Nominated for an Oscar for his role in 2007’s The Visitor, character actor Richard Jenkins is back in the awards spotlight with a lead actor in a limited series/movie Emmy nomination for the role of Henry Kitteridge in HBO’s Olive Kitteridge, directed by Lisa Cholodenko. The series marks Jenkins’ fourth collaboration with Frances McDormand following The Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading. It was because of their past working relationship that McDormand—who optioned Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book to play the title character and is a producer on the adaptation—brought Jenkins in for the role of Olive’s loving husband of almost three decades.
What initially attracted you to this project? Were your familiar with Elizabeth Strout’s collection of short stories on which it’s based?
I was aware of them. My wife actually read the book first and I was in the process of reading it when Fran McDormand sent me an email and said, “I want you to play Henry.” But I hadn’t finished it. In fact, I put the book down and waited until I finished the script and then went back and finished the book. Jane Anderson’ script is amazing. It was just incredible. It was not a hard decision.
Was filming Olive Kitteridge like working on two consecutive movies, as it was shown on HBO?
It was like a four-hour movie. And we shot out of sequence so I think I had like, I don’t know, six different hairpieces, with about three hairs in each one of them. (Laughs.) But, you know, we rehearsed—it was Fran’s idea, and it really paid off—for probably three weeks. We sat around and read, and just talked, and read and read, and it really got us familiar with where we were in the script. So you could jump out of sequence and kind of never lose your bearings.
You’ve collaborated with Frances McDormand before?
I had done—I want to say—four movies with her. We never had a relationship like this in any of them, but Burn After Reading was the last film I did with her. I was pining over her for that whole movie. And the first was North Country, where we got to know each other. I’m just thankful she thought of me.
What was it like shooting a series that takes place over multiple decades?
Because the writing’s so good it was fairly easy—easy in the sense that I never felt like I was putting a square peg in a round hole. Things seemed to fall into place. And I think rehearsal really helped, and not only rehearsal, but we also did makeup tests. So by the time we were ready to go everybody was on the same page with what you look like at a certain age. There weren’t any surprises. It was a long process.
Do Olive and Henry remind you of people you know?
Yeah, they did. My character reminded me of my mom, who is a Midwesterner, from Illinois. I didn’t even think about it until I started to play (Henry), and I just kept thinking about my mom, and about how she dealt with things, and how the glass was always half-full with her. So that was the person who kept coming back to me as I was playing this part.
What was the dynamic between you and Zoe Kazan like on set? There’s a real tension there between fatherly and romantic sentiments.
Yeah, I was worried! When they were casting, the one part I worried about was the part of Denise because it’s a tough one to play. And Zoe came in to read during the rehearsals and it was just—I went, “OK, this is fantastic.” I had an old-man crush on her. (Laughs.) She made it a lot easier for me. And I’m so glad she’s nominated for an Emmy. To do it without commenting on it, to just live that part, that’s what she did, and that’s just really amazing.
What was Lisa Cholodenko’s direction in filming your scenes together?
She just watched what was happening and kind of picked her favorite things. It was one of those things where it seemed to fall into place pretty naturally, and I think it’s because of the script and the actors we had. Lisa really watches what actors do, and if you bring something that wasn’t there before, if something happens, she notices. She’s on it. You know what I mean? She’s looking for what you bring.
Is it difficult to be playing a character like Henry who’s at the end of his life, facing his own mortality? There are a number of scenes that are intensely emotional.
Well, since I’m getting there myself it does cut a little close to home. (Laughs.) My father had a stroke, my mother had a stroke, so yeah. And I look like my father, the older I get. And to see me in that wheelchair—I looked like my dad after he had a stroke. Yeah… A lot of fun. (Laughs.)
Do you view Henry as a tragic character?
No, no—I mean, I think that’s for the viewer (to decide). I don’t. I view him as a man who had a good life. He has regrets and he’s made mistakes, but I thought of it as a successful life. I mean, maybe it’s because I’m playing him—that’s probably why—looking at him, you might feel like he had a tragic life, but I never felt that. I felt loved. I felt needed. And, geez, that kind of takes care of a lot of it.
Can you talk about some of your upcoming projects—LBJ, Bone Tomahawk, The Hollars?
I don’t know when Bone Tomahawk is coming out, I think in the fall. It’s a Western I did with Kurt Russell and Matthew Fox, directed by S. Craig Zahler. I really loved it. I think it’s pretty good. The Hollars—which is probably not going to be called The Hollars—was just a ball. John Krasinski directed it. I got to work with Margo Martindale, who I’ve always wanted to work with. I haven’t started LBJ yet—I start that in the fall. And then I’m going to do a series in Berlin called Berlin Station. I start that in late fall.
To watch a scene from Olive Kitteridge of Jenkins and McDormand, click play below: