An Award-Winning Actor Who Worries He Doesn’t Have Enough to Offer

Richard Jenkins on battling insecurities: “It’s like I’m not interesting enough, I’m not smart enough. But the truth is you are, and it’s hard to believe.”

Bumbling, earnest, good-hearted and edged with sadness, the characters Richard Jenkins plays often become a film’s emotional center. This holds true for Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” about the romance between Elisa, a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins), and a mysterious amphibian creature in Cold War America. Mr. Jenkins plays Giles, a closeted artist and Elisa’s close friend, whose own lovelorn travails (like an unrequited crush on a pie-shop worker) are a subplot of the film.

Mr. Jenkins, 70, said in a recent conversation that he realized early in his career that people share a common connection, which help him battle small fears — that last to this day — that he might not have much to offer. He obviously does: the performance landed him glowing reviews along with various awards nominations, possibly including an Oscar nomination when the final ballot is unveiled on Jan. 23. (He previously earned a best actor nomination for his performance in the “The Visitor,” from 2008.) Here are excerpts from the interview late last year.

In your work, like the western-horror movie “Bone Tomahawk” (2015) and “Olive Kitteridge” (the 2014 mini-series for which he won an Emmy) and certainly this film, you encapsulate the audience’s emotions in a way. Do you agree?

I don’t think of it that way, but I understand. I’ve always believed that there’s a common connection, and that everybody all over the world has it. It’s just, how do you hook into it?

You’ve always believed that?

For the last 30, 40 years. When I began as an actor, that’s what drove me forward, because I never thought of myself as having much to offer. But all of a sudden you’re playing something and you realize that there are 300 people that understand exactly what you’re going through, because they’ve gone through it, too. The truth is you only have yourself to offer. And when you come to that realization, it’s terrifying, because you think it’s probably not enough.

To offer the part?

Anything. It’s like I’m not interesting enough, I’m not smart enough. But the truth is you are, and it’s hard to believe. It was hard for me to believe. I still don’t believe it sometimes.

You were working with Sally and she is not speaking, so you’re doing a lot of the interpretation. Was that easy to lock into?

Well, she’s easy to lock in. She’s just great. We became friends immediately and laughed a lot. She has no ego.

How does your character know sign language?

I have no idea. I think we’ve been living there a long time. It tells you how good of friends they are that they spend a lot of time with each other. He thinks that he’s kind of the professor in this relationship, and we find out who the moral authority is in this group, and it’s Elisa.

He’s obviously a lonely guy, too. And I was curious that he even thought there might be romantic possibilities with the pie-shop guy.

The sadness of it all. It was a time when you couldn’t be gay. He was attracted to this kid, and the kid showed him kindness. And he gave him a piece of pie.

Terrible pie.

The worst.

Did you eat it in real life, this fluorescent-green pie?

I ate it.

What did it taste like?

Plastic. It was just awful. And they told me, “You can eat this. It’s edible, but it’s not good.” So I wiped my tongue at the end.

How would you describe the world that Guillermo del Toro created for this film?

Everything in it is authentic and nothing is real. Like my apartment. From the books, to the sketch board, to the bed, to the refrigerator — everything is authentic, in 1962, what an artist would have, and what a movie buff would have. But it’s in this otherworldly room that is a piece of art. I felt like Spencer Tracy could walk around the corner at any moment. I was as close as I could to being in a ’40s Hollywood classic.

How would you describe Giles?

He’s very lost. He probably lies. But he’s got a great heart. He exaggerates, but he’s an artist. He’s insecure. He always says, “I think this is some of my best work, don’t you?” He’s looking for that compliment. He needs someone to tell him that he’s O.K., that he’s, you know, worthy.

There’s that thread in your characters that thinks that, too.

A thread in me thinks that, too.

I think we all have it, but maybe you’re more able to ——

I was an only child, and I understand loneliness. And I don’t mind it actually; I kind of like it. But I don’t know what it is, this insecurity, this need for love and acceptance. Sometimes I don’t think it’s a bad thing. And then sometimes I think you can be a slave to it, and it can kind of run you. So you have to be aware of it and say, “Enough.” Somebody didn’t like what you did, O.K., you know, the sun comes up in the morning. Please. There are bigger issues in the world.

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