The Human: Richard Jenkins' real, lived-in performances

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2021 Invision

Director Stephen Karam, left, and actor Richard Jenkins, right, pose for a portrait while promoting the movie "The Humans" on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK – For a long time, it bothered Richard Jenkins that he didn't look or come off like the movie stars he grew up with. How could he, the son of a dentist from DeKalb, Illinois, measure up in the same business as Lawrence Olivier, Marlon Brando and Spencer Tracy?

“It’s really hard to believe that you’re enough. I mean, for me it was terrible," Jenkins says. “Sometimes I still don’t. But you always go back to: ‘You’re it, buddy. That’s all you got. If it’s not enough, OK. But it’s all you got.’”

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It’s appropriate that at the center of a film called “The Humans” is Jenkins, an everyman extraordinaire who has made a career of close-to-the-bone, lived-in performances. The film, directed by Stephen Karam from his Tony-winning play, is a harrowing ensemble piece led by a typically humble yet tour-de-force performance by the 74-year-old Jenkins.

He plays Erik Blake, who, with wife Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell) and his elderly mother Momo (June Squibb), has arrived from Scranton, Pennsylvania, at their daughter's Chinatown apartment for Thanksgiving dinner. Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun), have just moved into an aging basement duplex with streaky widows that look out on an airshaft. Inside the rundown apartment, lights flicker and the nearby boiler rumbles. Erik gazes as the mishmash maze of piping and the holes that need caulking.

Their conversation, with sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), reveals characters with their own brokenness. “The Humans,” which a24 released Wednesday in theaters and that also airs on Showtime, throbs with the existential dread of a family just hanging on. Helplessness and guilt hover especially over Erik, a longtime school custodian struggling to plug up all the Blakes' leaks.

You read something and you go, ‘Do I have anything to offer this?’ Sometimes you say, ‘No, not really. That’s somebody else,’” Jenkins said in a recent interview in a Central Park South hotel. “But this one ... I understood his response to things. When I watched it, I thought, ‘God, that’s pretty me.’”

Karam makes his directorial debut with an adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-finalist one-act. For the play, which opened on Broadway in 2016, Karam drew heavily from his own Scranton family to craft an unsettling Chekhovian drama heavy with metaphor. Living in pre-war apartments and passing under painted-over steel beams in subway stations that seemed to him like fossils, Karam felt in his own New York existence the haunting echoes of the past.

“You feel history. You feel lives lived,” says Karam.

For the film, Karam built an uncannily accurate replica of an apartment he once lived in, right down to the graffiti on the elevator. In taking “The Humans” from stage to screen, Karam enlarges and intensifies the drama.

“The space is decaying, but in some ways, I think of the space as being remarkably resilient, too — like human bodies and human beings,” Karam says. “This family, for all of this struggle and strife and the breaking down of different aspects of their life — losing their girlfriend or their health or a mother — is holding on. I'm interested in how people keeping bringing a gallon of paint.”

Jenkins has lived in Providence, Rhode Island, with his wife, Sharon, for 52 years. They went expecting to stay a few years, but Jenkins became a company member of the Trinity Repertory Company for 14 years. “Lived there. Started doing movies. Just stayed," says Jenkins. They had two children. Jenkins would take the train down to New York for auditions. He didn't start landing film and TV parts until he was 35. He was 60 when his got his first lead role in a film, Tom McCarthy's “The Visitor” (one of two Oscar nominations for Jenkins; the other was for Guillermo del Toro's “The Shape of Water”).

“I always say that in this profession you’re going to get your ass kicked either when you’re young or when you’re old," says Jenkins, smiling. "It’s better to get it over with.”

One bit of advice changed everything him. Acting coach Harold Guskin, author of “How to Stop Acting," told Jenkins: “Quit trying to hide who you are.”

“I was unhappy with myself as an actor for forever, the way I was doing it. I thought I had to either change and figure it out or do something else,” Jenkins says. “It was boring me and I thought if it’s boring me, then the audience must be really thrilled. So that’s what I’ve tried to do in the last 20, 25 years. Sometimes it’s more successful than others. Sometimes I see myself and go, ‘Why does anyone hire me?’ Then sometimes I go, ‘That’s OK.’"

For Jenkins, it doesn't matter if a part has an accent, a limp, a murderous streak — any performance involves being comfortable in your own skin, being yourself.

“For you to deny that and block that off, I think, is wrong," says Jenkins. "For me, it just doesn’t work. It came later in life for me.”

It's helped make Jenkins one of the most vulnerable and human of character actors — someone you feel like you know because, in a way, you do. Jenkins isn't John C. Reilly’s father in “Step Brothers,” or the scamming patriarch of “Kajillionaire," or the gay federal agent who unwittingly takes acid and asks “Is this a musical table?" in “Flirting With Disaster." But all of those parts reflect some of Jenkins' own good nature.

On “The Humans,” Karam went in expecting Jenkins might have the proud certainty of a veteran performer only to find him curious, respectful and generous.

“The understanding of this family was just so specific that I almost had to shut up and listen to Richard talk about his kids and his life and his understanding of the family,” says Karam. “That, to me, was kind of magical.”

In his mid-70s, Jenkins is perhaps more in-demand than ever. He reunites with Del Toro in the noir “Nightmare Alley," out in December. He'll play Jeffrey Dahmer's father in an upcoming miniseries from Ryan Murphy.

On film sets, Jenkins has gotten used to being the oldest person, he says, with the recent happy exception of the 92-year-old Squibb. He doesn't mind. He loves young people, he says.

“What happens is the older you get, the more you appreciate it. You look back on your life. I do. I live in the past,” says Jenkins. “And you look back and you say, ‘Oh my God.’ People who say luck has nothing to do with it, they’re full of (expletive). It’s huge. If I hadn’t done this. If I hadn’t done that. If I hadn’t gone in that room. If I didn’t do that play. It’s just one after another. I’m a lucky man. That’s what I am.”


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