Richard Jenkins: ‘Oh my God, Connery was so cool. I thought Goldfinger was the greatest film ever made’

The Oscar-nominated star of The Visitor and The Shape of Water and new film The Last Shift on drag racing, doo-wop music and discovering James Bond

The death of John F Kennedy

I grew up in the 50s and 60s in DeKalb, Illinois, which is this small town in the midwest about 60 miles from Chicago. It had a population of about 30,000 with a university and a state school. It was surrounded by cornfields, and housed the headquarters of the DeKalb Agricultural Association, where they dealt with hybrid corn to make it more pest- and drought-resistant. So unless you were a farmer, there wasn’t a lot to do.

The death of John Kennedy in 1963 was an incredibly shocking, indelible moment in my teenage years, by way of seeing how the adults responded to his death. I remember sitting in a class: they turned on the radio and I remember my history teacher – this tough-guy baseball coach – crying at the back of the classroom. It was horrific but it was indelible. For the first time, it made me aware that there was a bigger world outside of my hometown.

American Graffiti

I did not have a deep, profound childhood, let me put it that way. My teenage years were more like [the film] American Graffiti. You’d get in a car on a weekend, drive around town, go through the McDonald’s, come out, drive back, look for people and stuff going on and you’d go to a dance. That was my era; that’s what we did.

There was always a guy with a fast car having drag races and there were fights all the time. Although I didn’t have my own car and I didn’t get into any fights. I was more the guy sitting in the back seat, just kind of hanging around. But they used to call the dances “Saturday night fights”, and the music from that movie is the music we listened to. We would turn the radio to Chicago WLS about 7pm or 8pm and go, as they called it, cruising until midnight or 1am until WLS signed off for the night. And we did that every weekend. What George Lucas directed in American Graffiti with Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard captured my teens perfectly.

Hot rods and neon signs in American Graffiti (1973)
Hot rods and neon signs in American Graffiti (1973). Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

I Want to Hold Your Hand by the Beatles

I’d just listen to whatever was out there. At first it was a lot of rock’n’roll and doo-wop, like Dion and the Belmonts and the Platters. Then, in my junior year in high school, the Beatles came along and I remember thinking: “Wow! Look at these guys!” We thought they had the longest hair: it seemed to go down to their shoes. But if you look at a photo of them now, it hardly seems that long at all.

The whole country was instantaneously attracted to the Beatles, but even in my little town, when I first heard I Want to Hold Your Hand, it still felt huge. The Beatles kept going on and on, and I fell in love.

I loved all the music from that time, such as Teenager in Love by Dion and the Belmonts, and I Feel So Bad by Elvis, because it felt like it was talking to me. It may have not been the greatest music ever made, but you’re all hormones at that age and those songs just pressed the right buttons. Even now, when I hear doo-wop and 50s and 60s music, it takes me back to a time when I was really happy, without a care in the world.

Burt Lancaster in Trapeze

Every Friday night, I’d go to watch whatever was playing at the theatre with my cousin. We were big on science-fiction. I remember Them!, where nuclear bomb testing in the desert has created these giant mutant ants; so there’s a little politics going on there too. The first five minutes are absolutely terrifying. The Thing from Another World and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds were just as frightening. Psycho literally made me and my cousin jump out of our seats. These films really played into the teenage brain. It was simple stuff, good versus evil, and you could go home and imagine yourself in a similar situation. It was probably good preparation for the real world.

I remember going to see Trapeze, which starred Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. I was about 14, and my cousin and I went home and built a trapeze in a tree in our backyard. The first time my cousin dove on to the trapeze, he missed and broke his arm. That’s just another dumb thing you do when you’re 14 years old.

Jane Asher and Michael Caine in Alfie.
What’s it all about, Alfie? Jane Asher and Michael Caine in Alfie. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Michael Caine in Alfie

I find that movies come along when you need them, speak to you about your life and stay with you for ever. I was studying for my theatre major in college, debating whether I could give acting a shot. One night I went to the movies by myself and I saw Michael Caine in Alfie and it blew me away. I was not very sophisticated. I wasn’t introduced to Brando or Spencer Tracy until later on in my teens. But there was something different about Caine. He was a damaged man who didn’t have any idea he was damaged. He spoke to the camera like a real person. I thought if I could offer anything a third as interesting as Caine was in that movie then acting was a goal to pursue. So that night I made the decision that I was going to become an actor.

I’ve never met Caine. The nearest I got was when I was doing a movie in England. They said he was on the next sound stage and I ran over but he was gone. I’ve always wanted to meet the guy because I just think he’s terrific.

Sean Connery’s James Bond

I saw the world through movies. I loved Sean Connery’s Bond. When Dr No and From Russia With Love came out, I was at high school. By the time Goldfinger came out, I was 19 and a sophomore in college. I thought Goldfinger was the greatest film ever made. I remember everybody singing the Shirley Bassey song on the street for the next two weeks. I love the bit where he faces off against Oddjob; and having a character called Pussy Galore back in 1964 was so … well, I was so naive and smitten with where movies took me and how they made me feel. Oh my God, Connery was so cool.

I never got to meet Connery either. I have worked with Javier Bardem [in Eat Pray Love] and he’s a fantastic Bond villain [Raoul Silva in Skyfall]. I would have loved to have been a Bond villain, but I don’t think that’s going to happen unless he’s some evil guy who lives in a nursing home, and the most evil thing he can think of to do is to quietly knock off the residents between naps and medication. “No, Mr Bond. I expect you to … Zzzzzz.”

The Last Shift, starring Richard Jenkins, is available to rent on digital from 22 March


As told to Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

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