A Talk with Richard Jenkins
A Long Way from Silverado

In The Visitor, long-time character actor Richard Jenkins gets the plum lead role as Walter Vale, an emotionally-repressed and professionally bored college professor and widower who discovers life and love through a chance encounter with illegal Syrian immigrants in Manhattan. The film is about a lot of things—about music, about change, about the ways in which “home” can become an alien place, and about how being a visitor allows you to see things in a new light—but the key thread of the plot is the way in which Tarek and his mother Mouna become caught up in the intricacies of post-9/11 U.S. immigration policy.

Courtesy of a local publicist, I spent about twenty minutes in a downtown Seattle hotel suite chatting with Jenkins about a wide variety of topics—his favorite experience on stage (The Iceman Cometh); shortening attention spans at the movies; the seven weeks he spent on set for Silverado waiting to be called on to do his two scenes; how his five years as a youngster trying to play drums helped him out with his scenes with djembe drums in The Visitor.

Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale in The VisitorIt was a fun talk, as Jenkins has had a long and colorful career on the stage and screen; but the fun turned serious when the conversation came around to the movie’s central plot crisis.

Tom McCarthy says in the film’s production notes that part of the origins of this project was some work he was doing with Sojourners in Manhattan—and his observation that our immigration policies don’t tend to factor compassion into the equation very well. Did that appeal to you in the project as well, or how did you feel that played out in the script when you read it?

Richard Jenkins: Well, what drew me to the project originally was the script itself—the whole script, which I thought was so different. I read a lot scripts, and I hadn’t read one like this in long, long time. The immigration issue was just part of the story; that’s how I always saw it. I was really attracted to this guy and his journey; but we did go to this detention center—Haaz Sleiman and I, both went—and met some of these detainees. And it was… heartbreaking, is what it was. They talked, and we listened; I didn’t say much, because I don’t think this guy had talked to anybody in a long time. And he felt in limbo; he didn’t know what was going to happen. He was just clueless as to his future. So it was sad. It was really sad.

So in a world where compassion ruled the day, how would things look different?

RJ: If we had more compassion?

Yeah.

RJ: Well, you know, first, the issue of immigration is such a complicated one. My head spins. I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that everything changes once you know somebody; and if were my own son were in there, how would I feel? I think that’s— If you could stand in somebody else’s shoes like that… What’s wrong with treating people humanely and with respect? That would be a good start. I just don’t think it’s intentional that things are happening the way they’re happening, but I think— Tom is saying, “This is what it is; now, if you want to talk about it, I’m not saying this is what the answer is, but this is what I found”. And maybe it’s something we should be discussing.

One of the things that surprised me in the movie—and I’m sure that this is accurate, though I’d never really thought about it before—was finding that somebody who is going into a Federal detention center may be going into a detention center run not by the Federal government but by an independent contractor. That’s accurate?

RJ: From what I know, yes it is. Now, you’re asking somebody that’s—

Well, the one that you visited.

RJ: Yes. I was told that that is a privately-run facility.

It seems to me that introduces a layer of distancing. Instead of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, you’re now dealing with a corporation. And corporations, by their nature, tend to be less compassionate.

RJ: Yes, that’s true.

The Visitor goes into limited release this weekend; on April 18 it goes into wider release. Be sure to check back for our review at that time.