'Midway' Star Patrick Wilson on HBO's 'Watchmen,' 'Aquaman 2' and 'Conjuring 3'
Every word and syllable matters to Patrick Wilson, something his Midway character would likely appreciate.
Roland Emmerich’s Midway surprised the industry this past weekend when it debuted at the domestic box office with $21 million, upsetting the heavy favorite, Doctor Sleep, for the top spot. In a way, it’s a fitting turn of events for a film about the Battle of Midway, one of the greatest American underdog stories in the history of warfare.
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Wilson plays Admiral Edwin T. Layton, an intelligence officer during World War II, whose belief in code-breaking nearly thwarted the attack on Pearl Harbor and played a key role in winning the Midway miracle. For Wilson, Layton’s selflessness was something he greatly admired.
“He really had to keep quiet about what he knew out of respect — even though the intelligence department was being thrown under the bus,” Wilson tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Nearly a year removed from the massive success of James Wan’s Aquaman, Wilson is opening up about the status of their next two projects, including Aquaman 2 and The Conjuring 3.
“I’m slightly briefed [on Orm-related matters],” says Wilson, who played the 2018 film’s chief villain. “I just throw a little dart here and there. I’ll say, ‘So, what about this?’ and [James Wan will] say, ‘Well, this is what I’m thinking.’ I can tell you that even his concepts for Aquaman 2 are pushing it even further.”
Wan and Wilson have teamed on two Conjuring films to date, with the actor playing paranormal investigator Ed Warren. Wan has also produced the two spinoffs — Annabelle Comes Home and The Nun — in which Wilson’s character appeared. The next installment will see Wan step back from the director’s chair, as Michael Chaves takes the reins. Wilson wasn’t concerned about Wan’s transition to a producorial role since he knew that Wan was involved in the development of the story and script.
“The process [of making Conjuring 3] was fantastic, and it’s a much different feel,” Wilson explains. “It’s still the same bones; it’s still very much Ed and Lorraine. Again, we are pushing our characters to places they haven’t gone, but the film will be a really nice addition because it’s definitely a different beast. Pun intended.”
A decade ago, Wilson was cast in his biggest movie to that point, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, and at a time when HBO’s Watchmen is the talk of television, Wilson eagerly shares his reaction to the series and its relevance to the rest of his career. Oddly enough, Oklahoma! the musical, which Wilson was a part of on Broadway, is a major throughline in the series.
“I’m loving it; I’ve seen every episode,” Wilson says of Watchmen. “Of course, I was curious because I had such reverence and love not only for the graphic novel and film, but the experience of making the movie.”
In particular, he got a kick out of seeing the ship owned by his character, Dan Dreiberg, as well as watching his Fargo co-star Jean Smart playing his onscreen love interest, Laurie (played by Malin Åkerman in the 2009 film), 34 years later.
“I saw Archie, my ship, as I call it. It was not drawn for me, but I take ownership, ”Wilson says with a laugh. “I just love watching Jean [Smart]. Obviously, I did Fargo with Jean … I can’t wait to watch her and Regina [King] go toe-to-toe.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Wilson discusses working with Woody Harrelson for the first time, playing himself on The Other Two and how he chooses his roles.
So, where did Midway fall on your production schedule? Was it right before Annabelle Comes Home?
It was right before I shot Annabelle Comes Home. That’s right. It was actually before and after it. It started out in Hawaii at the end of August or September, and then, I went and shot Annabelle in October. And then, I came back to Montreal and shot Midway in November.
Did you have time to enjoy yourself in Honolulu, or was it all work and no play?
We were there right when was a hurricane was coming. It ended up being more of a tropical storm as I remember, but being from Florida, I’m sort of used to the wind and rain of a tropical storm or hurricane, sadly. I didn’t get to do too much outside of work. Every time I’m in town, I’m always running somewhere. So, I just do boring things like the gym and restaurants.
