my mother came back and said what are you doing? So, that was a moment that I recalled that got me really interested in the theater.

GROSS: So, that was a backstage moment as opposed to an onstage moment?

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah. It was. It was. But, it was again, it was like, how do you do this? This is like - it might easier to go to the moon then to be a part of something like this. It was also far away and so unapproachable and so - and movies, especially movies were like that, you know, that was just - that was not to be.

GROSS: So, I know what you mean about movies feeling really far away. So, you got to movies via theater?

Mr. JENKINS: I did. I did. It was - I had gone off to California once in 1975 to make my way in film and just was - I mean, it was the most depressing year of my life, and I didn't know anybody. And I remembered going to the gas station, that's back when they used to fill your car up. You didn't have self-service stations, and I would ask the guy, I would ask the guy filling my car, how's your family? What's going on in your life?

You know, I didn't have anybody to talk to, really. So, it was a lonely time. So, I came back and I thought, nah, that's not going to happen so let's just not worry about that. And once I stopped thinking about it then it happened.

GROSS: When you say you came back, you came back where?

Mr. JENKINS: I came back to Providence and I was - I was a member of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island. I was an actor there for 14 years. And it was a wonderful place. It is a wonderful place, a wonderful theater. So, then I was doing a play at the Long Wharf Theater in Hartford - not Hartford, in New Haven, and my now-manager was in the audience, and asked me if I wanted to - do you have representation? And I said no. He said, but would you like that? I said yeah. And he said what would you like to do? I said I want to do movies. He said OK, all right. We'll see what we can do. And that's how it started.

GROSS: So, when you were in L.A., what was your plan to - you didn't have an agent.

Mr. JENKINS: I didn't have an agent. I didn't have a plan. They used to do - I don't know if they do anymore, it should be illegal but – that you would pay $35 back then and you would audition for what they said was casting directors. But, there really wasn't. They were just somebody on their lunch hour that came over and sat in this dark theater, and you got up and you auditioned. You just did a general audition for these people and you left your picture out there in the lobby. And they told you to bring 15 pictures and the people that were interested in you would go out and take your picture, and of course call you and you would have your own TV series within the next three weeks. That was the one. So, I did this and I went out there and all 15 of my pictures were still there. So, it was - and I remember sitting there counting, maybe I brought 16.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENKINS: Yeah. Maybe that's what - I think I brought more than 15, you know. So, I - they'll be calling me pretty soon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I…

Mr. JENKINS: So, that was just like one of the wonderful experiences that I had.

GROSS: If you're inhibited and don't have like enormous faith in yourself, this is exactly the kind of kick in the ego that can really hurt.

Mr. JENKINS: This is not good. This is not good. No. No. No. No, you know, but -we learned. You do learn, I mean, I'm glad - I am glad it happened. It, you know, it teaches you that you - that there are some things you can't control and don't try, because it - you just can't.

GROSS: As someone to who used think of himself as invisible, 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'm - I mean, it's - I've been doing it long enough so, I mean, I've been - this is strange. I was at a funeral one time, and a woman tapped me on the shoulder 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. No, it hasn't changed. No. I'm 61 so – but it is nice, I have to say it's 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.

GROSS: Richard Jenkins is nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his starring role in "The Visitor" which is now on DVD. He plays the father in "Step Brothers," which is also out on DVD.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
A Culinary History Of 'Milk Through The Ages'


Milk is our first food after we arrive in this world. How we started drinking the milk of other species, like cows and goats, and how people around the world started making milk into cheese and yogurt, is the subject of the new book, "Milk" by Anne Mendelson. The book includes recipes and a lot of information about how milk in America is processed today.

You know, those of us who are used to just drinking, you know, the kind of milk that you get in the supermarket, don't think of milk as being a very complex taste or a very varied taste. It's like, it's milk. You describe, like, fresh milk that you've had, you know, that hasn't - well, I'm going to ask you to describe the best milk that you've had, where it came from, how processed it was, and how it compare us to what most of us are familiar with.

Ms. ANNE MENDELSON (Culinary Historian; Author, "Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk through the Ages"): The best milk I've tasted and, well, I don't think I can pick one brand or one source because I've been lucky enough to taste good milk in many different places. But what all of the good, really good samples had in common is that first of all they were very, very fresh. Second, they had not been homogenized. So, you still had a skim milk layer and a cream milk layer which you mix together yourself.

When you drink it, you can taste the contrast between the richness of the cream and the comparative leanness of the skim milk. It just registers in a very wonderful way in your mouth as you taste it. And it's hard to describe the flavor. It's just freshness, freshness, freshness. It's bland, but it's a good kind of bland.

No matter what the source of the milk the pasteurized, homogenized milk that most of us get, has really been processed to a fare-thee-well. The good stuff - well, it's unhomogenized, but it's also been pasteurized at a lower temperature for a longer time, 145 degrees for about half an hour. This results in milk that's just closer to the original make up of the milk as it came out of the cow. And that's what I call really, really good milk.

