WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. (AP) -- You've seen Richard Jenkins. He was the dead patriarch on HBO's "Six Feet Under" and the beleaguered gym director in 2008's "Burn After Reading." He's played lots of dads ("Step Brothers," "Rumor Has It," "North Country"), cops ("The Mod Squad," "Me, Myself and Irene") and scores of other supporting characters during his 25 years in film. Now, with his first leading role, Jenkins is an Oscar nominee. "It's unbelievable," said the 61-year-old actor, sitting in the lobby of his favorite hotel. "This happens to other people, not to me." Jenkins caught the eye of the academy — along with the Screen Actors Guild and Broadcast Film Critics Association — with his performance as buttoned-up, burned-out professor Walter Vale in the indie film "The Visitor." The character is quiet yet arrogant, a man who oozes loneliness but can't seem to connect with anyone until a chance run-in with an immigrant couple awakens a new energy in him. Writer-director Tom McCarthy had dinner with Jenkins, then penned the part with the actor in mind. "The guy has a real integrity in his life and in the way he approaches work, and it just felt really right for the character," McCarthy said. "So when I went away to write, I kind of heard that voice and could see those eyes and that face, and it just made it really come alive for me on the page. It's almost like having your character in 3-D." It was an ideal opportunity, Jenkins said, one he never expected or sought. Though he often wondered what it would be like to carry a movie, he was happy — and steadily employed — as a character actor. "This was like a perfect storm of circumstances" to take on a leading role, he said. "At this time in my life, I saw it as an incredible opportunity and a gift." It's a long way from his drama-school days, when Jenkins was too intimidated to even audition. "I was petrified," he said, recalling a shell-shocked year on the sidelines as others took the stage. But after a phone call from the department head and a summer session immersed in theater, Jenkins knew that, for him, there was no business like show business. "I just wanted to do it. I felt fabulous doing it," he said. "I liked the people. I liked the whole idea of it. I loved performing. I loved rehearsing... It never occurred to me to do anything else." Jenkins has worked with some of the biggest names in the business. He's been directed by Clint Eastwood, Sydney Pollack, Mike Nichols and George Miller. He's acted with Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Sir Ben Kingsley and dozens of other stars. And he still has a wish list. Jenkins said he'd like to share the screen with Meryl Streep ("Man, she's so good") and Johnny Depp ("He's fantastic") and take direction from Steven Spielberg ("I just always love what he does"). But before that, the married father of two grown children has to get through the glittery hustle and bustle of awards season and the rare Hollywood glare it brings. "(I'm) not anonymous anymore," Jenkins said. "It's hard, but it's all right. I'm a year away from Social Security."