I was watching you act alongside Woody, and I kept racking my brain as to whether you guys had worked together in the past. Much to my surprise, this was the first time. Are you surprised that you guys didn’t cross paths until now?
I know. (Laughs.) We keep joking that we’ve got to find a buddy comedy to do together. I had an absolute blast with him. It’s interesting how paths cross or don’t. I guess if you stick around long enough and put the energy out there that you want to work with the right people ... It was a real treat. He’s so great, which is an understatement. He brings such a great mix of strength and ease in [Commander-in-Chief] Nimitz, which is just awesome. It was fun to play up against that.
Both of you are known for your great Elvis impressions. I presume the two of you didn’t get a chance to have a duel off-set?
We did not. I would happily engage in that battle. (Laughs.)
That could be the buddy comedy the two of you joked about …
(Laughs.) That’s the buddy comedy! Yes! 3000 Miles to Graceland 2 …
How deep did you go on Admiral Layton? I presume you read his book, And I Was There?
Yeah, that was really the backbone for it. So much of those early moments and his relationships with Nimitz, Kimmel (David Hewlett) and Rochefort (Brennan Brown) were all very detailed in the book. The book is very dense; it’s so detailed. When you’re talking about code-breaking and intelligence in the ‘30s and ‘40s, it was fascinating. It gave a real insight to his very analytical and passionate mind.
Layton was a workaholic. Even when he knew everyone’s positions, he couldn’t stop going over them. While acting isn’t anywhere near warfare, was there a project of yours that consumed your days and nights a la Layton, one where you’d keep looking at your lines even though you knew them inside and out?
That’s interesting. From the lines perspective, I’m constantly reading and re-reading the script, and I try to read it front to back so I at least understand the many scenes before since everything is shot out of order. Being a theater guy first, the words are gospel to me. I always try to pick up every line exactly the way it was written because I think that’s our first job as actors.
But, I don’t know if there’s any one project. I remember the nerves of something like Angels in America just because it’s one of the most important plays of the 20th century. I wanted to get every syllable of that right, and I approach every script like that. If I’m working with an actor who’s ad-libbing as of the first take — without even giving credence and respect to the writers — a little red flag goes up. It’s like, “C’mon, let’s give them one of what they wrote.”
I keep thinking about the psychology of Layton and how he nearly thwarted the attack on Pearl Harbor. He didn’t walk around saying, “I told you so.” There was no satisfaction for him in being right. Do you think you would have reacted similarly and stayed the course like he did?
Not to be a martyr, but I would. I think we’re very similar in that regard. If there’s one trait a good serviceman needs, it’s selflessness. There’s no satisfaction when lives are lost; that would be such a narcissistic way of looking at your own accomplishments. He was a military man through and through, and to be fair, I think he was more frustrated at the communication breakdown between Pearl and Washington. I think that was most frustrating. I would have liked to have been inside his head when he had to talk to the government after the fact. He really had to keep quiet about what he knew out of respect — even though the intelligence department was being thrown under the bus. He goes into that in the book, and he’s not too kind to certain superiors of his. He felt like they lied perhaps to protect themselves, and he just wasn’t that kind of person. I really admire that about him, which is why the book came out in ‘85. If you think about it, it’s why he’s not an active part of the ‘76 Midway. When your life is secrecy and intelligence, you don’t go around spouting everything that you know. I think it took him a long time to say, “OK,” and I believe his wife at the time really wanted him to write the book. Like so many of our greatest generation, they don’t go around touting it.
You’re one of a few actors who can oscillate between leading man and character actor. Would you say that your choices are deliberate, or is your decision-making mostly instinctual, regardless of whether the role is lead or supporting?
