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MOVIES In good 'Shape': Richard Jenkins on his latest film
by Lawrence Ferber
2017-12-06

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Director Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water is a loving, emotional, witty and sometimes gory homage to old Hollywood creature features and romance with its 1962-set tale of a mute cleaning woman, Elisa ( Sally Hawkins ), who falls in love with a Creature from the Black Lagoon-like monster ( played by Doug Jones, Star Trek: Discovery's alien Science Officer Saru ).

One of the film's pivotal supporting characters is Giles, Elisa's closeted gay friend and neighbor, played by veteran character actor Richard Jenkins—who, along with her laboratory co-worker/friend Zelda ( Octavia Spencer ), helps Elisa smuggle out and hide the creature so it can't be killed by sociopathic suburban government lackey Richard Strickland ( Michael Shannon at his most villainous ).

Although Giles is the first explicitly LGBT character in one of del Toro's films, Jenkins, 70, perhaps best known as Six Feet Under's Nathaniel Fisher, played Josh Brolin's uptight boyfriend—and partner in law enforcement—in 1996's hysterical Flirting With Disaster. Jenkins' prolific career also saw him portray real-life AIDS specialist Dr. Marcus Conant in 1993's And the Band Played On, while other highlights include 2014 miniseries Olive Kitteridge and 2003's gay coming-of-age drama The Mudge Boy. By phone, the good-humored and humble Jenkins talked being gay in the 1960s, Giles and onscreen male romance

Windy City Times: Let's get something out of the way. In The Shape of Water, Giles wears a toupee and is ashamed of being bald, and in del Toro's FX series The Strain they made Corey Stoll wear a toupee. Does del Toro hate on bald people or what?

Richard Jenkins: He hates them. He told me that immediately. Actually, he made me wear a hat on the set. [Laughs] "I don't like to see that, put the hat on whenever you're talking to me."

WCT: I'm hoping del Toro's next film will have a bald and proud character. Did you keep Giles' toupee?

RJ: No. It looks like a bird's nest on my head. It was intentionally not a good toupee!

WCT: What do you feel Giles' being gay brings or adds to the film?

RJ: It's 1962. Elisa is mute, Giles is gay, Zelda is African-American; these are invisible people in 1962. This whole film, if you want to go back to that time, it was not so great unless you were a straight white man, and that's what Guillermo was saying. In fact, Michael Shannon's character doesn't suspect these people of taking this creature because he says when questioning them, "Why am I talking to shit-cleaners?" These were all invisible people.

WCT: Would Shannon's character get a job in the Trump administration today?

[Laughs] Secretary of Defense.

WCT: During one key scene, Giles flirts with a handsome young waiter in a diner. Was it a tough or fun scene to shoot?

RJ: It's one of the first things I shot, maybe on the second day I was there. It was 1962. It was a tough time to be gay. Yeah, it was a lot of fun [because] you don't want to be found out, how far can you go, but to give the guy a hint you were interested. Actually, [most interesting part was] to pretend like I wanted to eat those pies. It was like eating your foot.

WCT: I understand that a gay man you knew, Howard London, was one of the people you thought of when playing Giles. Tell me about him.

RJ: He was an actor, and always concerned with other people. He wasn't afraid to be gay at a time it was a little scarier, and I always think of his generosity and thoughtfulness and fact he was an amazing beautiful man. He never forgot our children's birthdays or important days.

He was a selfless man who lived alone. He had lots of friends, and nurtured them. That's how I felt my relationship was with Sally in the beginning. And he loved movie musicals. When he died [in the early 2000s], his ex-partner called us up and said Howard wanted you to have his record collection, which was from the 1930s-60s. A lot of showtunes and movie musicals. My wife and I went out and bought a turntable and we play Howard's music every night. Incredible gifts.

WCT: Did you and Josh Brolin stay in touch after Flirting With Disaster?

RJ: Yes. He'll give a call sometimes, or I'll call him. Last time I ran into Josh was at the Berlin Film Festival two years ago. He was there with a Coen brothers movie. I adore Josh, a wonderful guy.

WCT: Do you think your characters would still be together? I'd love a follow-up.

RJ: Yeah, I do. I just don't know. … Did Josh's character become less like he was, or did mine become less like I was? So less conflict between them!

WCT: How was shooting with Doug Jones on "Water?" He's been in a lot of del Toro's films and always under a ton of special-effects makeup.

RJ: I was brutal with him. I'd say, "Doug, how hard can it be to sit in that suit for 12 hours?" He's basically entombed, buried alive in that thing—holes just for his eyes and his mouth, and sometimes they put the eye things in when they shoot, so he can't even see. He has such a good spirit about him. He keeps going. I asked him, how long does it take in makeup? He said it only takes three hours. Only?? Are you kidding me?

WCT: Have you been offered a job where you'd have to wear a lot of prosthetics?

RJ: I have turned them down. The question is "How long in the makeup chair? Oh, about three hours." I don't think I'm available.

WCT: Is there any big movie franchise you'd love to be a part of?

RJ: No. I don't think that way. I learned my lesson when I wanted so badly to be in the Coen brothers' movie Fargo. I read for it three times—the William H. Macy part. I was really upset I didn't get the part, and then I saw Macy in it and went, "Oh, OK, I get it now." I wouldn't have cast me, either. You learn fast that there's always a reason you're not in one thing or the other.

WCT: That said, let's play casting agent and you get to choose who plays your man crush in a gay love story. Who would you cast?

RJ: I have no idea. You cast it and I'll be in it.

WCT: Armie Hammer? He's playing gay a lot lately.

RJ: Armie Hammer wouldn't go for me! He can do better than that!

WCT: Patrick Stewart?

RJ: Him, too! Isn't he, like, a sir? And me?

WCT: Gary Oldman?

RJ: They want somebody younger. Not me! It wouldn't work. I can see problems already that you don't see!

WCT: OK—so they're out of your league. We'll have to go back to Josh Brolin then.

RJ: Yeah.

The Shape of Water is slated to show at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St., starting Thursday, Dec. 7.


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