As a star, he's a self-starter

Times Staff Writer

It's not every actor who reaches his late 40s, decides to reinvent himself as a movie star and . . . succeeds.

Up until the late 1990s, the now 59-year-old Tom Wilkinson had, by his own measure, a comfortable life in the English theater, churning out memorable performances on stage and on television in the U.K., playing Helen Mirren's ex-husband in "Prime Suspect" and the pseudo-pious Seth Pecksniff in the miniseries of Dickens' "Martin Chuzzlewit." Then he began to dream a little bigger. He told his agent that he wanted to concentrate only on movies and he was willing to start again as a neophyte -- auditioning if need be.

"If people required me to do that, I would do that. I didn't have any pride," recalls Wilkinson, pausing a moment upon hearing how that sounds. "A man's got pride," he clarifies with a chuckle over the phone from his home in England, but whatever it took to re-create his career, "I'd do it," he says.

Wilkinson is one of those brilliant character actors -- like Mirren or James Broadbent or Bill Nighy -- who appear to grow willy-nilly in the English climate, bursting into American cinematic consciousness relatively late in life. Ten years after he successfully made the leap from the London stage to the big screen with the Academy Award-nominated indie sensation "The Full Monty," Wilkinson is celebrating his second Oscar nod, for his portrayal of the addled American corporate litigator Arthur Edens in writer-director Tony Gilroy's legal thriller, "Michael Clayton."

His first was back in 2001 when he was nominated for his heartbreaking turn as a father whose son's murderer is about to walk free in the emotionally charged "In the Bedroom."

At first glance, Wilkinson's face seems almost entirely unremarkable, pleasant, placid. But as he begins shifting his rangy 6-foot-1 frame, a feral intelligence sneaks out. His brain has bite. This is particularly apparent in "Michael Clayton," as his role required lots of baring -- both of his bottom when his character begins disrobing at a legal deposition -- and more importantly of his soul.

Edens is a certified genius in the middle of a mental breakdown, which he prefers to see as a breakthrough, Wilkinson says. "He sees the world in a new way. To him, it's an incredibly positive thing."

Suffering a crisis of conscience, the lawyer proceeds to sabotage the corporate liability case he has spent the last six years building on behalf of agribusiness giant U-North, a turn of events that throws him into conflict with his firm's morally dubious fixer, Michael Clayton, played by George Clooney.

Wilkinson didn't study bipolar lawyers to prepare. He adopted his usual mantra of playing the role entirely from his character's point of view: "You have the way it's written which compels you in a certain direction," he explains. "It's somebody whose brain is keeling. . . . It's taken over their life. They have to explain it to people, like the Ancient Mariner," Wilkinson says, referring to Coleridge's famed protagonist, doomed to wander the Earth and tell his story.

In the years since "The Full Monty," Wilkinson has appeared in such varied fare as "Shakespeare in Love," "The Patriot" and as the villain in "Rush Hour," but it wasn't until "In the Bedroom" that Wilkinson seemed to emerge from the horde of great actors in the United Kingdom.

And like many a great English actor (i.e. Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Clive Owen), Wilkinson came out of the working class. His dad was a farmer in Yorkshire who brought his family to Canada when Wilkinson was 4. After six years working in a factory, Wilkinson's father returned with the family to England, where he and his wife ran a pub in Cornwall. His father had died by the time Wilkinson was 17, and young Tom, who had a vague idea of becoming a gym teacher, switched schools, where he met Molly Sawdon, headmistress of St. James Grammar School.

"She saw something in me which she was going to cultivate," Wilkinson recalls. She'd take him and a crew of chosen students back to her home where "she'd teach us which knives and forks to pick up first -- table manners." There were extra lessons in English. "She pulled a few strings to get me into university." He was the first in his family ever to go.

By then, he'd already fallen for theater -- mostly through a chance opportunity to direct a play, Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano," the playwright's first effort at the theater of the absurd, a crescendo of seeming non sequiturs. "I read this description: Two people enter a room, talk to each other and discover they're man and wife. [I thought], 'This is the stuff for me.' It is completely wacky."

After attending the University of Kent and then the Royal Academy of Drama, he made his stage debut in Brecht's "The Mother" at a fringe theater in London. Wilkinson can still reel off his first line. He says he just remembers "significant" lines from significant (at least to him) parts. "It's amazing, I've done a lot of Shakespeare and I can't remember any of them," he adds with a laugh, though he does know "the entire screenplay of 'The Wild Bunch' by heart."

His other TV passion? Monica. Ross. And Rachel. "I'm totally hooked on reruns of 'Friends.' I know I shouldn't be. They show them between 5 and 6 every night of the week, and I get a slightly bad temper if I have to miss them, even if I've seen them 20 times. It's like a piece of music you know well but never get tired of."

Since tackling "Michael Clayton," Wilkinson has devoted himself to exploring icons of American political history, playing former Republican Secretary of State James Baker in the HBO film "Recount," about the contested 2000 presidential election, and Benjamin Franklin in the HBO miniseries "John Adams." He also tackled the role of a British gangster in Guy Ritchie's upcoming film "RocknRolla" and plays opposite Tom Cruise in "Valkyrie," about an attempted assassination of Hitler.

Wilkinson is arriving in America on Thursday for his next walk down Oscar's red carpet, with his 19-year-old daughter, Alice. (His longtime wife, actress Diana Hardcastle, is working.) He sounds pleased about the nomination but hardly overwhelmed, pointing out that when he was nominated for best actor for "In the Bedroom," his life didn't change overnight. "Funnily enough, that year I only did one other thing. I wasn't snowed under with mouth-watering roles."

This time, he's quite convinced "I'm not going to win. Javier Bardem is going to win. What it will make me feel is not remotely disappointed."

He'll just redouble his efforts. "The next time, I'm going to win it. I am not going to walk away from this job until I've won the bloody thing. I'm not quite at the top of the mountain." Getting a nomination means "you're up there, but you still have another few yards to go."


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