Actor Richard Jenkins on the Magic of Making “The Shape of Water” (Interview)

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Fox Searchlight

has been a star of stage and screen for over forty years, but it wasn’t until he appeared on HBO’s Six Feet Under in 2001 when people started really discovering what he could do, leading to a lot more film work. Jenkins’ next big hallmark was his Oscar nomination for his role in Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor, and he’s had many great roles since, whether it’s in Step Brothers or Cabin by the Woods or Let Me In.

Actually, those last two genre films might have helped him to prepare to appear in Guillermo del Toro’s latest fantasy-drama The Shape of Water. In the movie, Jenkins plays Giles, an artist who is mostly a shut-in but whom spends time with mute neighbor Eliza (Sally Hawkins). Eliza is a cleaner at a government lab where they’re experimenting on a new subject, an aquatic creature played by Doug Jones.

Jenkins’ scenes with Hawkins are breathtaking, as he gives a performance that might have him back at the Oscars – he’s already been nominated for the Critics Choice award, which is likely to be joined by SAG and Golden Globe nominations later this week if things work out.

The Tracking Board spoke to Jenkins over the phone earlier in the week.

What drew you to the movie? Did you just receive the script and know Guillermo was directing?

He sent me an email. I didn’t know him, but he asked my agent for my email. He sent me an email and said, “I want you to play Giles. Here’s the script. I hope you love it as much as I do.” I read it and wrote him back the next day and said, “I think I do.” That was it. That’s how we started. He sent me the entire screenplay. It’s changed from when I read it, to when we shot it, but they all do usually, you know rewrites and changes, but yeah, it was the same script.

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Besides working with Guillermo, who is an amazing filmmaker and person, what was it about Giles that kind of jumped out at you, was it anything particularly about him?

I love the idea of him looking in all the wrong places for everything to fulfill his life when the answer was right before him and he didn’t see it until you know the last part of the movie. I love that. I love the fact there was a big arc to the character. That he came to a huge realization in the film. I think that’s always fun. Sometimes with supporting parts they’re not that three-dimensional. Guillermo wrote these beautiful characters, so that’s what really attracted me to the part.

I spoke to Michael Stuhlbarg last week and he mentioned that Guillermo had a lot of details and backstory for his character. So, was there a lot about Giles, that wasn’t necessarily in the screenplay that you guys developed together.

Well, he writes a backstory for every character and he said, “You can use it or not. If it’s helpful, great. If it’s not, great. That’s fine, too.” I used a little bit of it, but I find sometimes it can be confusing for me. If it’s not on the page in the screenplay, if it’s not in the movie, then that’s when I look for all my keys and clues to these characters is in the screenplay. It was fascinating to read because you know he thought about these people in such detail. You know, he lived with them for so long that they were all dear friends of his. So, that’s why he writes these backstories for us to use if we need it, if we want it.

There’s a lot more to Giles than we can tell on the surface, and we learn more about him as the film goes along. Did you ever know how Giles and Elisa first met? I can’t remember if it’s ever explained in the movie.

It isn’t in the movie, so I just assumed … I take for granted we met because we live next to each other. That’s how we met. Since I know sign language, that tells me that we’ve been friends for a very long time. There’s a pattern that we have. Every night before she goes to work, she brings me a sandwich to eat, she stops in, we have a little chat, we watch a little . I love movie musicals and she loves them to. I think it comes from me teaching her about them. So that’s how I see the relationship. It’s been going on for a long time. They talk about where she came from, but you don’t really know where Giles came from. But I assume that he’s been in this apartment for a very long time.

You have many great scenes with Sally, so did you find you had similar styles of acting or were you figuring that out as you went along?

Well, we do kind of figure it out as we go along, but at the same time we rehearsed for about three weeks. We spent time with each other and we became really good friends. There’s that scene where she signs why it’s important that I help her with this. Well, I don’t want to give the plot away, but it’s important why I should help her. We had rehearsed that for three weeks just so I would not get ahead of her in the sign language. If she wanted to practice, that’s fine, but when we shot it, it was totally different from anything we had rehearsed. That’s when you really make these discoveries and find things — when the camera rolls. That’s when the real discovery takes place I think. That was just an example of that. She actually hits me in the scene, which was not in the script and not something that we had rehearsed.

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Did the two of you rehearse by yourselves or did you have Guillermo involved or a little of both?

Well, we began with Guillermo. We had a read-through and we talked and Guillermo talked about the character — he talked about his process in writing these people. Then we spent a lot of time together, Sally and I, we just rehearsed. We had to learn our little dance on the couch, so we spent time with a tap teacher. We used that time to kind of talk about become friends and rehearse the sign language. It was a pretty low key, wonderful time. I think Guillermo wanted to kind of throw us all in together so we would become friends. That’s important when you’re playing somebody’s best friends, is to really like each other. That goes without saying. I mean, I supposed you can act it, but it makes it a lot easier when you are so fond of somebody like I am of her.