I don’t think in terms of whether it’s a leading role or supporting role. I’ll use the term that my team uses; they’ll usually say, “Does the role score?” Is there somewhere to go with it? In acting terms, is there an arc? Is there some sense of importance? I look at the character versus “I want to be the lead in that movie.” I don’t really care about that. To be honest with you, it’s always such a balance of what you can get and what you want because not every role is Hamlet and that’s OK. I always try to just do something different. I really don’t like going over the same ground. Even if it’s the same character I play, like in The Conjuring, we’re at least trying to push the character forward and do something that we haven’t done with him before. That’s me; I’m constantly pushing forward.
A few months ago, I received an assignment that required me to binge a show I hadn’t seen before, and I immediately enjoyed it, especially its “Patrick Wilson’s cousin” jokes. And then, lo and behold, you popped up on The Other Two as yourself. Did you ever imagine that you’d play yourself someday?
(Laughs.) No, but I love the experience of going, “Well, I’ve never done this before.” I really do relish looking back at the end of the year and going, “OK, what were the jobs that I had this year? I sang with Barbra Streisand. I did a horror movie. I hung on wires in Australia. I played myself with Andy Cohen in a bizarre comedy.” I like strange moments. I remember when Girls came across to me, I knew the show, but I didn’t really watch the show. It was a stand-alone, awesome, little short film, and I thought, “Well, this is great.” I love that episode. I don’t work in TV a lot, but if and when I do, I just want it to be something really interesting — even if it’s me playing myself in a strange comedy.
Speaking of strange, I’m currently watching a TV show in which Oklahoma! the musical serves as a throughline. Even the name of the pilot is “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice.” It also stars Jean Smart, whom you’ve worked with a couple times. Perhaps, you’ve heard of the property that this show is based on, as it’s called Watchmen. Have you watched it yet since it’s highly relevant to your interests?
I have! When the guy comes on and his name’s Judd, I’m like, “Well, he’s not long for this world.” (Laughs.) Unfortunately, when you know the score like I do, you’re like, “OK, poor Judd is about to die.” I’m loving it; I’ve seen every episode. Of course, I was curious because I had such reverence and love not only for the graphic novel and film, but the experience of making the movie. The friends of mine in that cast are some of the greatest people I’ve worked with. I have such a warm feeling for Watchmen. So, I was all keyed up to watch it, and then, in one of those trailers, I saw Archie, my ship, as I call it. It was not drawn for me, but I take ownership… (Laughs.) I thought, “Oh, my god, who’s flying that thing?” I just love watching Jean. Obviously, I did Fargo with Jean, but another one of my favorite little movies that I did was Barry Munday, and Jean played my mom. I love her, and I thought she was fantastic last week. I can’t wait to watch her and Regina (King) go toe-to-toe. It’s great.
I just can’t get over how tailor-made it is for you, especially since Jean plays Laurie 34 years later.
I know. It’s awesome. I love that she stayed at a hotel called “The Black Freighter.” I just love all that stuff that makes people say, “I don’t get it,” and I’m like, “You don’t know it yet. It’s OK; just stick with it.”
Since you played Curly in Oklahoma! on Broadway, you sang the lyric, “It’s summer and we’re running out of ice,” right?
(Wilson quietly sings “Pore Jud is Daid” to remember the lyrics.) Yes, I did sing that. It’s in “Pore Jud is Daid.”
Man, what are the odds …
This wouldn’t be a proper Patrick Wilson interview if I didn’t check in on the Conjuring Cinematic Universe. How’d the third Conjuring go without James (Wan) at the helm?
Overall, fantastic. I knew going into it that James had a real strong hand in the story and script, and I talked to him a lot about it. Then, once I met [director] Michael Chaves, his energy, his skillset and his passion for it was really infectious. I knew that he was gonna take the reins, both with great respect, but still as its own passion. The process was fantastic, and it’s a much different feel. It’s still the same bones; it’s still very much Ed and Lorraine. Again, we are pushing our characters to places they haven’t gone, but the film will be a really nice addition because it’s definitely a different beast. Pun intended. It was exciting; it was really, really exciting. Because of the spinoffs, when you come back to the flagship movies, I want to feel like, “OK, now we’re back in the Conjuring world.” There’s a different weight to those movies just in scope alone, budget, time to shoot it and all that stuff. It’s got great producers, and honestly, a super happy and supportive studio. So it’s a lot of positivity even though you’re dealing with a lot of negative demons. I can’t wait. I actually saw James yesterday; I went down to visit him on his set [Malignant]. They keep it away from him because he’s working, and they’ll keep it away from me for a while as well, obviously. I’m just excited to see it. We do our part, and then we’ll see what they come up with. I just like to give them some options.
