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Interview: Richard Jenkins Talks About His Role in Liberal Arts

As people grow older and start reflecting on their school experiences and career, they often feel a sense of nostalgia for their youth and the carefree days they once had. They initially have conflicting feelings over wanting to relive what they have always perceived to be the best times of their lives and anticipating the next phase in their lives, such as retirement. But they come to realize they have to move forward in their lives, and the things they did when they were younger weren’t always the best option. This is certainly the case with the character of English professor Peter Hoburg, played by Richard Jenkins, in the new comedy drama ‘Liberal Arts,’ which was written and directed by Josh Radnor.

‘Liberal Arts,’ which will be released theatrically and on VOD tomorrow, follows newly single Jesse Fisher (played by Radnor), a university admission counselor in his mid-thirties living in New York City. He returns to his Ohio alma mater for a retirement dinner for Peter. While back on campus, Jesse has a chance meeting with 19-year-old Zibby (played by Elizabeth Olsen), a precocious undergrad who loves classical music, improv and the ‘Twilight’ books.

Meeting Zibby awakens long-dormant feelings of possibility and connection in Jesse, as the duo strikes up a long-distance romance. Although Zibby is mature behind her years, the large age difference between the two heavily weighs on Jesse’s conscience. As he debates starting a relationship with Libby, Jesse becomes torn between moving forward in life and holding on to the memories of his own unforgettable undergraduate career. His life is also put into prospective after he meets upbeat party animal Nat (portrayed by Zac Efron); depressed student Dean (played by John Magaro) and his former, feisty Romantics professor, Judith Fairfield (portrayed by Allison Janney).

Jenkins generously took the time to sit down and discuss what it was like filming ‘Liberal Arts’ during a recent roundtable interview at New York City’s Crosby Hotel. Among other things, Jenkins discussed what it was like working with Radnor in the directorial, writing and acting senses; how his experiences acting and directing in the theater during the beginning of his career have shaped his film work today; and what he learns, and how he benefits, from reading the reviews of his movies.

Question (Q): Had you meet Josh Radnor while you were filming ‘Six Feet Under?’ He did a guest starring role on the show, which you had a recurring role on.

Richard Jenkins (RJ): No, we hadn’t met on the show. We have the same agent, and I did a half-day for (Radnor’s feature film directorial and writing debut) ‘Happythankyoumoreplease,’ and met him then. Then I met him at a couple film festivals, and we talked a few times. I’ve always liked him, he’s smart and funny.

Q: Josh wrote this role for you, right?

RJ: Yes. I can’t say no, right? (laughs)

Q: Did you identity with the character?

RJ: I did, I did. I identified with the whole film, because I went to a small, private school in the Midwest, in Illinois, and loved every minute of it. I love going back. Every time I do go back, I think, why can’t I just be in college again? I understand wanting to be 19 all the time. Isn’t it true?

Q: How old do you feel?

RJ: About 16. (laughs) It varies on the day.

I love going back, I just went back to my high school’s 45th reunion. Somebody said, I don’t like going back. But I haven’t seen some of these guys for 45 years, and it was fantastic.

My wife and I both went to the same college, so we try to go back as much as we can. It was a great time.

Q: Are you a lover of great books, as well?

RJ: Yeah, but I’m not an intellectual by any means. Believe me, I’ve read all Shakespeare because I’m an actor. But I wonder if I would have if I wasn’t an actor. I read what people say you should read.

Q: Reading literature or listening to music can be liberation of your mind. Do you think that’s true for acting, too?

RJ: It’s interesting. For somebody like me, it’s a way to learn things. It’s to be exposed to different things, people, cultures, worlds and ideas. I’m a little lazy, so I’m kind of forced into these things.

I’ve worked in a lot of different countries. I’ve worked in India, and did a play in India. I toured India in 1980 for five weeks with the play ‘Of Mice and Men.’

Q: Who’d you play?

RJ: George. I wouldn’t have gone to India otherwise. We did a week in every major city. It was amazing. Then I went back and did ‘Eat Pray Love’ there for a month. So it’s a great profession for someone like me, who’s curious, but a little lazy. (laughs)

Q: Can you talk about your upcoming projects?

RJ: Let’s see, the ones I’ve already done that are about to be released are ‘Killing Them Softly’ with Brad Pitt. It was fun. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard some good things. It’s a great script. (Writer-helmer) Andrew Dominik was a terrific director.

I’m in ‘Jack Reacher,’ the Tom Cruise movie. I still have seen it yet, but (writer-helmer) Christopher McQuarrie is a terrific director.

The thing is, I don’t have bad things to say about anybody. It’s not because I know better, which I do, but it’s because I love doing this. I would say 99.9 percent of the people I work with are really interesting and fun.

Q: Your character in ‘Liberal Arts’ seems to make a mistake in quitting his job.