I’m sure it comes up a lot about how two actors can create on-screen chemistry and make us believe they’ve known each other for years. I guess it’s easier when you like each other and get along.

I think so. I think it’s easier. You’re more relaxed. You’re more at ease. I’d also say that the apartments we got informed a lot about who we were. My apartment with all the books, the cats, the drawings and the refrigerator with nothing in it but pie. All of this stuff informs who you are and you kind of absorb all these things and out of it all comes Giles.

Did you know sign language beforehand or at least some of it?

No, and I don’t know it now.

It’s always interesting to me what skills actors might learn for different roles. Did you have any artistic inclinations to make Giles’ as an artist more believable?

One of the artists that drew some pictures, some of the pictures we used in the movie, Guillermo had me spend an hour with him or two hours with him, so he could teach me how he held the charcoal and what he did. He told me this is what I want, this is what you need to do, I said okay, look. I want you to draw. Just you draw and let me watch you. I said, you’re going to tell me stuff that I need to do, but you’re going to miss something because I need to see you really draw. What you do and the way you draw. So, that was really helpful. I just sat and watched him for an hour, hour and a half and saw how he made the strokes, how he held the charcoal. Anytime you can do things like that it’s really, really helpful because I can’t draw.

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I’ve been lucky enough to go to a couple Guillermo sets and see the amazing things he builds on the soundstage. Did you get to rehearse on some of the sets, like the apartment sets, or did you first seem them when Guillermo was ready to film?

I went in and watched and looked at it before we started shooting. We were shooting the movie, but we hadn’t shot on that set yet. I’m glad I did because it was a treasure trove of hints and you know it gave the character possibilities. It made you understand a bit more about what he surrounds himself with, then you kind of go from there and devise this world that this guy lives in. It’s something you really couldn’t do until you see all this stuff, so for me it was. I called my wife when I walked out of the set and said, “You have to see this.” Everything in it is authentic and nothing is real. It was a concept from the beginning, but it was a piece of art. Her apartment and my apartment were both pieces of art and yet they were still apartments with books, refrigerators, beds and sofa, but when you looked at it closely, there was nothing in it that wasn’t deliberate. From the paint on the walls, to the peeling paint and the paint underneath the peeling paint.

Everything was there for a reason. My apartment was more warm tones, browns and hers was greens and blues. She had a leaky ceiling. A lot of do with water in her apartment. Mine was more … It’s just a warmer tone. We shared a big window, which was really cool. The hallway was this red color, which was just beautiful and it was ten coats of paint underneath the red. It was all peeling and you could see all the different colors. It was incredible. I said it was the closest I will ever come to making a movie in the ‘40s. It reminded me of one of the great William Wellman or those films that were beautifully shot and of a piece. It was his intention to make this as an homage to all the great filmmakers. He didn’t use any handheld cameras. He used only dollies, cameras on wheels and crane shots, tracking shots where the crane would move, just like in the old days of making movies. I say this all the time, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Spencer Tracy had walked around the corner. That was the feeling I got. I loved it. I just love that environment, that atmosphere that he created.

It sounds like you were studying what Guillermo was doing, so do you have any aspirations to direct yourself?

I direct in the theater, but I have no aspirations to direct in a movie. I don’t think my brain works in that way. You have to know what you want your movie to be, even though it may change as you’re shooting it. It may take you down a different road, but I think you have to know … Because you only have a few days to do it. You got three days on a set for two scenes. You have to know how you want to shoot that set. There’s not a lot of time with floor and in the theater you can mess round and not make decisions. I don’t like decisions. I like to say, “I don’t know, I’m not sure.”

Being a filmmaker, you have to think in advance and I just don’t think I would be very good at it. It’s an amazing gift that people like Guillermo have. I mean, he worked on this film for four or five years. He thought about it and he had the movie in his head. He had it there and tried to explain it to me, but until I saw it, it was still a mystery. Then when I saw it I went, “Oh my gosh.”

You’ve been doing Berlin Station lately, which I wasn’t sure whether it was actually shot in Berlin, but you’re also doing less movies then you’ve done in the past. Was this a conscious decision?

Well, now it’s just kind of my life. I just do things I want to do. I don’t feel the need to jump and do everything that comes my way. I like to do things that make me happy. I just love to work, but I like to be home too. I’m incredibly fortunate, incredibly lucky.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is now playing in select cities and will expand nationwide on Dec. 22.

  | East Coast Editor
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