It’s About Empathy
Actor Richard Jenkins On the Complex Romantic Mystery of The Shape of Water
Set in the early days of the 1960s when the Cold War was heating up and social issues were forcing people across the U.S. to take a long look in the mirror no matter how uncomfortable it might be, director Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fairy tale The Shape of Water is a profound, mesmerizing marvel overflowing in insight and emotion. The story of mute cleaning lady Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who lives above an old movie theatre next door to closeted gay artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) and works at a top secret research facility alongside good friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), the film is an atmospheric, ethereally entrancing love story that continually subverts expectation.
Why is that? A new specimen has been delivered to the facility Elisa and Zelda work in, a mysterious creature that’s nothing short of an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones), a creature of the sea who walks upon two legs discovered by scientists in the furthest reaches of the unknown. Mistreated by his captors, most notably military liaison Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), Elisa finds a way to make friends with the creature. More than that, she goes so far as to conspire with Zelda and Giles to break him out of the facility and return him to his ocean home, the two falling in love in the process.
There’s a heck of a lot more that happens here, del Toro’s surreal dreamscape weaving in themes concerning sex, gender and identity (just to name three), all of which feel particularly potent and relevant at this time. Jenkins, an Oscar-nominee a decade ago for 2007’s immigration drama The Visitor, ends up playing one of the film’s more complex and intriguing characters, and much like everything else inside this mystifying marvel of a drama, Giles is far more interesting and complex than he initially appears to be.
I had the opportunity to speak with the actor over the phone for a few minutes before The Shape of Water’s Seattle release. Our conversation touched on everything from Jenkins’s initial thoughts when he read the script, to seeing Doug Jones in full costume for the first time, to crafting a realistic friendship with costar Sally Hawkins, to the number of hot-button issues del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor’s scenario so subtly touches on. Here are some of the highlights from our chat:
Sara Michelle Fetters: What went through your head when you first got this script from Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor? Did you know immediately you needed to be a part of this film?
Richard Jenkins: I did. I did. That happens when you read something and you connect with it. When you say “I think I could bring something to this. I think I understand this guy. I don’t quite know exactly what I’d do, but I’d like a shot at it.” And sometimes you read scripts where you go, “I see somebody else playing this. Somebody else could do a better job.”
But [Giles] was one of those parts where I connected with it in the reading of the script. I know I repeat myself in some interviews, but I do, I love my characters immediately. And so the rest of the movie, every time I would turn the page I would say, please don’t die, please don’t die. And he didn’t! In fact, Guillermo sent me an email and said, “I want you to play Giles. I hope you love him as much as I do.” I wrote him back the next day and said “I think I do,” and that was it. I was going to be Giles.
Sara Michelle Fetters: How long did it take you to find Giles? Was it one of those things where you just knew right away who he was or did it take you a minute to sort of mix around with Guillermo and with your costar Sally Hawkins in order to figure that out?
Richard Jenkins: It took me awhile. It always does, because unless somebody’s in the room with you that you’re in a scene with, you don’t really know where it’s going to go. When you hear your voice for the first time saying the lines to somebody else it’s always a little strange. It’s nice to have rehearsal if you use it properly. In films, sometimes it’s really unproductive. But here, we [Sally and I] used the time just to kind of get to know each other because we are friends in the movie. We worked a lot on the sign language. I wanted to not get ahead or behind of her in sign language. I wanted to know exactly what she was saying as I repeated it. In fact, in the film, I think I did say something a little different and she goes back and says, “No, no.” Those kind of moments came out of our getting to know one another as friends and I think it shows in the film.
But you don’t really know what’s going to happen until you film it. It doesn’t mean you don’t have an idea who you are. You do, but until you film it, that’s when it really reveals itself of who this guy is. We rehearsed that scene I mentioned for two weeks, on and off, and when we filmed it, it was totally different.
Sara Michelle Fetters: It’s amazing to me watching this movie how profound the relationship between Giles and Elisa ends up being, and it happens so quickly. Was it hard for the two of you to create that chemistry, especially, like you said, most of the conversations between your two characters happens via sign language, with body language, with your eyes and with your mutual physicality. It’s extraordinary.
Richard Jenkins: Thank you. Sally’s amazing. As Guillermo has said, I, too, couldn’t have done this movie without her. When you’re her friend, you’re her friend. I actually said to her one day, I said, I’m your friend now. There’s nothing you can do about it. And you really do know you’re her friend, and you really feel at home in the room with her when the camera’s rolling.
