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Interview: Richard Jenkins says Del Toro Emailed Him to Join The Shape of Water

Whether he’s playing troubled, complex men in Six Feet Under and Olive Kitteridge, or as Senator Rusell in LBJ, Richard Jenkins is a face you’ve seen before. You’re about to see a lot more of him in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape Of Water. As Giles, Elisa’s lonely neighbor, he rises to the occasion to when his movie-watching companion finds herself in need of a man with a special sympathetic skill-set. Jenkins is devastatingly good in this, his touching performance given a unique showcase by Del Toro who knows how to captivate us with each character and each frame.

Jenkins and I met to talk about some of his memorable roles and what it was like to work on The Shape of Water, starring alongside Sally Hawkins as her dear, gay neighbor, Giles.

The film screened in Venice and won the Golden Lion. What has this ride been like for you?

It’s been amazing. I knew who he was but Pan’s Labyrinth was the only film I’d seen. He emailed me and asked me to do it. He said, “I hope you love it as much as I do.” I read it and emailed him back saying I did.

How do you craft your character when you’re working on a Del Toro film?

I look at the script and look for the clues. Every clue is in the text. If it’s in the text, it’s in the movie. I did ad-lib a little bit but not much, it wasn’t intentional, it was just something that happened in the moment. It’s a fun way to go after it to find out who this person is what the writer puts. Sometimes, a writer will say, “Where did that come from?” and I’ll say it’s from what they wrote.

What did he say about who your character was going to be?

He’d written a bio and said I could use it if I wanted to. I didn’t use it because if it’s not on the page then it’s not going to be in the movie.

Guillermo loves these characters so much that he writes volumes about them. What hit me when I saw it was that he’s trying to make this movie about a creature and a woman who fall in love and he wants the audience to root for that. How do you do that? First, you have to make the creature not look grotesque. He’s still a creature but Del Toro does things like this: he makes me see them having that embrace and it moves me and I close the door. Someone in the movie is saying it’s okay and that helps the audience believe. He does that all the time.

You’re not questioning it.

You buy it and you root for them.

You do. You start wanting them to be okay and to be together.

You absolutely buy it. He wasn’t sure it was going to work. He was worried. He thought they’d laugh us out of the theater when you get to that big moment.

But, by that point, you’re completely swept up in them.

You are. But you don’t know until an audience sees it. Venice was nerve-wracking. He was so relieved because it’s a very personal movie for him and it’s the way he looks at life. It’s a tale for troubled times.

What was your first day on set?

It was in the van trying to get past the guard.

You didn’t shoot chronologically.

No. We did that for a long time. I was so nervous and that was my first day. My first day with Sally was in order. She wakes up and brings me a sandwich and tap dances to work. We worked on the scene where she signs to me where she says, “He sees me for who I am.” We worked on that a lot because I wanted not to get ahead of her on the sign. It took forever to learn. It gave her a chance to practice her signing, but when we shot it, it was nothing like we had rehearsed, it was fantastic.

Did you have a table read?

He wanted to keep Michael Shannon away from us. I didn’t deal with him in the movie, but Guillermo wanted to keep him away from Sally. We read with Michael Stuhlbarg and Octavia. It was so important as an opportunity to know each other. We’re thrown together and we don’t know how the others work. I didn’t know Guillermo, but he uses the time so well because by the end we were friends.

You didn’t know any of them before.

I knew their work, but I’ve never worked with any of them. The older you get, I’ve worked with a lot of people, but for this, none of them.

You’ve got an extensive body of work. Which of your characters stick with you?

It’s interesting because there are some that have changed my career. I loved The Visitor and playing Walter because that was a lead role. I like Olive Kitteridge. I loved Norman, a small film I did. Six Feet Under changed how people looked at me. The Witches of Eastwick was my first studio movie. It was my first nice part, with Jack Nicholson and Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer.

I loved Clyde. It stands the test of time.

I agree. Jack was so great to me. It really stands to this day. I appreciated that Jack, the king of Hollywood saying, “You look good.”