Talented Tom Wilkinson takes a step up from 'that guy' status with Oscar buzz from 'In the Bedroom'
A veteran actor with three decades of stage and screen experience, until a couple months ago Tom Wilkinson was, for most Americans, one of those recognizable faces that inspires the question, where have I seen him before?
The answer is he's that guy shaking his 50-something booty in "The Full Monty," sticking Geoffrey Rush's heels in the fire in "Shakespeare In Love," trying to kill Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in "Rush Hour," surrendering the British army to Mel Gibson's revolutionaries in "The Patriot," learning 20th century street slang from Martin Lawrence in the 14th Century comedy "Black Knight," and playing pivotal roles in a handful of other features over the last few years.
But with the critical success, growing box office and Oscar buzz surrounding "In the Bedroom" -- a powerfully understated exposed nerve of an independent film about the emotional wreckage of losing a child -- Wilkinson has suddenly found his industry cache, name recognition and awards speculation most definitely on the rise.
As recently as November, he couldn't have imagined being on a nationwide press tour, spending a day in a San Francisco hotel room being interviewed about the film. But, he says, "once Miramax gets involved, if they like your movie, there's a big machine that gets involved."
That machine is giving Academy voters the full-court press for "In the Bedroom," touting the film for Best Picture and its stars -- Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek -- for Best Actor and Actress for their performances as grieving parents whose relationship is coming apart at the seams in the wake of their son's murder.
With a dismissive wave of a freshly lit cigarette and solemn, sincere but amiable air of nonchalance, Wilkinson denies being wrapped up in Oscar fever. "I'm not hanging on a thread," he says. "I won't say I wouldn't be grateful and happy and delighted and thrilled to bits to receive a nomination. But I wouldn't be suicidal if it didn't happen."
But after noting that he lives in London, which he calls "a very parochial town, movie-wise," Wilkinson revisits the question on his own and admits he does have his hopes up, "I would feel a bit disappointed, there's no question about it."
Sporting an all-black wardrobe of denim and cashmere, and casually slouched in the yielding cushions of big chair in his hotel room (except when he leans forward to emphasize a point, which he frequently does) the actor ruminates on the bigger-picture philosophy he tries to maintain while the accolades come pouring in.
"The thing about acting (is) you've really got to have talent," Wilkinson says. "I have talent. I know it. I've been doing this for 30 years. But at the same time, you not only have to be good; you have to be good in hits. (To be singled out for awards) it's no good being great in something that goes straight to video."
Wilkinson landed his role in "Bedroom" through six degrees of separation. Director Todd Field got friendly with Stanley Kubrick's assistant while acting in "Eyes Wide Shut," that assistant knew Field was working on this film and recommended Wilkinson -- a friend -- for the role of the quietly grieving father.
So how did he tap into the kind of extreme grief displayed in this belatedly star-making performance?
"What I didn't do was think of my dead grandmother. Acting for me is not that quid pro quo," Wilkinson says with a sardonic laugh. "You know grief. You've had it in your own life. But I don't use it directly. It's processed through my acting instincts, the bit of me that knows about those things, so when it comes out it's not my grief that you're seeing, it's the grief of that character. It's active imagination. It's not a conscience process. If I started what it would be like if my own children were killed, I'd go mad."
Being an actor himself, Todd Field took a hands-off approach to directing his actors, Wilkinson says. "I think once he knew that we got it, that we got the hang of these characters, he did trust us. (He knew) he couldn't be at the actors all the time. He's got cameras to set up, other stuff to think about, other fish to fry."
Asked if he takes roles in movies like "Black Knight" and "Rush Hour" for the money so he can afford to do small pictures he feels passionate about like "In the Bedroom," Wilkinson is taken aback at the suggestion.
"No," he says firmly. "You can't do things for money. You just can't act them. There's gotta be something about the script that you really want to do. I wouldn't do a job if I didn't think I could do the best work I possibly could. For me at least, there's only one shot you have at a movie, and that's your best shot. If you can't give it that, don't go. They're paying you! You gotta do a job for them. They don't want somebody strutting around on the set going, 'I'd rather be somewhere else.'"
As for turning his current acclaim into more and better acting opportunities, Wilkinson says no matter what happens with the Academy Awards, it won't be a blow to his ego if he keeps on having to audition for roles.
"I don't mind going into rooms full of people who don't know who I am and don't give a f**k," he says matter-of-factly. "I'll read for them, I do a thing on video for them. Whatever it takes."