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AWARDS: 2002 Independent Spirit Award, Best Male Lead for “In the Bedroom”; 1998 BAFTA Film Award, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for “The Full Monty.” CURRENT CREDIT: As a schizophrenic lawyer who discovers his conscience during a protracted lawsuit in Warner Bros.’ “Michael Clayton”; currently filming HBO’s “Recount” — about the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida — playing politico James Baker. MEMBERSHIPS: Screen Actors Guild, AMPAS. Academy member since 2002.
The Hollywood Reporter: So you’re down in Florida now playing James Baker. Is it harder to portray someone who is still alive, as opposed to a fictional or deceased historical person?
Tom Wilkinson: I guess it is. You have to be true (to the character). I’m not doing an impersonation of James Baker; it’s not especially accurate. I’m sure the queen (of England) isn’t remotely like Helen Mirren’s performance, but there is enough for you to say, “OK.” If people simply don’t buy it, I’ve failed.
THR: What do you think about films trying to dramatize such recent historical events as what happened in 2000?
Wilkinson: This is just a fascinating story. Had George Bush turned out to be an exemplary president, then the events of Florida 2000 would have been a footnote. But as it turns out, it has a great significance.
THR: Of course, what everyone is talking about now is “Michael Clayton.” Was it harrowing to portray a man who’s slowly losing his grip on reality?
Wilkinson: Quite freeing. The script was written with such precision; I just felt if I do what the writing tells me to do, I’ll come up with something. It’s not my place as an actor to second-guess what the audience is going to think. I just have to do something that satisfies me and the director and hope it makes sense.
THR: You play a lot of Americans, though you’re English. Other than the accent, what do you do differently when you’re becoming American?
Wilkinson: I get a very nice feeling playing Americans, let me tell you that. There’s something strangely satisfying about it, something that English people always love — the way Americans talk, the slang. There’s something about it we find very cool. Next to which our own version of English is rather starchy and boring.
THR: Part of that fascination I imagine comes from so many Hollywood movies starring Americans.
Wilkinson: Part of you thinks, when you play an American, that you’re doing big movie star stuff. When you think of movie stars, you think of Clark Gable and Jack Nicholson. So anything that gets you closer to that.
THR: What do you find satisfying about acting, specifically?
Wilkinson: I was quite late when I made the decision to go into show business — I was about 18 — but I made it definitively. I knew I was in for the long haul, that I wasn’t going to give it a try for a few years and then go into teaching or something like that. I just had a tremendous amount of self-belief, I suppose. And for the first few years what you try to do is just make sure that everything you do is better than the last thing you do. I worked hard at trying to get better — just work at the job, really.
THR: But did it do something internally for you?
Wilkinson: One thing that has been revealed to me in the course of a fairly long career now is that I’m terribly well suited to the job that I do. Not simply in terms of being able to act, but to withstand all of the setbacks you have when you’re an actor. Going up for jobs, then being one of the last two and not getting it. I could deal with that; I didn’t have any sense of regret or bitterness about it. I just thought, “I am going to keep knocking on this door, and sooner or later, someone is going to open it.” That feeling I had, increasingly as I gained confidence as a young actor, was that I was absolutely in the right job and wasn’t wasting my time.
THR: Your first true “Hollywood” film was 1998’s “Rush Hour.” How was that different from any project you’d been on in the past? Was it just more money?
Wilkinson: Well, it wasn’t especially well paid. But I just thought, “This is it — this is the game you wanted to play. Don’t be intimidated. You’ve been doing the job for 25 years, and you know what you’re doing.” And Brett Ratner, who directed that movie, was a tremendously agreeable person to work with.
THR: So being in the Hollywood spotlight didn’t make you want to run screaming in the other direction.
Wilkinson: Not at all.
THR: Arguably, most American audiences weren’t familiar with your work until 1997’s “The Full Monty” and then 2001’s “In the Bedroom,” which earned you an Oscar nomination. Did you have any sense that “Bedroom” was going to be as big a deal for your career when you got the script?
Wilkinson: I loved the project; I thought it was intelligent, and I like Todd Field, who directed it. When I talked to him on the phone, I was very flattered to be asked to play a leading role in an American movie and to be asked to play opposite legendary Sissy Spacek. I thought, “The worst that can come out of this is that people can see I can head up a movie and play a leading role and play an American.”
THR: You seem very practical about your approach to what many feel is a glamorous career; it feels as though you’d have approached being a doctor or lawyer much the same way.
Wilkinson: Well, I love what I do, and I’m enthusiastic about what I do, but I mean to be successful at it. I mean to have as good a career as I can possibly have — and if I had been a doctor, I would have had the same sort of motivation, I think.
THR: And yet, it’s very un-English of you to announce your ambitions, isn’t it?
Wilkinson: You know, ambition might be to make a $100 million as a movie star and then become governor of California. That’s not the sort of ambition I have. I just want to be as good as I can and do as many things as I can so when I finally decide to chuck it in, people say, “He was really good.” That’s all.
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