There are the stars, the big names, the recognisable faces, the Brads and Georges and Scarletts. Then there are those actors who may not be gorgeous and glamorous but who are great actors and win awards. And then there are those actors whose faces you recognise, whose names you may not remember immediately but seeing them always makes you like a film that little bit more, because it’s got Whatshisface and Whatshername in it. Unless, of course, you are a film geek and sigh contentedly whenever you see good old Whatshisface, mouthing the man’s IMDB link to yourself.
One of the actors that I always enjoy seeing, even in middling and even decidedly dodgy films, is Richard Jenkins. He is probably what is called a “character actor”, which more often than not seems to translate into “We want to say something nice about this guy but he’s not a hunk nor is he a tortured genius.” He can be utterly amazing, as in The Visitor, a film that could have been unbearable Oscar bait but ended up subtle, poignant and quietly devastating, an achievement that was in no small part due to Jenkins’ performance.
However, as good as the actor was in The Visitor, it’s Six Feet Under that best encapsulates why I love Jenkins. He’s good at playing dignified, often melancholy and sometimes stodgy everymen, but when given the chance to let loose he has a goofy, subversive energy, a Coenesque quality that is unmatched. (He’s been in three of the Coen brothers’ films, but what I best remember him for is his turn in The Man Who Wasn’t There: “Riedenschneider!”)
Jenkins has the face of a slightly disappointed man exhausted by life, but he has that gift of pulling off quirkiness without that precocious, grating quality that indie quirk often takes on. There’s a scene in the first season of Six Feet Under, where main character Nate finds out that his deceased father Nathanael Fisher Sr., undertaker and proprietor of Fisher & Sons, had a secret room above an Indian restaurant that no one in his family knew about. As Nate imagines what his father may have got up to in this room, we see several scenarios: Nate Senior playing solitaire, Nate Senior shaking his booty to a groovy record, Nate Senior having it off with a hooker, Nate Senior shooting at passers-by with a sniper rifle. It’s a tricky scene, and I can’t imagine anyone other than Jenkins pulling it off as he does, deadpan and perfect.
The AV Club, as so often, has a fun and informative interview with Jenkins in their “Random Roles” series – well worth checking out for anyone who finds themselves to be quite a fan of Late Nate.