And Giles actually kind of takes advantage of Elise. He likes her, and they’re friends, but he has his own life that he’s worried about. He has the guy at the pie shop that he’s obsessed with and he’s also trying to get his job back. These are big moments in his life. But until it’s all stripped away from him, not until reality sets in, does Giles realize that it’s her. Elise is the one that really loves him. It was cool. A lot of times supporting roles are not written with that kind of complexity and arch.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I’m glad you bring that up because there’s so much to Giles’s backstory that isn’t exactly spelled out for the viewer. We have to put those pieces together for ourselves. But because of the nature of that relationship between Giles and Elise, and along with some of the other snippets that we are gifted and given the opportunity to see, I do think we can put those pieces together.
Richard Jenkins: Yes. Definitely. At least, that’s what I hope.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Were those things that you and Guillermo worked with together to sort of figure out what was it exactly that led Giles to this point in his life? How he and Elisa became such good friends? Because I think we just end up taking it for granted, but it’s because it all feels like it’s there, even though, in all actuality, we’re assembling that part of the story for ourselves.
Richard Jenkins: If it’s not on the page, it won’t be in the movie. And if it’s not in the movie, it doesn’t matter. That’s my feeling.
But Giles did learn sign language! How Giles learned it, for me, is not as important as the fact that he did. I think it’s because we’ve [Giles and Elisa] been friends for a long time, I think that’s what it says. They’ve been living in these two apartments for a very long time and she’s not unhappy, she’s not really unfulfilled, she likes her work, she loves her shoes and she loves old movies. I feel like I was the mentor who turned her onto musicals and, as I was teaching her, we just learned how to communicate.
But I also took her for granted. I was just talking to somebody just now about this, and with their relationship, Giles and Elisa, it should be like you’re window peeping. You’re looking in on these lives of these two people and you don’t really get answers because they’re not there to tell you the answers; they’re just living their life. You [the audience] make up the world, the past that you think is there, and that’s as valid as the one that I would make up.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Talk to me about the first time you got to see Doug Jones in all his glory walk onto the set.
Richard Jenkins: I saw [Doug] at the camera test. I happened to be right before him.
They do camera tests before the shooting of the scene, with the light and the makeup, the costume; they need to see how it looks under the light. Guillermo also wants to get an idea of how we all fit together. That kind of thing. And he was right after me, walking onto set after his three hours of makeup. It was just like, wow. Doug are you in there? Just amazing. I was astonished.
And then I made fun of him for the rest of the shoot. [laughs]
Sara Michelle Fetters: I love the way you both manage to connect on-screen. You have a couple really terrific scenes with Doug, and he’s under all of this latex and makeup; all of this stuff. And yet, the two of you together are able to form this phenomenal connection that is both dramatic and funny. How do you do that?
Richard Jenkins: Well, the first thing I shot with him was in the bathtub where I’m drawing him and I say, “Have you been alone all your life?” We were sitting there waiting to shoot the first take, and Doug was sitting in the bathtub kind of lounging, and I thought this looks like a guy in a fish suit sitting in a bathtub. I thought, this movie is in trouble; we don’t have a chance!
And then they said action and he changed. Doug changed completely. I went, yes! Okay. Okay. Now we got something. It was cool. It was really, really cool.
Guillermo worked really closely with Doug. They’ve been doing this together for a long, long time, and he wanted the physicality to be something specific from Doug. But it’s so funny to hear Doug in there, in this creature. All of a sudden you hear Doug say, “Is my left arm okay Guillermo?” It’s just hilarious. The night when it rained, the final scene in the rain, poor Doug, the rain was going in his suit and down his back. And poor Sally. She’s got her head facing the sky with her mouth open, rain pouring in. It was brutal.
I mean, Doug sat in that suit for so long. Something like ten, sometimes even 12 hours per day.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Holy cow.
Richard Jenkins: Exactly. He was basically entombed. I mean, you’re in a rubber casket and the only thing that’s showing is your eyes and your mouth. But he’s amazing. Doug’s great at this. It’s easy for him to do and it’s great to not have a CGI creature, to have this real person there.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Yeah, you’ve had experience with both. You’ve had to work with CGI creations and now you get this physical presence of having him there.
Richard Jenkins: I loved this. This whole movie felt like what it might have felt like to make a movie in the ‘40’s. I don’t know; I’m old, but I’m not that old. [laughs] But I felt it when I walked onto the set the first day; that this looked like a Hollywood sound stage in the ‘40’s. The way the sets were designed, everything was authentic and nothing was real. The paint was peeling and under the red paint was another color, and another color under that, almost like the gills of a fish. And Sally’s set was so different. Mine was kind of warm with browns and hers was in greens and blues with the light from underneath from the theater through her floorboards. Not real, just not real, it was a set, but so beautifully conceived that it just was…gorgeous. I thought maybe Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn were going to walk around the corner at any moment.
