Did this turn out how you hoped it would?

It did. They sent it to us at home, so my wife and I sat down and watched it. We thought, 'Oh, we'll watch the first couple hours, and then tomorrow night we'll watch the rest.' We watched the whole thing. From the time that it came to me, I've just loved it.

Did you read the book?

I started to read it, because it's my wife's favourite book, and she talked about it a lot. So I started to read it right before Fran [McDormand] sent me the script, and then I stopped, because I thought it was a bad idea. When it was over I read it. It's a magnificent book.

Richard Jenkins as Henry Kitteridge / Credit: HBO
Richard Jenkins as Henry Kitteridge / Credit: HBO

How did this start for you?

Fran called me. She's the reason behind this whole thing. She got the rights to the book. Elizabeth Strout said, 'Yes, you can do it,' and then she hired Jane Anderson to write it, and they worked on it for a long time. They took it to HBO, and then Fran called me up and said, 'It's close. I'd like you to play Henry. Would you read it?' They sent me the script, and I said yes, and then Lisa [Cholodenko] came on. Fran was the engine behind this whole thing. I'm so happy for her because it's the first time she's ever done this, and it was just a class performance from day one.

How far do you guys go back?

Well, we've done about four movies together. The first time, we did North Country together, and we didn't have any scenes together, but we went out to dinner a lot, and got to know each other. Then we did The Man Who Wasn't There, and then Burn After Reading, where we became very friendly, and then this came along. She was like a dog with a bone with this thing. That's what it takes - it takes that kind of commitment to make something like this. I saw her yesterday, here in Venice, and this thing is happening with Olive Kitteridge screening here at the festival, because she made it happen, and it's so cool to have been on the ground floor, seeing how it's blossomed, and how much work it took. You wonder how a movie ever gets made, because there are so many hoops you have to jump through.

And this isn't just a movie is it?

No, it's two movies. It was three and a half months of shooting. We actually rehearsed for about three weeks. We sat around and read, the two of us, just read and read and read, and then the other actors would come on, and we'd read with them, and that was really helpful. This thing was kind of epic. It takes place over 30 years or so but you knew where you were all the time, in the script, and you just kept reading it.

What's it like to play a character over that kind of time span?

Well, you've got to have great hair and make-up, and we did. A lot of thought was put into it. This is what I thought I would be doing all the time when I became an actor, but it doesn't work out that way.

Why doesn't it work out that way?

Because there just aren't that many fully rounded human beings to play (laughs). With this I'm playing a man over a 25-year span, and it's like living a life on screen. That doesn't happen that often. That's why you wonder how people will respond, because you don't see a lot of this, I don't think. I don't see a lot of this.

What is so extraordinary about this story?

Richard Jenkins as Henry Kitteridge / Credit: HBO
Richard Jenkins as Henry Kitteridge / Credit: HBO

I bet you everybody in this room, by the time they're 75, will have very similar situations. Nothing is extraordinary about it, but that's what makes it extraordinary. My favourite line in the last one is, 'You're not going to leave me are you, Olive?' and she says, 'Well sometimes you make a woman sick, Henry.' (Laughs) It's like, why would you even think that? Even after all they've gone through. It's the story of a marriage.

How did you approach the topic of depression that is a big theme in the story?

Well it's funny because I didn't want to read the book before I did this, and then when I did read it, Henry's mother was severely depressed, but Henry didn't think so - 'Oh, Olive, she's fine. She has her moods.' Olive is saying, 'Are you kidding me? She was crazy!' It's just how they look at their world. With Olive and Henry, they each give each other something they need, that they don't have. He's not as direct and as forceful as she is, and he's everything she isn't, and they love each other. They do love each other.

Henry is a very loveable character. What was he like to play?

In the book it's described as, 'When he comes in the room, he's like a warm pocket.' Good thing I didn't know that - how do you play that? But he's just a good man. And really it was all there in the script.

In many ways he is totally unlike Olive. She can be very direct and acerbic.

Yeah, and he never really goes, 'Olive, don't!' When I was playing it, I just admired her. She would say things to people like, 'That dress is ugly,' and I was like, 'I'd never have the nerve to say that. Thank God I'm with somebody that will.' What does Olive say about Henry? 'When he was living, I wanted to kill him half the time. Now he's dead, he was the perfect man.' I love this piece, I really do. I've been doing this so long, and it's like you look for something that you love, but you don't know what anybody else will think about it. Jane Anderson did such a beautiful job. It's really hard, because it's so episodic, and Olive is not even in some stuff in the book. The way that they did it, I just love it. I really am very proud to be a part of this.

Six Feet Under seemed to herald the golden age of television that we are now experiencing. What was it like working on that show?

That was a great time on Six Feet Under. HBO is still doing that kind of thing. I remember I said to Alan Ball (who created Six Feet Under) 'Do they have notes for you?'

He said, 'Yeah, "Take it further, do whatever you want."' There were never any constraints; it was 'just let the filmmakers tell their story' and that's what you got.

Could a story like this only be told in the mini-series format?

Richard Jenkins as Henry Kitteridge / Credit: HBO
Richard Jenkins as Henry Kitteridge / Credit: HBO

Yeah, I think so. I think originally they had it as six episodes, and condensed it into four. There are still lots of stories in the book that haven't been told. And then you say, 'Is it interesting enough?' Because it's about people living their lives. We're seeing these lives over 25 years. It is interesting enough, but you just don't trust that anymore - or at least a lot of people don't. To make something that is four hours long and just trust in it, without trying to build it up, is great and that's what they did here. HBO let the story be told in the way that it should be told.

