How 'Aquaman' Star Patrick Wilson Became James Wan's Go-To Actor

The actor looks back at their first conversation ahead of 'Insidious' and why he signed on to the new DC film before there was a script: "I know he’s not going to just waste my time."
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ DC Comics

After conquering the haunted house, Patrick Wilson and James Wan are now poised to master the ocean thanks to Aquaman.

Throughout film history, the right actor-director collaboration has exemplified the expression "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Even Martin Scorsese needs a Robert De Niro. Even Quentin Tarantino needs a Samuel L. Jackson. Even John Hughes needs a Molly Ringwald. And since 2011, Wan has needed Wilson.

Prior to Aquaman, the duo’s two Insidious films and two Conjuring entries have been budgeted at approximately $66 million combined and have grossed nearly $900 million worldwide. Aquaman, now in U.S. theaters, has already added to that tally by grossing more than $300 million overseas. 

Wilson recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his longtime collaboration with Wan and how he adjusted to the unusual experience he had on the Aquaman set. Wilson also reflected on some of his earlier roles, and whether a musical drama is in the cards for him since the moviegoing audience’s appetite for musical dramas has never been greater.

At this point, when James Wan calls, do you answer the phone with an automatic yes?

[Laughs.] Yeah! I would say so! When we were discussing Aquaman, I said to my agent and my manager, who are both dear friends of mine, that James wanted me to do the role. They said, “Do you know what it is? Do you know how big the role is? How much screen time? What about the script?” I said, “No, but I know he’s not going to just waste my time.” So, I had such faith in James. It’s never the size of the role; I know he’s going to push me and not waste my time or his. I can’t imagine saying no to James to be honest with you.

When James first pitched the idea to have you play Jason Momoa’s half-brother, Orm, were you somewhat skeptical until you learned the full details of the story?

Skepticism, pessimism, questioning — none of that stuff enters into it with me and James. It really doesn’t. It’s not that I have blind faith; I have four movies prior to this that I’ve enjoyed doing, overall. That’s the most important thing: I have fun shooting films with James. I’ve been really happy with the work that we’ve done together, and they’ve also been successful. Those tick a lot of boxes for me. I think when he floated me the idea of playing “Ocean Master,” I googled the Ocean Master image and saw this crazy mask. Of course, now I’m in it [laughs]. But, that sort of half-brother aspect of it didn’t really enter into it too much. I thought I was a good opposite to Jason (Momoa). You don’t want another guy that looks identical to him, anyway; it’d be hard to find to be honest with you.

Do you consider it a compliment when filmmakers you've worked with such as James, Zack Snyder (Watchmen, Batman v Superman) or Joe Carnahan (The A-Team, Stretch) keep asking you to be a part of their projects, even if it’s just a cameo?

Yes. Absolutely. I think there’s a long, rich history of when great directors work with their stable of actors and vice versa. Ultimately, when you’re doing any kind of role, certainly from the actor’s perspective, you want to feel comfortable…to fail, to succeed, to put yourself out there, to go too far, to get direction, to understand where you can pull back and push forward. You want to have a comfortable work environment. So, I love anything with Joe and Zack. Then, there are directors I’d love to work with again but have only worked with once, because I do my best work in environments where you’re not self-conscious, where you can swing a big stick. I think that’s important to the process.

When you first worked with James, could you tell almost immediately that he was a talent behind the camera? Overall, can you usually feel when you’re in good hands or not on a set?

Good hands can mean a couple different things. Certainly, the three that you just mentioned are examples of that. With James, I knew from the first conversation with him on the phone. I hadn’t even met him when they offered me Insidious. I hadn’t even gotten to really mine the meat of my part yet. I loved the structure of it. Throughout the first half of the movie, you don’t really know what Josh Lambert’s story is, and I said, “Where is this guy coming from?” So, I loved that this was the director who created Saw, and here he was going back to horror but completely turning it on its end with a budget under a million dollars, a PG-13 rating, no blood and breaking the rules of a haunted house movie, which is move. Everybody always says, “Why don’t you just move?” So, I knew from the get-go that this was a guy that was pushing boundaries. I never viewed him as just a horror director; I viewed him as an artist who wants to push himself and do whatever genre will give him opportunities. Sometimes, it’s easier for actors to break out of that mold than directors. We both have a very wide variety of tastes in movies so it didn’t surprise me when he went into other genres because I always knew that he could. I knew he had the skill set, the energy, the passion and the heart. When you combine technical skill with incredible emotional storytelling, it’s the best of both worlds because I’ve done the opposite. I’ve worked with very visual directors who don’t carry the heart, and that’s OK, but then you have to fill in the void. And then, I’ve worked with really actor-friendly directors that maybe don’t have the skill set to really make a powerful movie. At the end of the day, I’d rather have the visual director because you’re making a movie, not theater. I just happened to find both those in James, and I think that’s why I keep coming back for more.

Do you think about your past characters ever? If so, who usually comes to mind?

I do, like in the way that you’d reflect on an old friend. It’s usually sort of the strange ones to me that will stick out: Barry Munday, Stretch, Dan Dreiberg from Watchmen…the complicated guys. I’ve seen Angels in America so many times that I never quite lose Joe Pitt. But, those guys, the one-offs, are the ones that I miss. You kinda want a sequel just to play them again.

You’ve said that you approach big-budget studio films in the same way that you do anything else, however, when you’re acting in such a heightened world — a world where you ride a prehistoric crocodile — does the world ever bleed into your performance, amplifying it more than you intended?

