Burgess Jenkins brings his act home to Winston-Salem

by Mark Burger

For several years,actor Burgess Jenkins called Los Angeles home. But he knew it wouldn’tlast. He’d gone west to establish his career. Once accomplished, itwould be time to come home. Memorable as the racist footballplayer Ray Budds in the box-office hit Remember the Titans (2000),Jenkins has found a comfortable and satisfying balance between whatHollywood has to offer and what the local filmmaking industry has tooffer. Like a number of film with Hollywood experience, NorthCarolina has not only become a place to live, but in recent years aplace to make movies – and Jenkins find himself one of the region’smost in-demand actors, with no less than four feature films scheduledfor release in 2008. As for his years in Tinseltown, "you eitherlove it here or you love it there," he says with a laugh. "There seemsto be no in-between. But, actually, we did love it there. LA was verygood to us. We were blessed with a lot of opportunities. But when itcame time for us to start a family, we wanted to be here." Jenkinswas born in Winston-Salem, and his family still lives here. His actresswife, Ashlee Payne, has family on the East Coast. There really wasn’t aquestion of where they’d make their own family’s home. He andPayne welcomed their first child, a daughter, a year ago, and alreadythe proud papa has seen her give a few performances. "We may very possibly be looking at another actress," he laughs. "We’re already prepared for it. It runs in the family." Indeed,every member of the family appeared on-camera in the upcoming film RedDirt Rising, an independent drama about the earliest days of what wouldeventually become NASCAR racing. Jenkins and Payne also appeared in theupcoming drama In/Significant Others. Both were filmed in NorthCarolina, and From Bubba With Love, an upcoming comedy in which Jenkinsstars (yes, as "Bubba") was filmed in Virginia. Being part of theburgeoning filmmaking movement in the region is something Jenkins ishappy to lend his time and talents to. The Hollywood studioshave beckoned, including a role opposite two-time Oscar winner HilarySwank in the supernatural thriller The Reaping (2007), and he’s morethan happy to go wherever the work takes him, but the filmmakingcontingent in the region has also beckoned. Thus far, Jenkins and Paynehave enjoyed several opportunities to work together, which wouldn’tnecessarily be so easy in a studio project. They’ve found the statewidefilmmaking family to be just that: a family. Although Jenkinsdoes not downplay the importance of stage acting, he admits that hepersonally finds the experience repetitious. "I like therawness, the newness, of the individual scene," he explains. "There’ssomething raw and visceral about creating a character from the groundup." One such experience was playing the title role of JohnWesley, one of the principal architects of the Methodist church, inWesley, an independent biographical drama filmed in Winston-Salem lastyear. "Playing John Wesley was an unbelievable experience,"Jenkins attests. "His struggle with faith is similar to others’struggles with faith even today, and was not dissimilar from my ownstruggles with faith." Although he had much to work with inscreenwriter/director/producer John Jackman’s research – "which wasunbelievably thorough," according to Jenkins – it fell to him toactually bring a historical character to life on screen. As amethod actor (he’s taught the Meisner technique), "I lived as Wesleyfor seven weeks," Jenkins says, shaking his head at the memory. "It wasvery intense… but also very rewarding." The film also starsHollywood veterans Kevin McCarthy and June Lockhart, as well as averitable who’s who of stage and screen actors familiar to NorthCarolina audiences. Among them is R. Keith Harris, who plays Wesley’sbrother, Charles. Like Jenkins, Harris did his stint in Hollywood butnow makes his home base here. Like Jenkins, he too is a fixture of theregional filmmaking scene. The two actors have occasionallyfound themselves in competition for the same roles, but just asfrequently recommend the other for roles. So far, they’ve done fiveprojects together and have developed a great friendship. "It’sgood to work with someone who is a skilled professional through andthrough," says Harris, adding with a laugh: "I’ve taught him a lot!" "We’re thinking of putting it in our contracts that we have to work together," laughs Jenkins. Therehave been other experiences that haven’t been so rewarding, such as theocean-bound thriller Sea of Fear (which I’ll be reviewing in my DVDcolumn shortly), which Jenkins had hoped would be in the same vein asDead Calm (1989). It didn’t quite turn out that way, as Jenkinsis the first to admit, "but you make the best you can of experienceslike that and chalk ’em up to experience," he laughs.