GROSS: What do you look for on the label of milk before you buy it?

Ms. MENDELSON: Unhomogenized. That's the main thing. If it says that it was batch pasteurized instead of just pasteurized, that's a plus.

GROSS: What does that mean, batch pasteurized?

Ms. MENDELSON: Batch pasteurized means that it was run in batches into an actual vat and heated to a temperature of 145 degrees, that is for 30 minutes. After the 30 minutes, it's pumped out again into another tank and filled into bottles or cartons.

Most of the milk that you get that does not say vat pasteurized. You can assumed that it was pasteurized in another kind of system, a continuous feed pipeline where the milk starts out at the beginning, goes through an immense labyrinth of pipes and valves, and is pasteurized at a temperature of 161 degrees, I believe, for about 15 seconds - much shorter time. That step tends to be not cost-effective from the point of view of any dairy that's dealing in huge, huge volumes of milk. So, batch pasteurization is done only by small dairies that really care what they're doing.

GROSS: So, it preserves more of the flavor, the batch pasteurization?


GROSS: So, when you get unhomogenized milk do you have to stir it or shake it yourself?

Ms. MENDELSON: Well, the thing about unhomogenized milk is that when you get a batch, let's say you get a gallon, you have all kinds of possibilities. You can skim off the cream, you can use it as cream. You can stir the cream into the milk and drink it that way, which is, I think, delicious.

You can take the skim milk by itself and turn it into a very good fresh cheese. You can produce unhomogenized yogurt with a lovely layer of cream on top. Unhomogenized milk is incredibly versatile and all its versatility is just wiped out when the milk is homogenized.

GROSS: How come the shelf life of milk is considerably longer than it used to be?

Ms. MENDELSON: Higher pasteurization temperature. These - these systems keep being refined. There is routine high temperature, short time pasteurization. The milk goes - the milk is pumped straight into the containers without exposure to the air, without exposure to anything after pasteurization.

There is ultra pasteurization, still higher temperature, still shorter time, that lasts even longer. It has a very long shelf life. Basically, a lot of the things in milk that would be interesting to any bacterium in its right mind, have been destroyed in the processing.

GROSS: My guest is Anne Mendelson, author of the book "Milk." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Mendelson. She is a culinary historian and her new book is called "Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk through the Ages."

You write in your book that when shopping for milk you don't buy milk just because it says organic on it. Unless there's something else to recommend the milk, the organic label isn't sufficient for you. Why not?

Ms. MENDELSON: Organic is a word that doesn't have always the meanings that people want it to have. It doesn't imply that the milk came from a contented cow in the pasture. It doesn't imply that the milk started out really high quality. It doesn't imply that the milk was treated with tender loving care the way it might be by an artisanal dairy.

All that means is that what the animal was fed was organically raised, and it does not, by any means, imply that the animal is getting a diet suitable for a ruminant. A ruminant is a, I hope must people know, is an animal with a rumin, a certain kind of stomach chamber in which there are trillions of bacterias that do the work of digesting the cellulose, the fiber in grass and hays that the animal eats - cows, sheep. These are both ruminants. Goats are ruminants, water buffaloes are ruminants.

GROSS: So, cows are really designed to eat grass and hay, but in the big industrial animal lots cows are usually fed corn or corn and soy. So, - and I think what you're saying, even if it says organic milk, it might mean that the cow is fed organic corn as opposed to the kind of grass and hay that cows' stomachs are designed to digest. So, is the milk in a taste different if the cow is fed corn or soy than it's going to taste if the cow is fed what it's designed to eat - grass and hay?

Ms. MENDELSON: Yes it will be. It will taste different. Basically it probably is going to be thinner. The cow is probably going to give more milk, but milk that is less concentrated in protein and minerals and butter fat, and all the other things that make milk taste like milk.

There are limits to how much corn and soy beans you can feed a cow. I think it would kill any cow to be on a diet totally of corn and soy beans. So, the trick is to see, I'm not making this up, the trick is literally to see how great a proportion of corn or soy you can introduce to the rations without making the cow actively sick.

GROSS: Do you have to limit your dairy intake because of lactose intolerance or cholesterol? Or do you just eat as much as butter and cheese and yogurt as you please?

Ms. MENDELSON: Basically I eat as much butter and cheese and yogurt as I please. I don't have lactose intolerance, but I almost never drink milk. If I can get really great milk, well, that's different. But I don't have the milk-drinking habit. I just like it better when it's turned into cultured buttermilk. I love buttermilk.

I love yogurt, thin it a little with water and drink it like a beverage. To me, that's when milk really develops depth and dimension and flavor, flavor that can fortify a person. When the lactose is partly turned into lactic acid, when you have this lightly soured product that has that refreshing lactic acid tang, there is nothing more marvelous on a hot summer day.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. MENDELSON: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Anne Mendelson is the author of "Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk through the Ages." You can find a recipe from her book for apple onion cream soup on our Web site, where you can also download podcasts of our show.
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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