Since you and James are thick as thieves, have you been briefed on any Orm-related matters of late?
(Laughs.) Yeah! I’m slightly briefed. Of course, I want to know everything, but I also have a great respect for him and the process to know that I’m OK staying out of it until it’s late in the game. Sometimes, there’s so much information that I don’t ask because I don’t want to know, and I don’t want him to go, “I can’t tell you that yet.” I just throw a little dart here and there. I’ll say, “So, what about this?” and he’ll say, “Well, this is what I’m thinking.” But, we talk a lot. It’s funny, when I think about the answers that I gave you at the beginning of this and always pushing myself forward, even in the same genre, that’s James to a T. I can tell you that even his concepts for Aquaman 2 are pushing it even further. Whatever that means. I have a few ideas of where Orm fits in, but I’m not gonna talk about them.
Last time we talked, I campaigned for Vera to play Mera’s sister. So I hope that’s one of the ideas.
Right!? I pitch her all the time. I remember seeing Cate Blanchett in Thor and feeling, “Man, I would love a female villain …” I think Vera would be great in any role, really. She’d probably be like, “C’mon, get out of here, you guys.” (Laughs.)
I didn’t know I was claustrophobic until watching your recent Netflix film, In The Tall Grass. Did James give you a hard time for stepping out on his horror universe for Stephen King’s?
(Laughs.) No, he did see it, and of course, we chat about all that kind of stuff. He knew that I was going to film it, because he knows and loves [filmmaker] Vincenzo Natali’s work. They’ve exchanged comments or texts, but they’ve never actually met. He actually just saw it, too. It’s a strange one for sure, but I enjoyed it. I’m actually super happy with what Vincenzo did.
Is it true that your season of Fargo stole snow from The Revenant set?
Pshh, no. It’s funny. They were constantly trying to pull in snow, but The Revenant had to move. They were however many months [over schedule]...
Yeah, they had to relocate to Argentina in order to find snow.
Yeah, they did. It’s funny, I’ve never heard that, but I guess in some way, if they were all shipping snow from the same place … We had a few episodes where they were bringing in snow to tie it to the first episode. When we shot the first episode, there was a ton of snow on the ground. When we went back to do reshoots, there was no snow. They actually punted on the fly there. Forgive the double metaphor. They just changed the idea of the show being more in those golden fields that I think, at one time, we expected snow to be there a lot longer. In several episodes, there was absolutely no snow whatsoever, but in order to tie it into the timeline of the show, they would bring in snow and put it around light posts and mailboxes. If you start looking at episodes four, five and six, any snow that you see was not there earlier in the day.
Lastly, to your knowledge, is the book officially closed on Insidious?
I never look at anything as closed. I don’t know what you would do, but I never felt like it was closed. I just felt like for Josh Lambert, we’ve already seen him possessed and free of possession. There’s not a whole lot for that guy to do anymore. I don’t know where they would want to go with the series, but I never close any doors. There’s no big red door that’s closed.
But, it hasn’t come up in conversation of late?
(Wilson hesitates.) Well … (Laughs.) I see these people a lot, but there’s no script or anything like that. I just don’t know what you’d do, but I haven’t talked specifically about anything. I talk to Jason Blum every so often, and we’re friends. And I’ll see Leigh (Whannell)... James keeps an eye on that, but I don’t know where you’d go.
Midway is currently in theaters.
by Sheraz Farooqi
by Graeme McMillan