Sara Michelle Fetters: That’s fantastic. I can only imagine how they must have felt. Amazing. Not to change gears on you, however, and I know you can’t ever really plan these things, but in a way, this movie could not be coming out at a better time.
Richard Jenkins: Right. I 100% agree.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You look at the themes of this film and how it talks about sexuality, gender, race, office politics and gender dynamics, it is far more profound and a lot smarter than I think people might initially assume it is going to be. It’s incredibly timely. What does that mean to you as an actor when you get something that sort of hits the social zeitgeist like that? That talks about things that we are dealing with in society right now?
Richard Jenkins: When I did The Visitor I almost felt that was before its time. But now, it just seems like, yep, okay, this is what’s happening. The Visitor couldn’t suddenly be more relevant. But Guillermo wrote this movie for today. It’s an adult fairytale and it’s a cautionary tale, and he put it in 1962 for that reason, because if you were a white straight man, 1962 was a great time to be alive. I was in high school then; it was fantastic. I had a wonderful time. But if you were anybody else? It wasn’t so good. That’s why he put it in this time. These were the invisible people, Giles and Elisa. Guillermo wrote it for today. Love is love. Don’t judge. The fact that people are seeing that, like you are, is really great.
Sara Michelle Fetters: For you as an actor, I was watching Silverado of all things again the other day, and I totally forgot that you’re in that. And that movie was 30 years ago. Do you ever look back on your career and just go, wow, I’ve really been in some amazing films and I’ve worked with some incredible directors? Does it ever just hit you all that you’ve done?
Richard Jenkins: Yes, it does. And it’s one of the nice things about being old. There’s not a lot of them, but one of them is that you look on your life and get to really see what you’ve accomplished. At the time, you don’t think that way. But when you look back on your life and you think, oh my God, this was really interesting.
I was complaining one day about something, this was maybe five or six years ago, my wife said, “If I had told you when we were 21 that this is where you would be when you were 60, you would have kissed the ground.” And she’s absolutely right. It’s just like you just never think that you will have a life in this profession as fabulous as I’ve had. And luck has a lot to do with it, it certainly does. I know people who don’t believe that but it does. It absolutely has a lot to do with it.
But I do look back on things. I also work with young actors. I’m always the oldest actor on a film now, which is a little depressing. But at the same time, it’s my turn to give back. It’s like when I worked for Shirley MacLaine I couldn’t stop asking her questions. “How did you get the part in The Apartment? Did you become a star when you were doing Pajama Game?” And she told me the whole story. It’s so cool. And you think, I wish I had an interesting life like that, and while I’m no Shirley MacLaine when you hit my age you look back and you go, well this is kind of cool.
I’ve worked with some really great people. I just saw Larry Kasdan the other night. I haven’t seen him in awhile. But Silverado was my first studio movie and I had, I think, three lines or something, I said, “Howdy” and then, “You can’t do that” and then they shot me or something. [laughs]
There’s a story I’ll tell you. My first day, I shot the first scene where I said, “Howdy,” and then I waited seven weeks to shoot my last scene where I said, “You can’t do that.” And I was in Santa Fe in a hotel. My scenes were in a cover set, which means that if it’s snowy outside or rainy, they go inside and shoot. You wait to do that scene in the bar so you don’t lose a day. You shoot outside as much as you can.
So they wouldn’t let me go home, because my scenes were all on the cover set, and I had never really done a movie and nobody knew who I was. I was this guy in the hotel. I didn’t work. I was just there. And Jeff Goldblum said to me once, “Who are you playing?” and I said I was playing Kelly. And there was this pause. Jeff’s so funny, and then he went, “Oh, you’re Kelly,” and then he just walked away. It was surreal.
The last week of shooting, Larry had a party and I went but nobody knew me. And he came over, Lawrence Kasdan, such a sweet man, and he goes, “Richard, how long have you been here?” And I said, “Seven f-ing weeks.” And then he said, not missing a beat, “No, no, I meant at the party?” I think I was a little stir crazy by then. [laughs]
Sara Michelle Fetters: I know I can’t keep you too much longer, but at the end of the day, with The Shape of Water, what do you hope people take away from it? What do you hope they’re talking about as they exit the theater?
Richard Jenkins: Well, you know, I think for the most part, a movie like this, it’s about empathy. I think if you like this movie you empathize with the people in it, and that hopefully includes people, who if you just told them this story, might go, “I don’t want to see those people,” but somehow you get them to give it a watch anyhow. The movie gives people the ability to walk in somebody else’s shoes. If they enjoy it, that may be a subconscious way of moving the ball a little forward. I don’t really expect or really need somebody to understand everything in this movie. If they really are moved by it, enjoy it, love it, that sort of thing, it just might subconsciously change the way they look at things. I hope that’s the case.
– Interview reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle