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’t last. He’d gone west to establish his career. Once accomplished, it would be time to come home.

Memorable as the racist football player Ray Budds in the box-office hit Remember the Titans (2000), Jenkins has found a comfortable and satisfying balance between what Hollywood has to offer and what the local filmmaking industry has to offer.

Like a number of film with Hollywood experience, North Carolina has not only become a place to live, but in recent years a place to make movies – and Jenkins find himself one of the region’s most in-demand actors, with no less than four feature films scheduled for release in 2008.

As for his years in Tinseltown, “you either love it here or you love it there,” he says with a laugh. “There seems to be no in-between. But, actually, we did love it there. LA was very good to us. We were blessed with a lot of opportunities. But when it came time for us to start a family, we wanted to be here.”

Jenkins was born in Winston-Salem, and his family still lives here. His actress wife, Ashlee Payne, has family on the East Coast. There really wasn’t a question of where they’d make their own family’s home.

He and Payne welcomed their first child, a daughter, a year ago, and already the 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 Red Dirt Rising, an independent drama about the earliest days of what would eventually become NASCAR racing. Jenkins and Payne also appeared in the upcoming drama In/Significant Others. Both were filmed in North Carolina, and From Bubba With Love, an upcoming comedy in which Jenkins stars (yes, as “Bubba”) was filmed in Virginia. Being part of the burgeoning filmmaking movement in the region is something Jenkins is happy to lend his time and talents to.

The Hollywood studios have beckoned, including a role opposite two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank in the supernatural thriller The Reaping (2007), and he’s more than happy to go wherever the work takes him, but the filmmaking contingent in the region has also beckoned. Thus far, Jenkins and Payne have enjoyed several opportunities to work together, which wouldn’t necessarily be so easy in a studio project. They’ve found the statewide filmmaking family to be just that: a family.

Although Jenkins does not downplay the importance of stage acting, he admits that he personally finds the experience repetitious.

“I like the rawness, the newness, of the individual scene,” he explains. “There’s something raw and visceral about creating a character from the ground up.”

One such experience was playing the title role of John Wesley, one of the principal architects of the Methodist church, in Wesley, an independent biographical drama filmed in Winston-Salem last year.

“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 own struggles with faith.”

Although he had much to work with in screenwriter/director/producer John Jackman’s research – “which was unbelievably thorough,” according to Jenkins – it fell to him to actually bring a historical character to life on screen.

As a method actor (he’s taught the Meisner technique), “I lived as Wesley for seven weeks,” Jenkins says, shaking his head at the memory. “It was very intense… but also very rewarding.”

The film also stars Hollywood veterans Kevin McCarthy and June Lockhart, as well as a veritable who’s who of stage and screen actors familiar to North Carolina audiences. Among them is R. Keith Harris, who plays Wesley’s brother, Charles. Like Jenkins, Harris did his stint in Hollywood but now makes his home base here. Like Jenkins, he too is a fixture of the regional filmmaking scene.

The two actors have occasionally found themselves in competition for the same roles, but just as frequently recommend the other for roles. So far, they’ve done five projects together and have developed a great friendship.

“It’s good to work with someone who is a skilled professional through and through,” 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.

There have been other experiences that haven’t been so rewarding, such as the ocean-bound thriller Sea of Fear (which I’ll be reviewing in my DVD column shortly), which Jenkins had hoped would be in the same vein as Dead Calm (1989).

It didn’t quite turn out that way, as Jenkins is the first to admit, “but you make the best you can of experiences like that and chalk ’em up to experience,” he laughs.