RJ: Absolutely.

Q: What do you think happens to him?

JR: Josh said on the DVD, there will be some additional things he shot, that I said at the time, this wraps it up too much. That’s the question you want, because he doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him. But he does know he’s got to move on, after humiliating himself in two situations.

The thing I liked about the character was he really thought he wanted to get out. I think we’ve all had those times that we just get, for some reason, we think we don’t want to do this anymore. When push comes to shove, he just panicked.

Q: The good-bye speech was really something.

JR: Yeah, at the dinner, how humiliating. (laughs)

Q: Josh has said you were tough and intimidating on the set, but also vulnerable. The vulnerable part’s understandable, because you’re an actor, but what about the tough and intimidating?

JR: Maybe he meant the character.

Q: Maybe for a young director…

JR: I wasn’t tough and intimidating, I’m going to kick his ass when I see him. (laughs) Maybe it’s something he brought to it. He is a young director.

He did say to me, because I do have a rough exterior sometimes. I complained about something once, and he said, I have you figured out. (laughs) I said, you know me, and he said, you’re right.

Q: He also said you did some improv.

JR: He’s smart. You find this with a lot of young directors. You think, I wonder if they’ll know how to do this, and they’re so far ahead of you. Josh said, I don’t think I’ll need this, but I just want to shoot this, because I won’t know until I’m in the editing room.

If it had been me, I would have said, we don’t need it. But the smart way to go is to shoot it, and if you don’t need it, you don’t need it.

Q: Do you read reviews of yourself?

JR: I do. I try not to, and I’ve always said no, but I always end up doing it. I do read them because we don’t do this in a vacuum. I don’t do it for myself. I do it to try to connect with somebody watching. That’s why I do it, it’s my art. I can’t write, I can’t paint; this is what I do.

I think we all have things that are human, that we all understand about each other. There’s a universal language to try to connect with somebody watching, to make them understand something about themselves and the world.

So I read reviews, and it hurts when somebody doesn’t like it. They’re basically saying, we don’t like you. Sometimes they’ll say, the character did this, but as an actor, you say, that was me. I’m 65-years-old, and it still bothers me.

I was talking about it with my daughter and son-in-law and wife at dinner, and I said, I’m 65, and it still makes me crazy. I still worry about it. I don’t think it will ever change, because in my head, I’m 19.

Q: Do you ever learn anything from the reviews, and think, this writer’s right?

RJ: Well, you think all the bad reviews are right, and none of the good reviews are right. I think Laurence Olivier said they can never say anything good enough about you. If they say one bad thing about you, that’s all you’ll remember.

You’re not really objective about it. I find the older I get, the easier it is to read reviews. I don’t take it as personally as I used too. I have a friend who’s a critic, who said sometimes you discover more about the person writing the review than the movie.

But I’ve read reviews where I felt they were right, and I felt the same things when I was making the movie. Then there are times when I say, that’s not right.

Q: Would you rather people be nice or honest?

RJ: I’d rather they be nice. (laughs) The truth is, I do know. I had an acting coach who I asked once, how was that? He said, don’t you know? You better know, because it’s your butt up there. You better know if you like it or don’t like it. If you don’t, you better ask to do it again. (laughs)

But you have a job to do. When you do something, you either respond to it or you don’t. I never understood when people come backstage at a play and said, I really didn’t like that. Then it’s like, why did you come backstage? (laughs) When I go back, I’ll lie, because I know how hurtful it is. You just come off stage for two hours, and that’s f*cked up. (laughs) It may be true.

Q: If you can give advice to your 19-year-old self, what would it be?

RJ: I was terrified of this world, because it’s so intimidating. But one thing I did learn is there’s room for everybody. If you’re meant to do it, you’ll find a way. If you’re not, you’ll do something else.

I have friends who were actors who were quite good. But in the middle of it all, they said it’s not for me. I’m going to do something else. Now they’re very successful and very happy.

But if it’s meant to be, you’ll find a way. I do believe that. If I can do it, anybody can. You also have to be lucky.

Q: You’ve been in several great films this year, including this one and ‘The Cabin in the Woods.’ What goes into picking a role for you?

RJ: My agent called me with ‘The Cabin in the Woods,’ and said here’s this horror film. I said I don’t know, I don’t want to do that. But I had done ‘Let Me In,’ which is another one I said I didn’t want to do. But I read it and met the director.

But my agent said I should read ‘The Cabin in the Woods,’ and in a day I read it. I loved the part and the whole idea of it. I ended up working with (writer) Joss (Whedon), who I had heard of, but didn’t know anything about. It was a whole world I wasn’t familiar with. But (director) Drew Goddard is so talented.

That’s the great thing about doing these films, I’m always the oldest one. Same with Josh, he’s a smart guy, well-read and a terrific actor. There’s so many of these guys out there that you work with, it’s fun, and it keeps me young. It’s great.

