Tom Wilkinson is a renowned character actor whose recent appearance as a mentally unstable lawyer in Michael Clayton has earned him numerous plaudits, among them an Oscar nomination. He was born on the 12th of December 1948, in Leeds. His father took the family to Canada when Wilkinson was very young, and there they lived for some five years before returning to Yorkshire.
He attended RADA, and upon leaving was taken on by Richard Eyre, artistic director of Nottingham’s Playhouse. Wilkinson remained there for two years, joining the Birmingham Rep in 1976 before moving on to the National Theatre – where he featured in John Schlesinger’s 1977 production of Julius Caesar with Brian Cox and John Gielgud.
He made his silver screen debut in Andrzej Wajda’s The Shadow Line in 1976. The film was poorly received but Wilkinson’s prestige continued to increase, as he appeared with Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench in the dark drama Wetherby, and in TV productions such as Ruth Rendell’s Shake Hands Forever and the curiously titled Attic: The Hiding Of Anne Frank. Stage success would also continue on into the nineties. 1990 saw him deliver a brilliant John Proctor in Miller’s The Crucible, directed by Howard Davies at the Olivier, whilst in 1993 he received exceptional notices for his performance as King Lear at the Royal Court.
The early nineties also saw Wilkinson appearing more frequently on the small screen, including the first series of ‘Prime Suspect’ and a leading role in the popular 1994 adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit – for which he received his first BAFTA nomination. His first BAFTA win, however, was later for his performance as a repressed steel works supervisor in The Full Monty, the role which brought him international recognition.
Wilkinson’s stock rose in Hollywood with his villainous turn in the Jackie Chan-starring Rush Hour. He returned to England to appear as a menacing drug dealer in Essex Boys, but it was his performance in the acclaimed 2001 American drama In the Bedroom which earned him his first Academy Award nomination. He has subsequently appeared in a variety of films, from the courtroom drama The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Michel Gondy’s quirky rom-com Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and the upcoming Woody Allen film Cassandra’s Dream.
Was acting always what you wanted to do?
No, I actually wanted to be a farmer. But I was at school and somebody asked me to direct a play – there was nobody else around to do it, so I said okay, and suddenly I discovered something I could do. Really well. And that was it for me, really.
You worked a lot in television and in theatre before making the shift to mainstream film work. What are the main differences between those media?
Well, you make more money…and I’d always had a sort of childish aspiration to do movies, you know, that always seemed to be the thing. When I started off in the seventies acting for money, you worked in the theatre, that’s just what you did. So I did that for the first ten years or so, and gradually did more and more television, and then I saw a few of my friends start making movies, and thought “Oh, I could do that too”, and it worked out pretty well.
You’ve been involved in a lot of very acclaimed projects, how do you go about choosing roles?
There’s not really any specific things you look for – you want a good script, and a role in which you think you can shine. If those all fit the bill, then you’re good to go.
Some actors are very “method” about their roles, they do enormous amounts of preparation and stay in character between takes, are you one of those or more at the other end of the spectrum?
No, other end of the spectrum, definitely. The edge of the other end of the spectrum, in fact.
Your role in Michael Clayton is very psychologically intense – did you do any research?
No, I didn’t. It was a really good script, so in a sense what’s to research? The thing about playing somebody who’s having a breakdown is what you don’t do is “mad acting” – you act as if it’s the most normal thing in the world for him to say what he says and do what he does.
How much does the previous work of your collaborators influence you when you’re choosing a role?
Not really. If it’s marginal – if you think “oh, I might do this script”, and you then make inquiries about the director and the last two films have been awful, then you probably don’t do it.
This was Tony Gilroy’s first feature film, what was your experience of working with him?
He was fantastic. I mean, if you write the script you’re as well-prepared as you possibly can be. And because he’s very intellectually confident, he didn’t have any ego issues about asking people’s advice, so it wasn’t tough at all, he was absolutely fine. He had a very good team around him. The cinematographer was Robert Elswit, who shot There Will Be Blood and a few other things, so he’s pretty good.
