The Full Wilkinson

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

Separate Liesis 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, who 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 LA on Sept. 30, has not yet been released in England—a fact that doesn't seem to trouble Wilkinson, who admits he's rarely even offered parts in English movies anymore, unduly. 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 bean 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 BedroomWilkinson 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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