Richard Jenkins on Cabin In The Woods and why he knows nothing about characters off the page
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Richard Jenkins spent years in the character-actor trenches before earning a lead role in 2007’s The Visitor, which scored him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Since then, he’s been a ubiquitous presence in film and TV, with memorable roles on Six Feet Under (as deceased but still often present patriarch Nathaniel Fisher), Burn After Reading, Eat Pray Love, Let Me In, and many more. He took a seemingly typical role in The Cabin In The Woods, the directorial debut of Cloverfield screenwriter Drew Goddard, co-scripted by Goddard and Joss Whedon: a slightly dour but wryly funny career bureaucrat of sorts. From the outside, the film looks like a standard slasher film, but it turns out to be a much larger, funnier, more surprising story—which shocked Jenkins as much as anyone, once he reluctantly agreed to read the script. With The Cabin In The Woods due out on DVD, The A.V. Club talked to Jenkins about finally breaking down and taking the role, his history with horror, and his massive slate of upcoming films.
The A.V. Club: How did you first get involved in The Cabin In The Woods?
Richard Jenkins: They sent me the script. I said, “No, I don’t want to do this.” [Laughs.] They said, “You should read it.” My agent says, “Read it.” I said “I don’t do this; this is not what I do.” She said, “It’s really smart. Read it.” I did, and the next day I said, “Okay!” I loved it when I read it. Nothing like I expected. I have to say I was familiar with Joss [Whedon], but I didn’t really know his stuff intimately. I was really blown away by it. I thought it was really smart.
AVC: Was it the character in particular, or more the overall film that drew you to the project?
RJ: Sometimes I like the film and don’t like the character, and then I won’t do it. But I liked both. I really liked this character, and I love the movie. I thought I could bring something to it. I understood the guy. It was a no-brainer for me. That was a quick decision.
AVC: They just gave you the whole script up front? They didn’t put you through what they put some people through, with fake sides and secrecy?
AVC: Did you see any of that happen?
RJ: I think when they were reading actors, they didn’t give them the whole script because they didn’t want that to be out. He asked me to do it, and they sent me the script. I wouldn’t do it unless I’d read the whole thing. I think they did say, “Please don’t say anything about this.”
AVC: In past interviews, you have a lot of stories about auditioning over and over again for people like the Coen brothers before finally getting into one of their films. Have you gotten entirely past that point?
RJ: Yeah, for the most part. I did go in and read for something one time. I asked to read for it because I really wasn’t right for it. I wanted to hear myself do it. But for the most part, I don’t audition anymore.
AVC: You were also recently in Let Me In, the American remake of Let The Right One In. At the time, you said you hadn’t really done horror before, and that horror was kind of a new world for you. Did either film draw on anything you felt you hadn’t done before as an actor?
RJ: Every experience is a new one. It’s always different, and always a little scary. I loved making both of them. It comes from the top. They were really classy projects to begin with, both of them. They’re both human projects. Let Me In was a love story. That’s how we kind of approached it.
[Let Me In writer-director] Matt Reeves is really great. In fact, [Cabin In The Woods writer-director] Drew [Goddard] and Matt are best friends. You can see why they like each other. They both think alike. They’re very smart guys.
AVC: How did you approach these roles? Do you tend to be a preparation-and-research guy, or do you find the characters on the page?
RJ: If it’s not on the page, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s just all there on the page. All the clues you need are there for you. What happens when you’re on the set, on the day you’re there, I always find that if I decide something and I get somewhere and it’s not what I thought it was going to be, you have to be open. You have to be flexible in movies.
AVC: Can you think of a particular movie that surprised you on the set, where you ended up doing something completely other than what you’d been expecting to do?
RJ: The last three movies I’ve done, I’d have to say have been a little bit of a surprise, each one of them in a good way. None of them are released, but I’ve found that they took a shape I was hoping they’d take, but I didn’t know if they would. That’s a great thing about making movies. The experience is almost never what you expect it to be. Almost never. You put it in your head what it’s going to be, and you’re always wrong. I try to stop doing that. Expectations are the killers. That’s the killer.
AVC: Did you have any interest in horror going into this film, or any past experience with the genre?
RJ: When I was a kid, I loved horror films. I used to stay up on Saturday night to watch. I used to love them. Movies like Them and When Worlds Collide and The Blob. Oh my gosh, we used to love those films, but I stopped going to them when I got a little older. And this whole generation of horror films, I’m not familiar with. I mean, I’m familiar with them, but I wasn’t a fan. But I understood what they were doing immediately in the movie. Let Me In, when I read it, I loved it. I didn’t know there was a Swedish version of it. But I read the script, and loved it.