Q: When you first read ‘Liberal Arts,’ how quickly did you know you wanted to be a part of it? Was it just as fast?

RJ: I don’t know. If I recall, with the first draft, I said, I don’t know, Josh. He said, let me work it. I said, don’t do this to get me to do this, because you’ll make a mistake if you do. He said, no, no, no, I’m not happy with it. Then he came back with the second draft, and I said okay. He’s a smart guy.

Q: How long was it between when Josh gave you the first draft, and when he came to you with the second draft?

RJ: Not too long, not even a month. I think it was a work in progress the whole time.

When I saw the movie, I was surprised. I saw things I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect how smart and clever it was. But he had the movie in his head. He just didn’t let me in. (laughs) I was too cranky, is that what he said? (laughs)

Q: You’re constantly working in films, and you were nominated for an Academy Award (for Best Actor for the role of Professor Walter Vale in 2008’s ‘The Visitor’). How do you see your position in films right now?

RJ: I’m a character actor, that’s what I always was, before and after ‘The Visitor.’ That’s what I am, but I’ve had the opportunity to do some really fascinating roles since ‘The Visitor,’ thanks to the film and (director) Tom McCarthy. This time in my life, to have these opportunities, is just amazing to me.

Q: Has there been any downside to fame?

RJ: I’m not that famous. There hasn’t been any downsides, people are so nice. I was walking down the street the other day, and someone asked if I was going to their class reunion. I said, I don’t think so, am I invited? (laughs)

She said, didn’t you go to Prospect East? I said no, and she said, yes you did! We had class together! I said, no, that wasn’t me. She said, of course it was! (laughs)

She said, how do I know you, and I said, you don’t know me. She said, yes I do, and I said, I’ve been in films. She didn’t believe me. (laughs) It turned out to be a 20-minute conversation on the street. She asked, what did you do? What have you been in? I’d name a movie, and she’d go, no, I didn’t see that. I didn’t see that one either. I saw that, but you weren’t in that.

The answer’s no, there aren’t downsides for me. I’m not that famous.

Q: As a character actor, are there any particular types of films you’re waiting to get scripts for, or any directors you’re waiting to work with?

RJ: Growing up, there were always these guys, like the Spielbergs, I remember seeing their films. I was an adult at the time ‘Jaws’ was released, and I would love to be a part of something that much fun.

I did a movie called ‘A.C.O.D.,’ which is short for Adult Children of Divorce, it’s incredibly funny. It’s with Adam Scott, a terrific young actor, who I did ‘Step Brothers’ with. I played his dad, and Catherine O’Hara plays my wife. I got to work with these wonderful actors.

Then I did a movie called ‘Lullaby.’ It’s with Garrett Hedlund, and I played his dad, who has cancer, and has done years and years of treatment. He decided he was going to pull the plug, he didn’t want to do it anymore. It’s 48 hours in this world, and it’s amazing.

I don’t know how these movies are going to turn out, but to be able to do them is great. Then I played a broken down, alcoholic track coach, who trains this kid who wants to get out of his world, and get a track scholarship to Oregon.

It’s fantastic. I never thought I’d be able to do that. I pinch myself, I’m grateful.

Q: What advice would you give to young actors?

RJ: I don’t know, but I think Lizzy Olsen’s doing it right. She’s only interested in projects that interest her. She’s not interested in becoming famous or a star, just in doing good work and getting better, and working with great people. That’s the way you do it.

Q: Did you have favorite actors growing up?

RJ: Oh yea, (Marlon) Brando was a great guy. When I saw Michael Caine in the original ‘Alfie,’ I was in college at the time. I was an actor, but didn’t know if I wanted to do this, or if I had any talent. Then I went by myself to see ‘Alfie,’ and this guy comes on screen. I thought, how can you possibly be a part of something like this? This is what I want to do.

I’ve never met him. I don’t know if I could meet him. I went back and watched it again the other day, and it’s still as good as I remember it. He was a big influence.

I also like Spencer Tracy. But I didn’t appreciate him until I was a little older, and started watching all his stuff. He was so far ahead of his time.

Q: What do you think of social media, like Facebook and Twitter? Are you on there?

RJ: No, I’m not. But somebody, who first language isn’t English, put me on Facebook. (laughs) He wrote as me, and said “I would like thank people for all nice things saying about me.” (laughs)

My wife is on Facebook, but I’m not. But I’m on the computer, and I have my iPad and iPhone. It moves so fast, you know? With Twitter, I thought, who wants to do that? But everyone’s on there, but I don’t do it. If my father could have seen this.

Q: What did your parents think of you being an actor? Were they encouraging?

