Veteran actor Richard Jenkins has trouble describing his latest movie, Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water.” But then again, he notes, so does everyone else.
“I really enjoy listening to people trying to describe it, because it’s really hard. It’s a lot of things. It’s a heist movie. It’s a romance. It’s a bit of a thriller. It’s very funny in places.”
But ultimately, the actor says, “It’s an adult fairy tale. It’s about love. The phrase that comes back to me when I think about this movie is ‘love is love.’ For me, that’s the theme of the whole film.”
“Shape” is shaping up to be one of the year’s most critically acclaimed releases. It won the Golden Lion in August at the Venice International Film Festival, was named one of the top 10 films of the year by the American Film Institute and is up for seven Golden Globe Awards, including a nod for Jenkins in the best supporting actor category. It’s showing in Washington at the Landmark theaters (E Street and Bethesda Row) and at Angelika Film Center Mosaic.
That theme is especially resonant given Jenkins’ character. He plays Giles, the gay best friend and neighbor of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins). Since the story, a visionary queer retelling of Cold War-era paranoid monster movies like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” is set in Baltimore in 1962, Giles is also a fish out of water.
“He’s looking for things in all the wrong places,” Jenkins says. “He’s alone. He’s made some bad choices.” He has a crush on the vapid manager of the local pie shop (a franchise that serves terrible pie) and he’s an illustrator for an ad agency at a time when they’re starting to use photographs instead of hand-made drawings like his.
But, in a delightful inversion of the period movies, Giles is part of a web of characters that come together to save the strange aquatic creature (played with amazing sensitivity by Doug Jones) from the grasp of the sadistic government agent (played with psychotic menace by Michael Shannon). At the center of the web is Elisa, who is mute. They’re joined by Elisa’s colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is under suspicion because he is an intellectual and a foreigner.
Jenkins says he enjoyed working with the entire cast, especially Hawkins, with whom he has most of his scenes.
“We had about two weeks of rehearsal together. We used it to get to know each other and we became friends. She is incredibly generous as an actress and is really easy to play a scene with.”
Since the character of Elisa is mute, the two communicate through sign language.
“We did go over the sign language a lot because I didn’t want to get ahead of her or behind her. If I missed something, she would go back. She actually does that once in the film.”
In the moving scene when Elisa tells Giles about the creature, “she signs something again because I didn’t quite say it right. That was really cool. We had rehearsed that scene over and over and over again, but when we finally shot it, it was totally different than any time we rehearsed it.”
The seasoned actor is also full of admiration for writer/director Guillermo Del Toro.
“He is amazing, like no one else,” Jenkins says. “He’s really smart. I don’t think there’s a movie he hasn’t seen and he understands what the movies are about. He understands how to speak in film language. Nothing is wasted in his movies. When you see a scene, everything has a purpose, everything has a reason.”
He cites one scene where Sally is waiting for a bus and sees a guy with balloons and a birthday cake with one piece missing. The director said it was the character’s birthday party but he was the only person there. Those few seconds of film, barely noticed by most viewers, expand Del Toro’s visual palette and expand the movie’s theme of lonely people trying to make connections.
Jenkins, who may be best known to LGBT audiences as the ghostly father in HBO’s gay drama “Six Feet Under,” is now taking a well-deserved break after being in Berlin for five months for the second season of “Berlin Station,” a spy series that has just been renewed for a third season.
In the meantime, Jenkins, a straight ally, is looking forward to spending the holidays with his expanding family, including a newly married son and new granddaughter.
But, like any actor, Jenkins is open to the next opportunity.
“If something interesting comes along, I may go back on my word.”