AVC: Coming out of that experience, is there any other genre or type of film you hadn’t tried yet that maybe you dismissed in the same way, but now you’d be more open to?
RJ: I’m open. I’m ready. [Laughs.] Whatever. A Western would be good. I’d love to do a Western.
AVC: A lot of the tone of this movie comes from the way you and Bradley Whitford whip back and forth between being comedic characters and being very serious. Was it ever hard to maintain a consistent character when that tone kept changing?
RJ: No, it wasn’t. No, which… [Pause.] No. [Laughs.]
AVC: What kind of direction did Drew give you, as far as doing that switch back and forth?
RJ: Drew was very encouraging. He lets you bring what you bring. He wants to see what you bring to the table. He encourages it. He watches, which sounds weird, like, “Of course that’s what he does.” But some directors don’t watch; they look for something specific. But Drew watches. He watched both of us and saw what we were doing, and encouraged us. And we don’t need a lot of encouragement, let me tell you. It was a great experience. It was just three weeks of fun. If you can’t have fun making movies, gosh, you should do something else.
AVC: What’s the difference between watching and looking?
RJ: Looking for something specific that sometimes you have—I haven’t had that in a while. A director is looking for A, B, C, or D, and if he got A, he knew it would be good, when that’s not how it works. If you’re looking for something, you can’t see what’s happening before you. Something totally different might be happening, but what you’re seeing is, “That’s not what I’m looking for.” You close everything off. I like directors who watch.
AVC: Was the running around and yelling and dying and all that goofiness particularly enjoyable, given how, as you said, it’s not normally what you do?
RJ: Any time you die in a film, it’s not real, so it’s all kind of fun. [Laughs.] They say, “You buy the premise, you buy the joke.” You invest in these characters and in this thing, and you believe, “Yes, that is a merman.” It’s part of the deal, and that’s the fun of it. People talk to you and say, “Do you think these guys ever had a time when Earth was…?” I don’t know! [Laughs.] That’s not the movie. Audiences have to invest in it, and they do. You lose yourself for however long the film is, so it’s fun for actors to do the same thing. A lot of fun.
AVC: Do you ever get deeper into your characters, though? Your role in The Visitor seems like the kind of character where the actor invests enough of himself in it to have an opinion when someone asks, “What would he think about this?” or, “What would he do in this circumstance?”
RJ: I would have no idea. If it’s not there, if I don’t do it on screen, I don’t know. Until you do it, you don’t know. They always say, “Did Mouna and Walter get together [after the end of The Visitor]?” But I don’t know. The movie’s over. [Laughs.] I have no idea. But I love the question. I think the question is so great, because it means people cared about those two people.
At the time when I was filming it, I remember thinking, “This is so sad. I hope I’m going to try and see her again.” She asked me in the airport, “Do you ever visit your son in London?” and I say, “Yes, I’m going to.” I take that as, “Maybe we can meet there.” But that’s as far as [it goes] because that’s what I’m filming, what I’m doing. Backstories, I don’t really do any more than what’s there on the page.
AVC: Have you ever had a character that made you curious enough to ask the writer that kind of question?
RJ: Yeah, sometimes you do. You’ll say, “Why does he keep saying something like this?” or, “It’s interesting that he always does this.” Sometimes you’ll come up with your own idea for it, or sometimes the writer will say, “Gee, I didn’t notice that,” or they’ll have an answer. But usually if they have an answer, it’ll be in the script. It’s there. If something is there, it means something. You can figure it out.
AVC: You were often specifically called out as a highlight of Cabin In The Woods, even by reviewers who otherwise didn’t much like it. That seems to happen with you a lot—for instance, with Eat Pray Love, where a lot of reviewers dismissed the movie, while praising your performance. When that happens, do you become aware of it? Do people point it out to you?
RJ: When they point it out, yes. It’s nice; I have to say. Nobody likes to have bad things written about them. You don’t. I’m stating the obvious here, and it is nice. But I loved making Eat Pray Love, and I loved working with Julia Roberts. I just absolutely loved it, and that hurts. I thought she was fantastic in the movie, and to work with her as an actor was a real joy, and [a bad review] takes away a little of that. Actually, I liked the film. I try not to read too much. I have to say I do read reviews. They give with one hand, and take away with the other. [Laughs.]
