The Full Wilkinson 

With three new films about to hit theaters, the British character actor finds himself ever more at home in America

Thursday, Sep 15 2005
On a sodden late August morning in London, just hours before New Orleans went underwater, I showed up at the home of Tom Wilkinson to talk about the three movies he has coming out in the United States this fall. The name may not strike a bell, but if you’re any kind of a moviegoer you’re bound to recognize the lived-in Everyman face of the British actor, who has brilliantly served up dozens of men in pain — stuffed shirts, long-suffering husbands, ruefully wised-up types, and the occasional hard-ass, not to mention the bare ass that he gamely unveiled in The Full Monty. Prolific though he is, Wilkinson has only once played a lead, in Todd Field’s chamber piece, In the Bedroom (2001), where his modulated portrayal of a Maine fisherman undone by the death of his son won him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Like other character actors who want (and usually need) to keep working, Wilkinson is often a great deal better than the movies he’s in, and one suspects that his range is far wider than the specialty he’s developed, not altogether by choice, in playing tortured men.

Wilkinson is philosophical about this. “I suppose everyone becomes a character actor once they’ve passed 45,” he says dryly. Like most British actors, Wilkinson, who’s 56, sees himself as a working professional, not a star, and lives happily well under the radar of the publicity machinery. The last thing he feels like doing right now, he says, is showing up at the Venice Film Festival to promote The Exorcism of Emily Rose, an overheated potboiler in which he plays a priest agonized by the death of a young woman whose demons he’d tried to expel. (As it turns out, the movie needed no promotion — it earned over $30 million on its opening weekend.) Wilkinson is a family man who’s never been much for hobnobbing, and he’s amused when I tell him that, back in L.A., someone attached to the film business had eagerly asked me to report back on “Tom’s house.” Aside from the odd rock star or art-world celebrity who buys stately homes (while I was in London, bad-boy artist Damien Hirst plonked down 300 million pounds of his elephant-dung profits for a Gothic pile that he plans to live in and convert into a museum, read monument to himself), most English arty types live simply. Wilkinson is no exception, even if his large house on a quiet, leafy street in Muswell Hill — a left-liberal North London enclave just down the street from the seedy student commune I lived in during the late ’60s — must be worth millions in London’s bloated property market. But this airy, sparely furnished residence is as understated as its owner, who’s reputed to be so media-averse that I arrived quaking with fear at the prospect of one of those testy, drag-it-out-of-them interviews for which the likes of British directors Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh and Neil Jordan are famous.

“I’m not exactly a publicist’s dream,” Wilkinson remarks genially as he busies himself making coffee and shooing a small but excitable white dog away from my ankles. Given his round, jowly features, I expected the actor to be stocky or plump, but he’s long and rangy with an athlete’s relaxed physical ease (“I’m sports-crazy”), and in conversation he’s expansive, charming and reflective in that uniquely British way of circling around a point and dropping into the second person in mid-sentence. As we settle down to talk, the actor’s leggy, almost shockingly blue-eyed wife, Diana Hardcastle (who has a small part in one of his new films, A Good Woman), and his younger daughter Molly decamp to buy ingredients for a Cretan lunch that Molly, inspired by a recent family vacation, is going to make. Wilkinson is matter-of-fact in the way of most English Northerners. He grew up working class in Leeds but must have lost his accent — these days he sounds almost posh, though he had no trouble dropping into a Sheffield twang for The Full Monty — when he came south to go to the University of Canterbury, where he took English and American studies, then went on to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art on a government grant. He’s also coolly analytic, almost detached about his work. In a neutral way, he asks what I think of his latest movies, having himself seen a completed version of only A Good Woman. A solid enough adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan, Mike Barker’s movie is remarkable solely for Wilkinson’s subtly amused turn as Tuppy, a worldly-wise millionaire who casts an unclouded eye on the hypocritical morality of London’s idle rich and offers love and compassion to the fallen woman (played by a disastrously miscast Helen Hunt) they reject. The movie, Wilkinson concedes, was tepidly received in England (Lions Gate was scheduled to release it in the U.S. this month, but has postponed it indefinitely), but he rates it “almost very good, but it doesn’t quite make it, possibly because of Helen. I don’t quite know.”

Although Separate Lies was made in 2003, Wilkinson hasn’t seen it, which is easily the best of his three new films, despite being wholly funded by the geniuses behind Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? Written and directed by his friend, Gosford Park writer Julian Fellowes, it’s about an affluent couple whose marriage falls apart when the wife, played by Emily Watson, falls for Rupert Everett’s caddish ne’er-do-well. The script, adapted from a novel by Nigel Balchin, was originally titled A Way Through the Wood, a reference to Dante’s famous line, “Sometimes I find myself in the middle of a dark wood,” and was, in early drafts, littered with quotes from the great poet. “I think Dante got the elbow,” says Wilkinson, grinning appreciatively. In a role not unlike the one he plays in In the Bedroom, Wilkinson plays James Manning, a sanctimonious stiff of a lawyer who’s as guilty of lying to himself as his errant wife is of deceiving him, and whose rigid moral universe crumbles amid the wreckage of his marriage. The least mannered of actors, Wilkinson has one of those profoundly ordinary mugs on which almost anything can be written, as well as a way of flagging several incompatible emotions at once that puts you on the inside of even the least endearing of his characters.

