Richard Jenkins (‘The Shape of Water’): ‘You know you like the part when you’re saying please don’t die’ when reading the script [Complete Interview Transcript]

The new Guillermo del Toro film “The Shape of Water” is loaded with great male supporting performances, but it is the one from Richard Jenkins that is a major force for awards season. He is nominated at the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, and Critics’ Choice for playing Giles, a closeted gay artist in 1962 who helps his mute neighbor (Sally Hawkins). Jenkins is an Emmy Award winner for the limited series “Olive Kitteridge” (2015) and a past Oscar nominee for “The Visitor” (2008).

Gold Derby recently chatted with Jenkins about this role and his career. Watch the video above or read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water” opening soon across the country across the world. We were talking to Guillermo [del Toro], your director and writer earlier this week, he said it’s the favorite thing he’s ever done. What did you see about the script that made you really want to do it?

Richard Jenkins: I saw a bunch of three-dimensional characters, not just one or two but everybody had a life and this character that I play, Giles, incredible arc. Really just was this guy dealing with his own life, his own world, his own loves, his own desires, and I love that.

GD: You play the neighbor to Sally Hawkins’ character. Isn’t it amazing in all of our lives how just the random pairing of two neighbors can result in a friendship, can result in the plot of this movie?

RJ: Yeah, I know. It’s great. And the journey they take to get to where we do at the end of this movie is amazing, because it’s so human. It’s so human and Guillermo does not leave anything out of the story. He lets us all find our way to helping Sally’s character, Elisa. When I read this, I have this thing, when I first read the script, I love the part in the first page I read, for the rest of the script what I do subconsciously when I turn pages, I say, “Please don’t die. Please don’t die. Please don’t die.” You know you like the part when you’re saying that.

GD: It’s such a well-constructed plot that could have happened to basically anybody along the way in this movie.

RJ: I know. I know, yeah.

GD: Tell us about working with Sally Hawkins. You have almost all of your scenes with her.

RJ: Yeah, she’s great. We became friends. I think that’s the most important thing is to become really close friends and it was really comfortable being on set with her with the cameras rolling, I felt at home with her. I felt it was easy. It was really easy and I said to her, “You’re my friend now and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

GD: Your character is an artist trying to get back in the game painting for the advertising companies. Tell us about that aspect of the role. I think that’s quite fascinating, especially in that time where things were shifting away from what he did for a living.

RJ: He was drawing Jell-O, some gelatin, a family happy to have Jell-O in front of them. Yeah, artists were becoming yesterday’s news. They didn’t need them anymore and it’s so funny because in his private life he was 20 years behind, and in his profession it was 10 years too late. I love the line when his boss said for this drawing to resonate with advertisers, the family had to be happier, and I say, “Happier? The husband looks like he just discovered the missionary position.” (Laughs.)

GD: It’s such great dialogue all throughout this and the way the plot moves. The movie opens with your narration, closes with your narration. What’s it take on any project, whether it’s a movie or reading a book or a commercial, for good narration? How do you do that?

RJ: It’s tough. Narration is hard. It’s really hard. I’ll tell you what, I didn’t have the final narration until about two weeks before I stopped shooting, and Guillermo came up to me and he said, “I found this poem in a bookstore today. It’s written by a man hundreds of years ago,” which I say in the narration. He said, “It was his love letter to God and we’re gonna use it.” So that’s how that came to be.

GD: It’s wonderful what you’re able to do with your voice, not only offscreen but on. I love the vanity of Giles.

RJ: (Laughs.) Me too.

GD: Between the hair that he must wear when he’s out to how particular he is about which clothes he’s gonna wear on a caper.

RJ: And when he gets the outfit right, we’re all ready.

GD: Once that’s settled in his mind he’s ready to go. Otherwise he’s very nervous.

RJ: Yeah.

GD: Tell us just a little bit about playing that aspect of his character.

RJ: What I loved about it was he was terrified to do this. That was something that just kind of happened and he was just terrified. But he did it anyway. That, to me, that’s friendship. And he says during the heist, “I can’t do this. I’m not good at this. I’m terrible.” When that happens, that’s really friendship. So I love playing that aspect of it. He’s just terrified.

GD: Speaking of that, and anybody watching this if you haven’t seen the movie yet, go away. Come back when you’ve seen the movie. The scene where you’re in the van, you’re at the security gate, you’re pretty confident when you roll up but when things start to unravel, he’s out of there. He just wants to get out there.