AVC: 2012 seems like it’s been a really big year for you. You’re listed as being in seven films this year.
RJ: Yeah, some of them I didn’t make all in this year. I did three in a row, though. Actually, I’m doing four. I’m starting one in October. It just happened that way. It wasn’t anything planned. Three scripts came along that I loved and could fit them in, and I said yes. At this time in my life, to be able to do that is really fantastic. I’m not complaining.
AVC: Are there any projects coming up that you’re particularly looking forward to audiences seeing?
RJ: Gee, I don’t know. I love the last three movies I did. It’s never finished until an audience does see it, but at the same time, I have no idea how movies turn out until they’re out there and audiences see them. I love the experience.
I did a movie called A.C.O.D., Adult Children Of Divorce. And I did a movie called Lullaby, and then One Square Mile. I just loved all three of them, loved making them, excited about them. I guess I can’t wait until they come out. I’m a little nervous, as we always are.
I worked with three young directors with big futures. I think it was Geraldine Chaplin who said to me when I said, “I hope the movie’s good,” she said, “You can’t control that. It has nothing to do with you. Did you enjoy making it?” I said I did, and she said, “Well then, be happy.” That’s easier said than done. [Laughs.] It’s not bad advice.
AVC: What was it like when Cabin In The Woods finally came out and the process was finished for you?
RJ: It’s funny, I was really happy for Drew. That’s who I was really happy for. I was worried it wouldn’t come out, and this talent I’d worked with, nobody’s going to see his movie. I was really happy it found the light of day, for him.
AVC: He’s one of a number of first-time directors you’ve worked with recently, but in the middle of all these projects, you did The Company You Keep, directed by Robert Redford. How does that compare, working with someone with that much experience vs. working with a young, eager up-and-comer?
RJ: [Redford’s] enthused, but it’s not the same. It’s a different kind of enthusiasm. It’s like he’s in it for the long haul. [Laughs.] We have a history. We’ve been doing it for a long time, and I’ve known him for a long time. I wouldn’t consider myself a friend of his, but I’ve known him. Robert Redford calls, you say, “Okay.” [Laughs.] That’s the way.
I was only on it for three days. There’s a picture of us I saw, the two of us, in a scene after they’ve said “Cut,” and we’re laughing about something. I don’t know what we’re laughing about, but he brings a different kind of… He brings a wealth of experience to making a movie. It’s very secure, like you’re in really good hands with seasoned directors like that. With young directors, it’s exciting because everybody’s trying stuff for the first time. But you know immediately—it doesn’t take you long—to figure out if they have real talent and a real gift. Then it’s fun. Then it becomes really fun to begin with these young guys. I’m sure it’s like somebody who started with Bob Redford and went, “Oh my goodness, what have we got here?”
AVC: One of the things you’ve said about Drew is that you love a director who can say, “I don’t know” on set. Why is that?
RJ: Because that’s how the good things happen. Sometimes people think they have to know everything, but you can’t. You absolutely cannot know everything. It’s better to know anything, I think, because then you’re open to what happens in front of your eyes. Directors make a million decisions: the color of somebody’s shoes, the color of somebody’s hair, the length of the collar, the width of a tie. They’re asked to be the experts. You have to know. When the director says, “I don’t know. What do you think?”, I think that’s really interesting. Directors who are confident enough. When you let other people fulfill their responsibilities, when you give other people responsibilities, when you ask of them something, they become invested in the project, and everything is better for it. If that makes any sense.
AVC: You get to do a little of everything in Cabin In The Woods—comedy, drama, action. Do you have a preference between those modes? If you only had to do one for the rest of your career, do you know which one you’d pick?
RJ: No, I don’t. [Laughs.] I haven’t done a lot of action. I really haven’t done much of that. No, I enjoy it all. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to do different kinds of movies, different characters, work with different people. I’m a bit of a gypsy myself, so I love these experiences I’ve had over these last few years. Don’t force me to make a choice! [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you have an ideal type of director?
RJ: I like directors who watch what you do, who are interested in what you bring to the role, who don’t have it all figured out. I like collaborators.
AVC: Are there any directors out there you haven’t worked with, but would like to?
RJ: There’s a ton of them. It would have to be the right thing. I don’t want to do three lines in a movie because it’s a Martin Scorsese movie. I’d love to do something amazing with him, because he’s incredible. [Steven] Spielberg. I did get to work with Sydney Pollack—once as a director and once as an actor. Actually, twice as an actor. Yeah, there’s a million guys and women I’d like to work with.