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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. Wilkinson is a family man who's never been much for hobnobbing, and he's amused when I tell him that, back in LA, 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 it was made in 2003, Wilkinson hasn't seen Separate Lies, 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 Parkwriter 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.
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