Separate Lies is no more than an intelligent morality play, but it’s carried by Wilkinson’s quietly explosive performance, first alienating and then terrifically moving as James undergoes the most painful, and finally most useful transformation of his life — he gives up seeing his wife as a trophy to go with the weekend country cottage. It’s an inescapably English, haute-bourgeois movie ­— which is precisely why it was offered to an American distribution company, Fox Searchlight, which initially turned it down before reconsidering on the back of Fellowes’ success with Gosford Park. “We felt quite strongly that the Americans would be more sympathetic to it than the English,” says Wilkinson. “As you doubtless know, there’s a stratum of English theater and film critics who would say, ‘Well, why the fuck should we care about these people?’ They like their dramas to be about the working class.” It’s an enduring irony of the British arts scene that “they” who crank out the working-class dramas are almost all middle class, while Wilkinson and many other actors from the wrong side of the tracks have no starry illusions about the proletarian life and are only too happy to play toffs.

Accordingly, Separate Lies, which opens in New York this week and arrives in L.A. on September 30, has not yet been released in England — a fact that doesn’t unduly trouble Wilkinson, who admits he’s rarely even offered parts in English movies anymore. That’s partly due to a phlegmatic temperament that, he says, has always allowed him to cope with the setbacks and rejections that attend any acting career. “A lot of people find these things crushing, but I never have, and I think that’s stood me in good stead.” Maybe he just doesn’t care enough. “There’s a part of me that has a kind of Coriolanus-like arrogance, which is that there’s always a world elsewhere. And I’m slightly fatalistic as well.” But it’s also due to the fact that he has become primarily an American actor.

Unlike many Brits of his age, Wilkinson has always felt kindly toward America. He spent part of his childhood in Canada, where he became a hockey and baseball fanatic, and his attraction to the other side of the pond was informed by the steady diet of American pop culture that flowed back across the Atlantic after World War II. Later, his ambitions were fed by a roiling British counterculture in which working-class kids like himself felt encouraged for the first time to enter the arts, traditionally an Oxbridge upper-class ghetto. There were no actors in his family, but he got hooked when an opportunity to direct a short play came up at his secondary school. “Everyone chose these silly am-dram kinds of things. I chose Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna, and I thought, I can do this, I can do this.” And he did, at the Nottingham Playhouse under Richard Eyre, and in television through his 40s, before making the jump to film.

Wilkinson had gotten a few minor roles in Hollywood movies, notably The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), an African lion epic with Val Kilmer (“not a very good film, but not a bad one either”). But his real breakthrough came when The Full Monty, in which he played a stuffy unemployed foreman liberated by stripping, turned into an improbable hit in 1997 and won several Oscar nominations. Initially rather green about who’s who in Hollywood, Wilkinson went into Rush Hour (1998) under the impression that it was directed by a woman named Jackie Chan. Then came the Miramax prestige picture Shakespeare in Love, with Wilkinson adorable as a hard-nosed impresario who melts when Shakespeare throws him a bone with a small part in a new work called Romeo and Juliet. The multiply nominated In the Bedroom (2001) was a nice, if pedestrian, film in which Wilkinson shone opposite Sissy Spacek, but it put him on the map as an actor who could play Americans. “It was so much fun to kind of be an American and indulge what I guess is a chameleon-like quality that I have as a person, not just as an actor. The person talking to you now is not quite the real Tom Wilkinson, but whoever he is I don’t really know. It’s probably some kind of weird disorder that will finally catch up with me.”

Since In the Bedroom Wilkinson has worked steadily, mostly in supporting roles in movies like Girl With A Pearl Earring, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Stage Beauty. One senses he’d like to be in more films like this year’s Batman Begins, in which he played crime lord Carmine Falcone, as well as indies that pay nothing but are loads of fun to work on, like The Night of the White Pants, an upcoming comedy by newcomer Amy Talkington, who cast Wilkinson as a Texan patriarch forced to go out on the town with his daughter’s punk boyfriend. When I ask him to name the role he’d most like to play, he says, grinning, “It hasn’t been written yet.” Then, after another of his reflective silences, “What I would really like is to be offered a classy, funny comedy, which is the toughest thing to do.” For now there’s nothing on the calendar, which is “nice for a bit,” and Wilkinson is reading his way through Philip Roth and pondering that most actorly of problems, the unknowability of the self. “I don’t have that thing that a lot of actors have, that I’ve desperately got to work all the time,” he says. “The older I get, the less I want to work.” And he orders me a cab.

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