Search form

Scroll To Top

Richard Jenkins On Playing A Lonely Gay Man in One of the Year's Biggest Oscar Contenders

richard jenkins

"Sometimes you read a part and you go, 'I can do this. I understand being at a point in your life where you don’t know what to do, or where to turn.'”

Guillermo Del Toro's new Oscar contender, The Shape of Water, is many things: a love story, a sci-fi thriller, a period piece about a mutant fish-man. But at it's heart the movie is a story about loneliness, and the lengths people will go in order to attempt an escape from the crushing weight of a life lived in self-imposed isolation.

The film tells the story of (spoilers ahead) Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman working as a janitor in a large science laboratory in the 1960s. While working at the lab, she finds and falls in love with a strange fish-man captured by scientists in South America. Giles, played by Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under, Olive Kitteridge), Elisa's next-door neighbor and best friend, helps her to rescue the creature from the clutches of scientists bent on destroying it. Giles himself is a homosexual, and clings to the fantasy that a local pie shop server who says "Y'all come back know, ya hear?" whenever anyone leaves the cafe might be interested in him.

While Jenkins himself is neither gay, nor living in the 60s, nor well-versed in interacting with fish-human hybrids, he actually found a great deal he could relate to within Giles.

"He's alone," Jenkins explains. "And I was an only child, so I understand being alone. I understand it can be a creative time, or it can be a really lonely time, depending on how you use it. And at the same time, I've been infatuated with someone who I've had no chance of getting with. I understand that. So the guy says 'Y'all come back now, ya hear?' And Giles thinks, 'He told us to come back. You heard him say it!' So yeah, I understand that."

It's that aching loneliness that made Jenkins know he could bring something great and personal to the part, and that assuaged any fear he might have had about stepping into a world so different from the one he knows in real life.

"When you read a part sometimes you think, 'I don't have anything to offer this person. I think other people can do this better than me.' But sometimes you read a part and you go, 'I can do this. I understand being at a point in your life where you don't know what to do, or where to turn.'"


Portraying Giles with integrity and humanity was crucial, particularly since Jenkins, a self-identified heterosexual, would be bringing a queer character to a screen assured to be seen by an enormous audience, thanks to the clout of its director and cast, which also includes Olivia Spencer and Michael Shannon.

"You want to make this a real person, not a charicature. But a human being. So that's what I was trying to do," Jenkins explains. "This is a man who happens to be gay. That's just how I played him. Love is love. So I didn't try to play a character, I tried to be personal. That's what I always try to do when I do a part."

Another unusual challenge Jenkins faced in signing on to this film was that his main scene partner never spoke a word--she's mute.

"I found I was looking at [Hawkins] more--sometimes when someone is talking to you you aren't looking at their face, you're looking to the side, or whatever it is you're doing," he says. "But I found you just get lost in those eyes. We rehearsed for a couple of weeks, and became really good friends. I would say, 'I have my lines, and I have your lines. It's great! What's not to like here?'"

The script fell into Jenkins' lap in an unusual way for Hollywood standards: Del Toro sent him a personal email asking him to read the script and play the part of Giles. Obviously, Jenkins eagerly accepted. He soon found himself on a set full of incredibly emotional scenes, where new additions were being added into the story right up until the end. One moment in particular--his voiceover narration, which closes the entire film--wasn't brought into the script until the final two weeks of filming.

"Guillermo found a poem in a bookstore, by an anonymous poet, that was his love letter to God," Jenkins explains. "'I see you all around me, you are everywhere.' About two weeks before we finished shooting, he brought it to me. Every time I see that moment, I think of that, and how fortunate we are where this landed."


Jenkins had to immerse himself in all sorts of impactful moments while filming--at one point he operates a van in a high-speed car chase, at another he denies his best friend the thing she most desperately needs. But visually, Jenkins considers his first interaction with the fish-man to be perhaps the most impactful thing to film.

"For me, seeing the creature for the first time--I didn't know what I was going to do with that. Because the first thing he says about the creature, after I've just talked about him as a fish in a tank, is that he's beautiful. So you first see him, and it's scary. Startling. And then you realize--especially, this guy is an artist--and he sees this piece of art rising up out of a laundry basket. I think his relationship with the fish man really evolves. He feels like a kindred spirit sometimes, because he's always been alone. I know what it's like. They kind of understand each other."

The Shape of Water opens in New York on Friday, December 1. Check out the trailer below:

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Hilton Dresden