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Wilkinson’s Acting Credits Run the Gamut

NEWSDAY

Look up Tom Wilkinson’s name on most Internet search engines and you may find, along with the usual cast-and-credits lists and news clips, the remnants of what used to be an honest-to-goodness Tom Wilkinson Web site. You’d think most actors would be flattered that someone would go to the trouble, but Wilkinson, when informed that such a thing existed, looks as if someone just strangled his dog.

“Who? Who did this?” he asks, eyes growing wide behind his spectacles. All that’s known, he is told, is that the site has been dismantled by its creators because of what they say is a “lack of interest.” Once again, Wilkinson’s reaction--relief--is unexpected.

“My agent asked me if I was interested in having a Web site, and I said I didn’t want one. I didn’t want people prying into my life,” he says during a recent visit to New York. “I consider myself quite private.”

Private or not, it may become increasingly hard for the 53-year-old British actor to keep his distance from the kind of attention that creates fan clubs, Web sites and their like. His performance in Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom,” which opened Friday, has drawn rave reviews and enthusiastic speculation about an Academy Award best actor nomination. Wilkinson and his co-star, Sissy Spacek, were honored for their performances with special jury prizes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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So completely do they inhabit the roles of Matt and Ruth Fowler, a lively middle-aged Maine couple stricken by violent family tragedy, that they evoke the cinematic equivalent of theatrical tours de force. Wilkinson’s triumph may be magnified because he is relatively unknown compared to Spacek, who has now entering the third decade of a storied movie career. Wilkinson has been a working actor as long as she has. But his work in film has grown more in the latter half of the 1990s, playing mostly upright and/or uptight characters in such movies as “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) and “Shakespeare in Love” (1998).

He can now be seen onscreen in a film that is about as far away from the small, intense drama “In the Bedroom” as you can get, playing a dissolute but noble sidekick to Martin Lawrence in the broad medieval comedy “Black Knight,” which also opened last week. And next spring he’ll be in a new movie adaptation of “The Importance of Being Earnest” alongside Rupert Everett and Reese Witherspoon.

He is perhaps best known to audiences outside Great Britain as Gerald, the laid-off Sheffield steel mill manager in “The Full Monty” who choreographs dirty dances for his fellow laid-off workers. “At the time I got that [‘Monty’] script, I was up for a regular role in a TV series in England where I would have been in every scene,” Wilkinson says. “And I remember, when I picked ‘Full Monty,’ all these people were saying I was crazy, you know, ‘What are you doing this silly thing for?”’

The “silly thing” became an international blockbuster and solidified Wilkinson’s determination to broaden, with more film work, a portfolio crowded with stage and television credits. “I figured: Look, the United States is where the big boys play, and if you want to sit at the table, you’ve got to go into movies. Which was a tough decision to make because in some ways it was having to prove myself all over again.”

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He’s since taken a variety of roles ranging across the commercial spectrum. Along with performances in such art-house fare as “Oscar and Lucinda” (1997) and “The Governess” (1998), Wilkinson has also played bad guys in “Rush Hour” (1998) and “The Patriot” (2000). “You have to assess each role, even for its commercial value,” he says. “The danger is that you get on a little bit of a roll where you accept anything you’re offered and a lot of it is rubbish. So I do become more selective in what I decide to spent time doing.”

He had no hesitation about taking the Matt Fowler role in “Bedroom” when it was offered to him by producers Ted Hope and James Schamus, with whom Wilkinson had worked on “Sense and Sensibility” and “Ride With the Devil” (1999).

“I thought it would give signals to American moviemakers that I could sustain a leading role,” he says. “And an American accent.” (In the film, he plays a Maine doctor.)

His relative anonymity as a character actor was also an advantage. “Todd Field, who’s an actor himself, wanted something very specific from me. He didn’t want someone with a lot of star power in the way. He wanted the actors to come from someplace relatively neutral. And I certainly fit that bill,” Wilkinson adds with characteristic dryness.

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Born in the northern England town of Leeds, Wilkinson emigrated with his farmer parents to northern Canada. “I was there between ages 5 and 11, which was just enough time for me to fall in love with pop culture of the 1950s. Though I didn’t see a television properly until I was 12 and we were back in England, I read Dell comics, listened to baseball and [would] go every Saturday to the movies. I was just knocked out by Cadillacs with tail fins. Back home, all the cars were no bigger than this tabletop.”

Well into his teens, he planned to follow his parents’ profession. Then he attended the University of Kent “because I couldn’t think of anything else to do.” Almost by accident, he found himself directing a college play. “After the first rehearsals, I decided this is what I want to do with my life, and once I found out you could make a life for yourself doing this, there was no turning back.”

Rather than wait to be recognized as a director, Wilkinson went right into acting, collecting credits with the BBC and on stage. The life of a professional actor carries, for Wilkinson, the customary highs--and, well, whatever you call the opposite. “There was one stretch about 10 years ago where I thought I’d had it made. I was in a TV miniseries that ran for two weeks and not long afterward, I got to appear on stage with Vanessa Redgrave in ‘Ghosts.’ The first and only time I’d ever seen my name in lights on a West End [London] marquee.

“And then I went on holiday with my wife, Diana, and thought there’d be a pile of scripts. When I got back there was nothing. And there continued to be nothing for 18 months.”

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That dry spell, among other things, taught Wilkinson to take nothing for granted. “For a very long time early in my career, I tended to drift from job to job. I didn’t have great financial ambitions. I always thought, if you’ve got enough money for a pack of cigarettes and an Italian meal, what else do you need?”

Wilkinson still retains some of that philosophy, though he’s modified it somewhat given his now-heavy workload and that nascent Oscar buzz.

“I don’t know exactly how or if [‘Bedroom’] will change things for me, and I would be the last person to ask,” he says. “I try to keep it to this: I’ll generally read the scripts as they come in and if I commit to it, I’ll do the best job I possibly can and when I finish, I’ll go home. I don’t quite know what to say about the rest of it.

“I don’t always enjoy this publicity process because I sometimes feel I’m a huckster on the road selling miracle cures for baldness.” But at least with “In the Bedroom” he adds, “I’m selling something that actually will make your hair grow.”

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