Richard Jenkins interview: ‘The Humans’ and ‘Nightmare Alley’
[WARNING: The following article and interview contains spoilers about “Nightmare Alley.”]
“They’re kind of polar opposites, but they’re both people,” actor Richard Jenkins says about his characters in A24’s “The Humans” and Searchlight’s “Nightmare Alley.” Though the films are starkly different, Jenkins’ characters in both films are plagued by guilt. In “The Humans,” he plays patriarch Erik Blake, who has a distressing secret to share with his family at Thanksgiving. In “Nightmare Alley,” he portrays Ezra Grindle, who attempts to absolve himself from the sins of his past. “They’re two totally different guys, but both have tons of fear and tons of desire.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.
Jenkins shares his insights into his character in “The Humans,” and what makes the family drama a psychological thriller. “There’s this deep fear that he’s going to lose his family and it’s his fault,” he says, adding, “I think that’s a terrifying realization.” Jenkins pinpoints much of the complexity of the role in screenwriter and director Stephen Karam’s script. “When the writing is really brilliant like ‘The Humans’ was, that goes a long way,” he remarks, continuing, “I never think it’s the actor’s job to tell the story, that’s the script’s job. The actor’s there to try to live the character’s life on screen.”
The ensemble of “The Humans,” which includes Jenkins, Beanie Feldstein, Jayne Houdyshell, Amy Schumer, June Squibb and Steven Yeun, had a very short period of time to develop their family rapport. He credits their ability to create such lived-in performances to Houdyshell – who originated the role of Deirdre on Broadway and won a Tony Award for her work – for helping the new cast members feel “really comfortable with her.” “Luck is the other factor,” he shares candidly: “We’re just lucky we liked each other.” He also credits Karam for the atmosphere he created on set. Jenkins discusses working with Karam on the emotional climax of the film, describing Erik’s “full blown moment of anguish” as “scarier than any horror film could ever be.”
For “Nightmare Alley,” Jenkins reunites with Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro. The two previously collaborated on “The Shape of Water,” and Jenkins earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting role. When you work with del Toro, he says, “You’re a part of something that is different and alive and singular.” He calls the director “a master,” “the whole package, the real deal,” and “an absolute sweetheart.” He also discusses working with Bradley Cooper, who he says is “extraordinary in this film.”
“Nightmare Alley” is based on the William Lindsay Gresham novel of the same name from 1946. Jenkins says he read the book and watched the 1947 film version in preparation for his role, which is not something he always does. Thinking back to the HBO limited series “Olive Kitteridge,” Jenkins recalls that he was halfway through Elizabeth Strout’s novel when Frances McDormand called him and asked him to play the part of Henry, and he promptly put the book down until he finished production. He describes his character of Ezra in the noir thriller by saying, “His whole life he has gotten what he wants,” concluding, “You’re his friend until you do something he doesn’t like, then you’re his enemy.”