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Golden Globe Nominee Credits IWU Mentors For Launching His Career

Courtesy of the Television Academy
IWU graduate Richard Jenkins accepts an Emmy Award in 2015 as outstanding lead actor in a limited series for his role as the long-suffering husband in the HBO drama "Olive Kitteridge."

One of the nominees at this Sunday's Golden Globe Awards traces the roots of his acting career to the student stage at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Richard Jenkins, who is nominated for a supporting actor award for his performance as a closeted gay man in the film "The Shape of Water," is a 1969 graduate of Illinois Wesleyan.

Jenkins met his wife, the choreographer Sharon Friedrick, at IWU and credits his drama mentors at the university with giving him the confidence to pursue a professional acting career.

"It gave me the belief that maybe I could do this," Jenkins said on GLT's Sound Ideas.

He said John Ficca, then the head of the IWU theater department, was especially encouraging.

"It was a perfect place for me,” Jenkins said of IWU. “I came in with no experience. I was 21 when I left. I wasn't very good, but a lot of that is because I was 21.”

At Illinois Wesleyan, Jenkins had roles in "A Flea in Her Ear," a French farce, and a one-act play called "Fragment."

“Fragment,” he recalled, "was my first or second real opportunity to do something really interesting" on stage.

“But they were all just fun,” he said of his IWU student productions. “My gosh, we had fun.”

Critics have called the 70-year-old performer “the quintessential character actor.” For much of his career, Jenkins played supporting roles, impressing critics and film-goers alike with his subtle, often-understated portrayals.

Unlike many popular Hollywood actors, he enjoyed breakout roles only late in his career. One came in 2007, when he portrayed a soft-spoken college professor in the film, “The Visitor.” He was nominated for a best actor Academy Award for that film.

In 2015, Jenkins won an Emmy Award for outstanding lead actor in a limited series, playing Frances McDormand’s long-suffering pharmacist husband in HBO's TV adaptation of the novel, “Olive Kitteridge.”

He is also familiar to TV audiences as the deceased patriarch in HBO’s critically-acclaimed series, “Six Feet Under.” He currently plays a retired CIA station chief in the Epix cable TV series, “Berlin Station.”

Jenkins said he doesn’t consciously think beforehand about the style of performance he wants to turn in.

“You just try to live your life on the screen. Sometimes it can get big and sometimes it isn’t. But it’s never a conscious choice to be loud or soft or big or bold," he said.

He doesn’t mind the “character actor” sobriquet.

“I play characters and I’m an actor,” he said, laughing.

Supporting actor was “always the career I expected to have. I knew I was never going to be Henry Fonda.”

Jenkins called his star turn in “The Visitor” a humbling experience.

“I remember thinking if this movie isn’t any good, it’s my fault. Then you understand why they pay Tom Hanks the money they pay him, or pay Meryl Streep, because the movie is on their backs and it’s daunting.”

The bald, craggy-faced actor, who looks more like somebody’s next door neighbor than a Hollywood leading man, says his looks have been in some ways an asset.

“Your next door neighbor may be a serial killer or may be something you don’t know. You are what you are. And it’s been an odd thing for me to look at my face in the mirror and say, you know, I think I’ll be in movies,” Jenkins said.

Credit Kerry Hayes / Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Richard Jenkins is nominated for several awards for his supporting role in the fantasy adventure film "The Shape of Water," directed by Guillermo del Toro.

The actor said he was attracted immediately to the role of Giles, the gay man in the film “The Shape of Water,” because the character is an outsider who grows and changes in the course of the film, discovering an inner strength he didn’t believe he possessed.

“That is more interesting to me than the hero who shows no fear. It’s more interesting when a character is frightened to do something and does it anyway,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins also has been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Critics Choice Award for his role in “The Shape of Water.” Those awards will be given out in January after the Golden Globes.

All three acting awards are often precursors to Academy Award nominations which come later in the year.

Though he studied theater acting at Illinois Wesleyan, Jenkins said he no longer acts on stage. However, he often directs stage productions at the Trinity Repertory Company near his home in Providence, Rhode Island.

He said he enjoys working on musicals with his choreographer wife.

“A couple of years ago we did ‘Oliver’ and last year we did ‘Oklahoma.’ I love musicals, but I can’t sing. I did a little dancing in school. But I love to take a classic musical and re-think it,” he said.

He said Rachael Warren, one of the Trinity Company’s cast members, and Amanda Dahnert, one of its guest directors, also graduated from Illinois Wesleyan. "The Wesleyan legacy continues," he said.

Jenkins said he doesn’t know what lies ahead for his career as he enters his seventies.

"For me, to end up with this kind of a part (in “The Shape of Water”) at this time in my life is a gift. But the truth is, I don’t know what is ahead. I have had an incredible career and been incredibly lucky.”

You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Jenkins:

GLT's full interview with Jenkins.

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