I think it’s understanding the medium, and it would be the same if I was doing theater in a black box theater with 99 seats or a 2,500-seat theater. You project that emotion differently. There’s very much a heightened melodrama with these characters in the superhero world because you’re wearing a costume and a mask. I think you’re doing a disservice to the comic when you try to bring that down and make it naturalistic. I don’t think that embraces what a comic book is. It deserves the same amount of respect that a Sam Shepard play, or Little Children, in film terms, would receive. It’s the same amount of detail; it’s just the medium that is different. The tone is different, but the emotion is the same.

A great villain is often defined by the cliche that they think they’re the hero of their own story. To me, great villains just have to make compelling points, even though the end doesn’t justify the means. With Aquaman, I definitely understand Orm’s two major issues with the surface world. Generally speaking, what makes a great villain from your perspective, and were you able to convey that through Orm?

It’s lame to say, but I only know the characters that I play. I don’t know what it is to play Lex Luthor; I only know how I would play Lex Luthor. I only know my Orm. There is a common perception that villains are better. Hugh Jackman said to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Black Manta), “The villain gets the best dialogue, you’re in half the movie, you get days off, you win every fight except the last one." I think that’s pretty funny. Strangely, I also think that’s true, however, usually what makes a great villain is because they’re so dead set on what they want. There’s something that is much more difficult to play when you’re playing someone who’s wishy-washy, conflicted or doesn’t know what they want. That’s very hard to play. You have to be able to play an action. So, I think villains by nature, whether it’s world domination or getting back at the surface world for centuries of pollution in Orm’s case, it’s clearer to play. So, that’s why it becomes fun because then you can just play that to the hilt. To me, their focus and their drive is what makes a great villain. You’re allowed to have irrational, even violent responses to real situations, and I like that Aquaman does that. So much of Orm is summed up by what the surface has been doing to the ocean, and he gets back at them by dumping all the trash. I think there’s something very cathartic about that for an audience.

You’re a rather accomplished singer. With musicals and musical dramas doing really well at the box office right now, be it Bohemian Rhapsody or A Star Is Born, has your camp kicked the tires on anything yet? Do you think it’s time for the definitive Patrick Wilson musical drama?

I would love that. I tried to find the right story to tell; I have a few of them kinda kicking around, but it’s hard to get those going because you need a filmmaker that really wants to do it and has a fresh take on it. I’m a huge music fan. Of course, I’m a singer so there’s a bunch of stories that I would love to tell.

And given your singing prowess, did you provide James with a multitude of Orm screams?

You know what’s funny, for all the horror movies that I do, I haven’t done much screaming. I guess I did some screaming in Insidious: Chapter 2, but I don’t usually do a ton of screaming in films because I don’t like doing that. Even with Orm, I thought that this guy is a very commanding presence. You need this theatrical voice ringing through the coliseum. I didn’t want it to sound like a blood-curdling scream [Wilson mimics a blood-curdling scream]. It shouldn’t be that. So, I did a bunch of screams, but they were all “theatrical wails,” which is the term that I use, versus blood-curdling scream. I’m often protective of my voice, and didn’t want to do that over and over, both on set and in a recording studio.

Similarly, you used a number of different harnesses to create the underwater look and feel. Does the unusual position that you’re in eventually become second nature? In other words, do you forget about the harness after a while so you can focus on your performance?

You are always conscious of it. There’s about four or five different methods of wires, cables and harnesses. One thing was called the mombo and the tuning fork, and there were all sorts of devices depending on what the scene needed. You never got incredibly used to it, but you would find ways to alleviate the pain. I would even go into my upside-down Spider-Man pose because when you spend five months gaining 20 pounds and you’re north of 200 pounds in a harness, you just feel heavy. So, I would just quickly flip upside-down and just sort of find a happy place versus having to come down and get off the wires. Once you’re in there, you’re bolted in; you’re not going anywhere. So, you had to find positions to be comfortable in.

At this point in your career, are you still discovering new aspects of your acting ability that surprise you?

I’m a theater guy and a drama school guy, and I think that teaches you that you’re in it for the long haul. I feel like I’m just getting going; I feel like I’m getting better. I wish I could go back and take another crack at performances I did 10 to 15 years ago. That’s just part of the journey. I’m not upset at it. You can be content without being complacent. I still have a very deep drive and fight to be better, to get better roles, to make the most of every opportunity, to work with the very best directors that I can, and I just try to surround myself with people that have that same vision. I probably wouldn’t go off and do a tiny little indie, or take a flier on a director or script that’s so-so. I did a bunch of those, and I don’t regret that, but now I have two kids. My time at home with my wife and my kids is much, much more valuable than some little independent movie that nobody will see. So, the stakes become higher to work, but the desire to find great roles has only increased. I want to keep pushing myself. I want to do things that people don’t expect me to do because I think that’s how you grow as an artist.

I also never thought I’d be working opposite Willem Dafoe in funny suits and wires, flying around the room, speaking these Shakespearean monologues about Atlanteans, but I’ll take it. It was well worth the wait. That’s why you do it: to have strange moments in your career and go, “I never thought I’d be doing this, and yet, here I am and I love it.”

Very important final question: Has Vera Farmiga already composed a strongly worded group text to you and James about what will happen if she’s not included in the Aquaman sequel?

[Laughs] Wouldn’t you love to see her in an Aquaman movie?

Absolutely.

I would love that! Imagine seeing her and Nicole Kidman onscreen. That’s pretty thrilling. We need to make a strong pitch for Vera to get in the sequel. I would love it.

She’s the real Ocean Master.

She is.

***

Aquaman is now in theaters everywhere.