Tell people that you’re interviewing actor Richard Jenkins, and the universal response is, “Who?” Say, “The dead father in Six Feet Under,” and suddenly their eyes light up. That guy, they know.

Kevin Scanlon

An actor audiences trust finally gets the top billing he deserves.

Whether he’s playing dead or stealing the show as an acid-tripping FBI agent (in David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster), Jenkins is an actor audiences trust — even if they don’t quite know his name. That should change with the release of The Visitor, writer-director Tom McCarthy’s quietly potent story of a widowed economics professor who becomes entwined in the lives of a young immigrant couple he meets in New York City. Walter Vale, sad and uptight, loosens considerably over the course of the film, learning to play an African drum and even getting to kiss a beautiful woman — a dream part for a perennial Everyman like Jenkins, who gives the performance of his career. When we met recently at the Four Seasons Hotel, I couldn’t resist joshing the actor about his being the focal point for The Visitor’s ad campaign: “Hey, look who’s on the poster.”

Jenkins, tall and lean at 60, waves his hands in mock humility. “Well, don’t forget, I was on the lobby card for Silverado,” he says. Suddenly, Jenkins jumps up, steps around the coffee table and drops face-down on the floor, arms outstretched, the very measure of a dead cowboy. “I was shot,” he says. “All you could see was my bald head and Brian Dennehy standing over me. That was my first studio movie. I remember walking into the theater and saying, ‘Look! I’m on the lobby card.’ ” Taking his seat, Jenkins grins, clearly a man pleased to have made it to the poster.

Above-the-title billing is a new experience for Jenkins, who was 37 when he made Silverado, though, he says with not a little amazement, he’s always supported his family with his acting. “I did drive a laundry truck once, in Chicago. Four months, four accidents. I could not deliver laundry.”

In 1975, after working in regional theater, the then-28-year-old actor left his wife and baby daughter on the East Coast and headed for Los Angeles to, as he puts it, “see if I could make something happen. It was, ‘I’ll go forage, and you bring the wagon train out after me.’ I was out here for close to a year, and it was horrible. So lonely. When it was finally time to drive back, I had to borrow gas money from an uncle in San Bernardino. It was brutal.”

Jenkins may have been a late bloomer, but Silverado led to a remarkably steady stream of work, from no-brainer TV movies to little-seen indie gems like The Mudge Boy and featured roles in mainstream hits like There’s Something About Mary. Continuing what looks to be a very good year, he’ll soon be seen opposite Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in the summer comedy Step Brothers — “a hilarious experience,” Jenkins says. In the fall, he’ll appear alongside Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Tilda Swinton in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading.

When I suggest that his coolness factor is pretty high these days, Jenkins doesn’t argue. “I look back and wonder, how did this happen? How did I end up here?” he says. Our time is up, but Jenkins leans forward at the last minute and asks if I’ve ever met Reilly. “Terrific guy. I play his dad in Step Brothers. One day I asked him, ‘What did your father do?’ And Reilly says, ‘He was the vice-president of a commercial laundry in Chicago.’ I said to him, ‘I knew your dad. I worked for your dad.’ Once, John Reilly [Sr.] brought his boat to my father-in-law’s cottage in Wisconsin. He had his family with him. John was 4 years old and I was just out of college. Isn’t that the most bizarre thing?”

I nod in agreement, then Jenkins throws out an additional bit of cosmic coincidence. “You know Danai?” he asks. He means Danai Gurira, the U.S.-born, Zimbabwe-raised actress who plays one of the immigrants Walter befriends in The Visitor. “I asked Danai where her mother went to school and it turned out to be my school, Illinois Wesleyan. I went to school with Danai’s mother. She was a year ahead of me. I didn’t know her personally, but I knew who she was. And now, here we are. What are the odds?” For Jenkins, it would appear, the odds are awfully good.

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