RJ: Yeah. But I came to find out wen I was nominated, they did an article in my hometown paper in Illinois. I had a teacher in 9th grade that I did a play with, the only play I really ever did before I went to college.

I told her I wanted to be an actor, and I came home and told my dad I wanted to be an actor. He didn’t say anything to me, but my mother called this teacher and said, his father’s freaking out. He wants him to be a dentist. My father was a dentist, but he didn’t realize that I would have to go to dental school, and I couldn’t do that.

So the teacher called my dad, and she said, leave him alone. Let him do it, he can do this. He said, he’s in 9th grade, but she said, he can do this.

But then I did other things in high school. I tried to be a stand-up comedian, but the first thing is you have to be funny. I wasn’t. But my parents both supported me.

Then later on, I got married and we had a daughter, but we didn’t have any money. My parents didn’t say anything, and were supportive. I wish they were alive long enough to see the nomination.

But they saw me on screen. I was in a Woody Allen movie, ‘Hannah and her Sisters.’ I was in a scene, and my father bent down to get his popcorn. He said, I heard your voice, but when I looked up, you were gone. (laughs) So we had to stay through the whole movie and see it again. (laughs)

Q: Have you ever thought about teaching theater?

RJ: You know, I did theater in Rhode Island, that’s what brought me to Rhode Island in 1970. I was an actor with the Trinity Repertory Company for 15 years. There’s a conservatory with the theater now, at Brown University.

Before it was with the conservatory, I did go in and teach a few times. Not as a regular teacher, but to go in and work with young people. It’s fun and interesting. I like it, and I like people in the theater. I like their vibe and energy. Now, I go up to speak to them every two or three years. I talk for a couple hours about the real world. They’re all terrified.

I tell them, it’s so exciting what’s coming up for you. I wouldn’t do it again for a million dollars, but it’s amazing. You only want to do it once. I like the young crowd. I’m the oldest person in every movie I do now. Except for Robert Duvall in the ‘Jack Reacher’ movie, he’s older.

Q: Do you have any interest in directing a film?

RJ: I directed in the theater, but my brain doesn’t work like Josh’s. You have to be born to be a director.

Q: Are you planning on writing a memoir?

RJ: I can’t write. But I took a trip with my wife after I filmed a movie in Seattle. We took a train in Canada through the Rockies, to Calgary. It was this tour, and it was beautiful, but we never saw an animal.

Then there was a poetry contest on the train, which I won. All these people wrote, but here’s what I wrote:

I love the wilds of Canada
The mountains, trees and streams
But I’ve yet to see an animal, except on my plate with greens

(laughs) That’s my poem, and I won. But I can’t write.

Q: Are there any directors you would like to work with? You mentioned Spielberg earlier.

RJ: I don’t have any great desires. I’ll take it as it comes. But there are lots of great and amazing directors who do incredible things.

But I guess I wouldn’t want to work with anyone who wouldn’t want to work with me. I think it’s a two-way street. If one of the great directors came along and said I want you, I’d do it. Like if Martin Scorsese said, I wrote this for you, absolutely. But I don’t just want to be in a movie with someone, because it’s not the same.

Q: Do you have a preference of theater over film?

RJ: I like film. Once I started doing film, I never thought about going back to the theater. I love going to the theater.

Q: Would you go back to the theater?

RJ: I doubt it. I don’t know if I could, it’s been years. You have to keep doing it. There’s a physical aspect to the theater, doing two hours a night, eight shows a week. I did it for years, and it’s not that easy.

I remember people would ask, how do you remember all the lines for the theater? I said, shut up, you just do. But now, I say, how do you remember? (laughs)

Q: Michael Caine has said, acting is behavior. Do you agree?

RJ: Sure. To me, it’s letting everything go. It’s the easiest thing, and the most difficult thing, in the world. When you’re doing it right, it’s absolutely effortless. But it’s tough letting everything go and be naked, emotionally.

I think Meryl Streep said, it doesn’t get easier, it gets tougher. You know what it takes to be good. It can be terrifying at times.

Q: Have you ever had a tough time letting go of a character?

RJ: No, you’re doing it wrong if you can’t let go. Even playing these evil people is great.

Q: Is there a certain type of people you gravitate towards now?

RJ: I find that I like playing older people now. (laughs) I do it better.

Written by: Karen Benardello

Interview: Richard Jenkins Talks About His Role in Liberal Arts

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As a life-long fan of entertainment, particularly films, television and music, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic. While still attending college, Karen began writing for Shockya during the summer of 2007, when she began writing horror movie reviews. Since she began writing for Shockya, Karen has been promoted to the position of Senior Movies & Television Editor. Some of her duties in the position include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, producing posts on celebrity news and contributing reviews on albums and concerts. Some of her highlights include attending such festivals and conventions as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, SXSW, Toronto After Dark, the Boston Film Festival and New York Comic-Con.

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