RJ: (Laughs.) And Michael Stuhlbarg comes and kills the guy. It’s great. It’s terrific. That whole section. Then I back the van up and I see the creature for the first time and he comes out of a laundry bag. But my first line about him is, “He’s so beautiful.” I had been talking about this creature as if he was a fish in a tank in a Chinese restaurant but all of a sudden you see this thing and it was very cool. Very cool.

GD: And he’s so taken, the rest of the movie, every time you see something even in the background, you’ve drawn another portrait of him.

RJ: Now I‘m back to being an artist. When he gets into the mix, I become inspired again and start drawing, which I love. And actually, there were two artists that drew that stuff and I watched them do it. Guillermo said, “I want you to go spend a couple of hours with one of these artists and learn how to sketch.” I said, “Guillermo, I’m not gonna learn how to sketch but I’ll…” so the guy said, “Okay, here I’ll show you how to hold the charcoal.” I said, “Look, you just sketch and let me watch. You’ll be self-conscious and you’ll tell me stuff, just do it. I wanna see you sketch.” So that’s how I kind of figured that stuff out.

GD: And then another scene I wanted to bring up is the scene where you go back to the diner alone and you think maybe something’s happening with the man behind the counter that’s not really happening. I really think that’s well-played, well-written.

RJ: It’s beautiful. It just tells you where he is that he thinks there’s any chance that this might happen, that a relationship might be possible. And for somebody in 1962 to take the chance, to put his hand on top of someone else’s hand, I think speaks volumes about where Giles is at that time.

GD: We’re all hoping lots of the people involved in this movie get into the awards conversations for the guilds and the Oscars and so forth. I especially wanted to ask you about the production design. Your apartment alone feels like you stumbled across some artist’s loft somewhere and shot it there, but obviously it was the production designers putting all of that together.

RJ: It was a set. Sally’s apartment, my apartment. It was one big set. It’s brilliant. It’s just brilliant. It’s like you’re in a piece of art. I’ve said many times, and I think it’s the best way I can describe it, is everything in my apartment was authentic, and nothing was real. The paint peeling off the walls was gorgeous. It was all designed. From under one layer is a different color and under that layer’s a different color. I said it was the most glorious poverty. The hallway with the red, oh god. I called my wife when I walked onto the set and I said, “I feel this is something out of a 1940s Hollywood classic.” Dan Laustsen, the cinematographer, it’s just beautiful, and he lit it like a black-and-white movie. I said, “I felt like Spencer Tracy was gonna come around the corner any minute.” And the way he shot it with no handheld cameras, all on dollies or cranes, a lot of movement but very smooth and beautiful where it didn’t distract, it enhanced the film. There was a lot of longer shots, didn’t use closeup a lot. Used a lot of closeups with Sally, but it felt like another time. It felt like an homage to the great filmmakers.

GD: When we chatted with him he called it a fable for troubled times. I think that was originally even part of the title. What does that mean to you?

RJ: I know exactly what it means. It is. That’s why he set it in 1962, because when you say “Make America great again,” that’s the time they’re talking about. If you were me in 1962, I was in high school, life was great, ‘cause I was a straight white man. But if you were anybody else it wasn’t so good. So I think putting it in that time, really makes these people invisible, Giles and Octavia [Spencer] and Sally. Nobody sees them. Nobody knows them. When I was in high school I said there were no gay people in high school until our 35th reunion. So I think it was really brilliant to put it in that time.

GD: And not just for that time but all the underlying meanings to the time we currently live in.

RJ: Right. It really is about… “Love is love,” is really what he’s saying. You love who you love and we have no choice over that. So stop judging. Let people live their lives for goodness sake. I love the fact that he didn’t make Sally this incomplete human being that was longing for something. She was happy in her life. She loved the movies and the musicals and her shoes and her routine. She was fine with it. She just happened to fall in love and it was not something she was looking for. It was not something that she felt she had to have. It was just there in front of her, and she fell in love.

GD: I love that it is an homage to movies as well. You live above a movie theater, there’s two or three moments where you get so excited when somebody or something’s coming on your TV. Can you talk that in terms of a love of movies within this movie?

