5 questions for 'The Shape of Water' actor Richard Jenkins (Spoiler Alert!)

"The Shape of Water" is the latest foray into Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's beautiful allegorical world of monsters and fantasy. In this other-worldly fable set against the backdrop of Cold War America in the 1960s, mute science lab custodian Elisa (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with a part-man / part-amphibian sea creature, who may or may not possess god-like powers. 

Emmy winner and Academy Award nominee Richard Jenkins plays Giles, Elisa's neighbor, who like Elisa, lives a life of quiet isolation. Giles is convinced he was born either too early or too late; as he longs for true love in a world that's not accepting of him as a gay man. 

GLAAD caught up with Jenkins to ask him our five questions about what exactly went into helping shape "The Shape of Water" into a leading contender during the 2018 awards season. 

Note: Do not read on if you would prefer to avoid minor spoilers about the film's plot.

Shape of Water Richard Jenkins Sally hawkins

Giles goes on quite a journey over the course of this film - specifically with regards to the reconciliation of his gay identity as an older man living in the ‘60s. How did you approach understanding him as a character? 

I think the 1960s was a big part of it. How could one live one’s life as a gay man in 1962? I think it was a huge influence on how to play the character. It spoke to his loneliness, to his need for love but not knowing where or how to find it. I was in high school in 1962. There were no gay men in our class until our 35th high school reunion. They lived in silence and no one knew. I can only imagine. It was an incredibly lonely, frustrating time.

In some ways, the whole film (with its focus on a “forbidden relationship” between a woman and a sea creature) could be read allegorically by LGBTQ audiences as a substitute for a gay love story - do you think director Guillermo Del Toro had that in mind while making it? 

I don’t know, but I’ll tell you one thing. I always wondered if Giles was not gay, would he have closed the door when he saw the two of them (Elisa and the sea creature) in the bathroom? This is someone who understands forbidden love at that time. It was not allowed, and he knows that that’s bullshit. And why should he judge Elisa? So, that’s how I saw it. I don’t know if Guillermo did, but I suspect he did. Very little in Guillermo’s films is unintentional. 

There’s one particular scene in the film where Giles misreads signs coming from a younger man that he fancies. Why is that a pivotal moment for him? 

Shape of Water Richard Jenkins diner scene

I think he becomes aware of the folly of trying to find love this way, believing what he wants to believe and not understanding that the one person that really loves him — who loves him for who he is — is Elisa. She doesn’t judge him... and I think that realization can only happen after what takes place between Giles and that young man.

Did you learn sign language for the film? Or did you and (lead actress) Sally Hawkins already know it? 

No, I didn’t. Sally did, but we just rehearsed that scene for a long time. I didn’t want to get ahead of her. I didn’t want to get behind her. So, I learned what she was saying to me. That’s all I learned. I’m a lazy actor. (laughs)

Shape of Guillermo and cast

What advice would you, Richard (the actor), give to Giles (your character)?

I think I would have said to Gilles that he should have taken his own advice. There are two things he says in the movie: “If I could live my life over, I would take better care of my teeth and fuck a lot more.” I think that’s very good advice. 

"The Shape of Water" is open in New York City and opens in Los Angeles and select other cities on December 8th, expanding wider from there.