Do you think this has something to say about small town America?

I grew up in a small town in Illinois, a farming community. It had a university, but probably when I was young it was only about 15 - 20,000 people there, and then it got a little bigger. Olive Kitteridge is very much about that small town America. It may be set in New England but it's the same kind of town and I know that, it's where I came from. Everything's fine on the surface, but there's a lot going on that's subterranean. It's like anywhere else, except, culturally, they deal with it differently. The thing is, you read parts, and either you get them or you don't. You say, 'I understand this guy,' or, 'I don't.' But I absolutely understood this guy, Henry, because I come from that, and I'm a little like that.

How are you like Henry?

I'm like Henry in the way that I like everybody to be happy. I don't like conflict. I don't work well with conflict. Even though I'm not the optimist he is, I understand being an optimist. I can't do it, but I understand it (laughs).

Where did acting come from for you?

I always was attracted to it. I went to the movies every week. I didn't care what was playing; that's how I saw the world. Around the World in Eighty Days - 'My god, don't tell me this was filmed in a studio!' I just loved the idea of it. I couldn't write, I couldn't paint, and I thought, 'Maybe I could be an actor.'

How early did that thought crystallise?

Maybe when I was ten. My father was a dentist and my mother was a housewife. I did one play in junior high, and I told the drama teacher, 'I want to be an actor.' I came home and I told my parents and, I didn't know this, but my dad flipped out. My mother called the drama teacher and said, 'you have to talk to him. He's being unreasonable.' So she put my dad on the phone and he said, 'He can't do this. What kind of aspiration is that?' She said, 'If he knows how you feel, and you prevent him from doing this, he will never forgive you, and you will go to your grave without him forgiving you.' My mother said he stopped and went, 'Oh.' All I ever got from him was total support. I was probably 12 or 13. I didn't do any plays in high school - I don't know why, but I didn't. I went to college and they were doing Hamlet. I saw Hamlet, and that was it for me.

What were you studying at college?

I went as a theatre major, but I didn't have any experience. All these other kids had done plays at high school. I just sat in the back of the class, and at the end of the year the head of department called me into his office and said, 'Who are you?' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'Well, I know you're in the theatre department because you're in my class. You're in 'Introduction to Theatre', but you don't participate.' He said, 'You didn't audition for one thing.' I said, 'Well I don't know how. I thought you were supposed to teach me.' He laughed. I said, 'I am so inexperienced. I feel overwhelmed.' He said, 'Well do you want to do this?' I said, 'I do.' He kind of took me under his wing, brought me to summer stock, and I did a couple of plays there. He said, 'If it doesn't work out, you've got to move on and make room for somebody who wants to participate.' I loved it, and that's how it started. He came to stay with us - my wife and I met at school - and he came to us for two days in June. He's 85 now. He's called John Ficca. He was a mentor, and he really supported me and believed in me. He gave me the confidence that I could do that. What you learn really takes place after college, but if it wasn't for him, I don't know what I would have done. He terrified us. He was kind of stern, but for some reason he stuck with me and believed in me, and gave me opportunities. I love him. His wife just died, and he was in New York on a theatre trip, so we took him up to our house and he spent the weekend with us.

Did you head to New York after college?

I went to Rhode Island, as an apprentice in a theatre company, and I stayed there 14 years as an actor. I loved it. There was this man called Adrian Hall, who was this juggernaut of creativity and passion, and he ran this theatre. My first week there, I was like, 'I've never seen anything like this.' The attitude was that theatre was disappearing: 'They're bored, but it's not their fault they're bored - it's our fault they're bored. What can theatre do? How can we find a way in?' It was just incredible. Everything you did, you thought could be the greatest piece of theatre ever done. It never was (laughs), but you thought, 'It's possible!' That was fuel for an actor, for any actor. It was great. I was there 14 years.

So what prompted you to leave?

I always wanted to be in movies. That's what I wanted to do, but I didn't know how you did that. The opportunity came up, and that was just kind of what happened. I'd never had that opportunity before, and when I did, I just left the stage. But my wife and I came back - my wife is a choreographer - and we did a direction of Oliver, a very dark, Dickensian version, at the Trinity theatre. All our friends are still there. We still live in Rhode Island. Its 50th anniversary was this year. It's my home. I came back and ran it for four years. It's where I learned everything. I love the place, even though I'm not involved in it anymore.

Are you happy with the turns that your career has taken?

If somebody had have told me, when I was 21, that this was how my life was going to go, I would have kissed their feet. I would have fallen down and thanked them. You have to remind yourself of that sometimes, because you get to the middle of it and you go, 'How am I doing?' It's like, 'Are you kidding me? You've had a life doing what you want to do.' I have no complaints, and if I do, my wife always goes, 'Shut up.'

Do you have kids?

I have two. My daughter was an actress for a while, but she's a writer now, a wonderful writer. My son is a certified public accountant. He was a great drummer. I wanted him to be a drummer, and he goes, 'I want to be an accountant.' (Laughs.)

Olive Kitteridge is out now on Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of HBO Home Entertainment.

Tagged in