Most of your screen time in the film is shared with George Clooney, what was your working relationship like?
It was great, he’s a really nice guy. I think he’s a rather remarkable man, given that he’s incredibly famous and can’t go anywhere without being recognised; he seems to have kept his feet on the ground in a way that a lot of people find difficult.
You’ve had a long and varied career, but was this your first on-screen assassination?
I think you’re right, you know… In fact, I don’t think I’ve actually died in a movie before!
Was it a novel experience?
We practiced that scene a lot, because it’s done all in one shot, so we started rehearsing two or three days before. It was a lot tougher for the other two guys than it was for me. I thought it was important that my eyes were always open – I kept my eyes open, that was my one contribution to that scene…
In Michael Clayton, Jennifer Ehle originally filmed scenes as Michael’s wife, which were subsequently cut out. Were there any scenes for you that were cut?
No. The one film I’ve ever felt I was cut out of was ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’, and although all the things that I did were there, they were present in a very truncated form. Which annoyed me, because I was good in that film! What they tried to do was sort of change courses and go more mainstream by making it into a love story, rather than being about something more complicated.
The relationship between the painter and the guy who was subsidising him, my character, that was quite an interesting and rather sinister relationship, and they slightly marginalised it by making the decision that they made.
Touching on a great recent film, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind – what attracted you to that project and what was your experience?
I liked the script straight away, it had a certain buzz about it, and the cast was very good. My bit of the story was catchy, it had a beginning and a middle and an end, so I thought I could tell that little bit of it. And working with was fantastic, he’s the most amiable person in the world. I mean, he just shot and shot and shot, you’d do the scene and then he’d say “Do it again” and the camera would move around somewhere else, hand-held, just moving all the time.
The remarkable thing is that after that he can cut it all together so that it makes sense – it was a huge editing job he did on that film. Charlie Kaufman is a great guy too, I mean his scripts are quite unique, aren’t they? And when I saw the movie I was thrilled, you’re right, it is a really good film.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins is a bit more of a mainstream blockbuster than the types of projects you might typically go for, albeit a very intelligent one – what led you in that direction?
Once again, you know, the script was good, I read it and thought “Yeah, I can do that, it’s not going to take me very long, and it’ll be fun.” Good scenes, well written, Christian Bale who I’ve known for some years…and I get to go mad in the end! So what could be better?
Is there one particular role that you’d like to be remembered for?
There’s one I did on HBO TV a few years ago which I was very fond of, it was called Normal. It’s quite a touching story, basically it’s about a couple in the mid-west played by me and Jessica Lange, and the husband announces at the beginning of the movie that he wants to have a sex change. It’s very sympathetically done; it was tough to do in a certain sense, but it was a nice script.
And the thing is, last night when I was leaving the BAFTAs I heard this voice say “Excuse me, Mr Wilkinson”, and I turned and she – I think I should call her she, although it was a guy, said “Thank you very much for Normal”. I was slightly distracted so it was only as I turned away that I realised what I was seeing, that this was somebody who was having the same experience that my character had in the movie. So I was very pleased, I’m proud of that one.
And on the flip side, if there was one role you could strike from the record?
There’s one movie I haven’t seen and I don’t think I ever will – it was called Black Knight, with Martin Lawrence.
Yeah, I’ve heard about that one.
Oh dear God…I’m not sure that was one of the high spots of my career.
Do you have any favourite films in general?
I wouldn’t want to get rid of the films of Preston Sturgess, or the films of Sam Peckinpah. I like westerns a lot.
Bearing that in mind, have you seen any of the recent revisionist westerns – there’s been a whole slew of them lately?
Yeah, I saw The Assassination of Jesse James. A lot of it was very nice. A bit long, I thought.
Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
I’m doing a few days on the next Tony Gilroy movie, Duplicity, it’s not going to involve me that much. Because of the strike, people haven’t been able to really get their projects sorted out as they might have wanted to – there’s a few things on the horizon but nothing that I really know about yet, so we’ll see.