RJ: I love that. I love the whole idea of that. I love movies in that time period and a little later. I grew up watching them and fantasizing about being in them. My wife is a choreographer, so musicals came into my life later on with her. We see a lot of them because that’s what really interests her, so I watched a lot of Fred Astaire and I watched a lot of Gene Kelly and Betty Grable. It’s interesting, I don’t know why I’m thinking of this. We do a little tap dance on the couch, Sally and I do a little dance while we’re sitting on the couch, and the first time I saw it, in the editing room, it was just of our knees down, of us doing the dance, and then when I saw the final cut, it was the whole shot of us doing it. I might be wrong, but I think that’s how I remember it, and I think Fred Astaire had a thing in his contract where if you shot him dancing, you had to shoot him head to toe. You couldn’t do knees down or waist up. You had to see the whole body dancing.

GD: You want the audience to see the work, that it was not cut in or something.

RJ: Right, and you can’t really appreciate the dance unless you see the whole person doing it, ‘cause you’re not just dancing with your feet. You’re dancing with your body. I think he had put that into his contract.

GD: I think you’re right. What did your wife think of the fantasy sequence with Sally and Doug [Jones] playing the creature?

RJ: She loved it. She said it was fabulous. She really loved it. And she loved the little tap dance too. She’s interesting, because my wife choreographs, she really fits the choreography to the moment, and she said, “I felt that little tap dance was just right for that moment.”

GD: It felt very lived-in, like they do this every day.

RJ: They do it every day. Yeah.

GD: Wasn’t for that one moment. Since we last talked, which was a couple of years ago, you’re now an Emmy Award winner.

RJ: Wow.

GD: Take us back to that night of winning for “Olive Kitteridge.”

RJ: It was incredible. It was winning everything. I thought, “Oh, I’m gonna be the only one that doesn’t win.” (Laughs.) And then when they called my name, and this is true, I usually wear a long tie with my tux, but I had a bowtie on that night, and I got out from my chair and I went to tuck my tie in, and I couldn’t feel it. And I thought, “Where’s my tie? Did I take it off? Why would I do that?” Halfway up I realized, “Oh, it’s a bowtie, okay.” But that’s what I remember.

GD: Just an odd moment that that is your memory, not the big moment where they reveal your name necessarily.

RJ: Well yeah, when they said my name I was stunned. It was great. And Lady Gaga gave me the award, it was like, “Well hello.” (Laughs.)

GD: That would impress the family members and the friends.

RJ: Right. I’ve never seen Fran[ces McDormand] so happy is that night. She was really happy. She doesn’t like awards, but this was her baby.

GD: I’ve only met her a couple times but she probably was more excited to win for producing the project than even acting.

RJ: She was. She wanted to give me an award once that I didn’t win. She said, “Here, you take it I said, “No Fran, I’m not gonna take it.” (Laughs.) She’s all about the work, and she lives for the work. And she hired me. She called me up and hired me, she brought in Lisa Cholodenko, she hired Jane Anderson to write the script, she bought the rights to the book, she took it to HBO. It was her baby. It was a great night.

GD: Well speaking of awards we might have you back for a second time at the Oscars this year. Do you feel like it would be different for you on a second time as opposed to the first time?

RJ: I don’t know. I do know that when I went, the last time I was nominated, that’s when I fell in love with the Academy. I fell in love with the amount of how seriously they take that night and how it is for the industry itself. I was so blown away by what a beautiful evening it was and the whole thing before that, the luncheon, and I went to Governor’s Awards this year. There’s a lot of heart that they put into the Academy. There’s a love of movies here, and I really wasn’t aware of that until I went to the Academy Awards. I mean, I was aware of it, but ’til you’re there and you see it. I think Josh Brolin and I were sitting there and we both were saying, “This is incredible. This is just incredible.”

GD: I told somebody just last week that might be in this mix for the first time, they just said give me some advice. And I think it relates to what you’re saying if you don’t disagree, I said, “You know what? Don’t focus on that last night if you are going to the Oscars. Enjoy the whole journey. Enjoy December and January and February and all of the events that happen and the fact that you get to be a part of this group for all those weeks of meeting them and having those kinds of conversations.”

RJ: Then you meet people, different parts, you run into cinematographers you worked with 15 years ago. It is a small group. And it’s full of love this time of year. It’s full of competition but at the same time, it is full of love. Whatever happens happens. One has no control over anything but I would say to somebody, exactly, it’s the first time for them, is to just embrace it.


More News from GoldDerby