Back from the dead: Jenkins rises in McCarthy’s ‘Visitor’

Al Alexander

For a dead guy, life is pretty good for Richard Jenkins, the actor who died at the wheel of a hearse in the very first episode of ``Six Feet Under'' and continued to haunt the emotionally embalmed Fisher clan through six Emmy-winning seasons.

Now he’s haunting moviegoers in his first starring role as a depressed English professor reinvigorated by a trio of illegal Muslim immigrants in ``The Visitor,'' which opened this week.

It’s stirring early Oscar buzz and earning the transplanted Rhode Islander the kind of attention usually reserved for the Crowes and the Cruises of the celluloid world. Yet he remains as gregarious and unassuming as the fresh-faced kid from Illinois who hopped in his car 38 years ago and headed for Providence, both literally and figuratively.

Beginning as an apprentice at Trinity Repertory Company theater and working his way up the ranks to actor and ultimately company director, Jenkins, as John Houseman used to say, did things the right way – he earned it.

Now those years of toiling in obscurity are reaping huge dividends thanks to another ubiquitous character actor in Tom McCarthy, the Boston College grad who wrote and directed ``The Visitor.''

The two men are as different as Red Sox and Yankees, both in their demeanor and the circles in which they run: Jenkins, the quick-witted mild-mannered 60-year-old bald guy from Rhode Island; and McCarthy, the boyishly handsome 39-year-old Manhattanite whose pals include Brad Pitt and George Clooney.

Together, though – as they were on a recent stop in Boston – they are as compatible and comfortable  as an old married couple. They even finish the other’s sentences.

``I just wish he’d stop taking my arm when we’re walking down the street,'' the charmingly deadpan Jenkins says of the man who wrote ``The Visitor'' specifically for him.

``It’s great for him to be in Boston because his new girlfriend is a freshman at  BU,'' McCarthy fires back.

``No, she’s going to be going to  BU. She’s not a freshman yet,'' Jenkins clarifies without missing a beat.

They go on trading affectionate jabs through much of the interview, much like an indie version of McCarthy’s pals Pitt and Clooney. They sober up, however, whenever the subject of  immigration arises.

It’s an issue that is dividing the nation and will surely   play a marquee role in this fall’s presidential election. But it’s also a topic few Americans   understand, including McCarthy before he began researching it.

``The movie is certainly reflective of my personal experiences witnessing and learning about detention and immigration as a lay person,'' said McCarthy, who  caught the writing bug while at   BC as a member (along with Amy Poehler) of the improv group My Mother’s Fleabag. ``We live in a melting pot, but how many of us take the time to really understand the various cultures?''

For Jenkins, ``The ''  Visitor'' was the answer to his dream of landing a leading role.

``It’s not something I thought was going to happen,'' Jenkins said. ``So I was really surprised (when McCarthy called). I said, ‘It’s about time.’''

Still, he seems humble when the ``O'' word, as in Oscar, is mentioned. But he can’t deny he’s a contender for his affecting portrayal of Walter Vale, an emotionally-dead university professor from Connecticut who travels to Manhattan for a conference and through numerous circumstances grows close to the three immigrants who restore both his enthusiasm for life and how he views America.

McCarthy attributes the quality of Jenkins’ performance to skill, but his star insists it’s all luck.

``Look, every time you’re on a movie and they bring some actor in for one scene,   you think how many people were up for that part that were just as good,'' Jenkins said. ``But maybe because they were too tall, or the wrong age, or the wrong look, that they weren’t cast. So luck is this huge deal because there are a lot of fabulous actors out there.''

McCarthy instantly reminds him, ``You’ve got to be good to be lucky.'' McCarthy   quickly chides Jenkins  for having the audacity to take calls from the Coen brothers while on set.

 ``He goes, ‘Cool, they just called me about being in their movie,’'' McCarthy said full of faux indignation. ``And I said, ‘Shut up stay focused. You’re making a movie with McCarthy.’''

Jenkins, playing along, adds, ``You’ll notice about halfway through (``The Visitor'') I kind of lose interest. And it’s because of the Coens.''

He then reminds McCarthy of his own name-dropping skills. ``Clooney and Pitt? Please!''

But being a part of the FOG (Friends of George) doesn’t hurt if you’re an indie filmmaker like McCarthy battling the Hollywood machine to bring thought-provoking films such as ``The Visitor'' and his acclaimed debut, ``The Station Agent,'' to the screen.

``You pick up a lot working with him,'' McCarthy says of Clooney, with whom he’s co-starred in ``Syriana,'' ``Good Night, and Good Luck'' and ``Michael Clayton.'' ``Not only for his work ethic, which is pretty intense, but also how he handles himself. He’s a real class guy.''

So, too, is Jenkins, a man who is the polar opposite of the curmudgeonly patriarch on ``Six Feet Under,'' a role he still cherishes.

``They’re good guys,'' he says of his former cast mates. ``To be on the ground floor of something like that was really cool.''

And what’s it like to be deceased?

``I’m the only dead guy that ages,'' he says with a laugh.

``It’s not aging, it’s rotting,'' chirps in McCarthy.

``Yes, I’m decomposing,'' Jenkins agrees. ``I was watching with my wife the other day and I said, ‘God I’m getting old. How can this dead guy get old?’ Ah, it’s depressing.''

``The Visitor,'' however, is not; at least not completely. It leaves you with a  renewed appreciation of a nation that was built on immigration. But how will noted xenophobe Lou Dobbs see it?

``Lou is a huge fan,'' McCarthy says with a hearty laugh. ``He called me again last night. Just wanted to talk about it. He’s really moved by it. And I had to be firm and say ‘No more calling after 12, Lou.’''