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People In Film | Tom Wilkinson

Tom Wilkinson | The Actor as Craftsman

In John Madden’s The Debt, Tom Wilkinson plays a man with secrets. The story takes place in two different time frames. In one, three Mossad agents  – David Peretz, Rachel Singer and Stephan Gold – embark on a 1960s covert mission to kidnap a Nazi war criminal living in East Berlin. In the second, the same three characters live with the secrets of that mission 30 years later. For Wilkinson, who plays Stephan Gold, that meant absorbing a myriad of factors – the director’s vision, the characters' secrets, the performance of the young Gold (played by Marton Csokas) – to create his character. To make Gold real, he needed first to stay true to the story’s prime question, as Wilkinson puts it, “can one be redeemed after the endless duplicity of being a secret agent?” But he needed not only to layer secret onto secret, but be faithful to another actor’s secrets. Working with his earlier self, played by Csokas, Wilkinson explains, “I later took a look at his scenes and worked further on the character with John. There was a certain continuity I was careful not to break.” With the precision of a watchmaker, Wilkinson built his character, displaying an attention to detail and craft that has been his trademark for decades.

Tom Wilkinson | An Accidental Actor

Richard Eyre directing at the Nottingham Playhouse in 1975; Playbill for Schlesinger’s 1977 Julius Caesar

Born in Leeds to a farmer, Tom Wilkinson might not have appeared destined to become a movie star.  After moving to Canada for a short period, Wilkinson’s family returned to England, where he eventually attended the University of Kent. It was there, Wilkinson told the Cambridge Student, that he fell into acting. “I actually wanted to be a farmer,” Wilkinson explained, “But I was at school and somebody asked me to direct a play –– there was nobody else around to do it, so I said okay, and suddenly I discovered something I could do. Really well.” He joined the college drama society, even going on to become its president. After college, in 1974, he was taken under the wing of Richard Eyre, the director of the Nottingham Playhouse, who helped launch his acting career. Discussing his first meeting with Wilkinson, Eyre told The Guardian, “It was the best audition I had ever seen…It was startlingly real and authoritative." A few years later, Wilkinson joined the National Theater, appearing in John Schlesinger’s noted 1977 production of Julius Caesar. This production, which marked the last Shakespearean stage role for John Gielgud, heralded the start of another great actor's career.

Tom Wilkinson | Sharpening his Skills on Stage

Wilkinson playing Antonio in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1981 The Merchant of Venice

Like many British actors of his generation, Wilkinson built up a strong reputation as a stage actor before turning to screen and television. After touring with a number of theater companies, Wilkinson in 1980 joined the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, where he quickly appeared in stagings of As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and Richard II. In 1984, he inaugurated the role of T. S. Eliot in Michael Hastings' Tom & Viv (although he didn't continue on for the New York production, or the film adaptation). But his work was not unnoticed. In 1986, Wilkinson was given the London Critics Circle award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the revival of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. Two years later, he was again singled out by the London Critics Circle for another Ibsen play, this time winning Best Actor for his performance in An Enemy of the People. In the 1990s, Wilkinson’s TV and film career took off, but he never abandoned the stage. In 2004, he was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to drama.

Tom Wilkinson | Bringing Complex Characters to TV

Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin in John Adams

While Wilkinson’s appeared only sporadically in films during the 1970s and 80s, his television career began in the 80s and has being going strong ever since. His part in the popular 1986 adaptation of Jeffrey Archer’s political melodrama First Among Equals got him early recognition. His calm, strong presence also landed him roles in a number of whodunits, from the 1985 Agatha Christie adaptation Pocket Full of Rye to the 1988 Ruth Rendell Mysteries to the 1991 premiere of the Prime Suspect series, playing opposite his co-star in The Debt, Helen Mirren. In 1994, Wilkinson was nominated for a BAFTA for playing so perfectly the self-righteous, evil Seth Pecksniff in the BBC miniseries adaptation of Charles Dickens’ rowdy and rambling novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Wilkinson was proud of his performance, later telling The Guardian, "I looked at it and I thought: I can't get it any better than that. It came out exactly as I meant it to come out. It won a couple of prizes and I thought, I can act, there's no question." In 2008, Wilkinson was recognized across the pond by receiving an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Miniseries for his turn as Benjamin Franklin in the HBO series John Adams.

Tom Wilkinson | Turning Supporting Roles into Star Turns

From In the Bedroom

From his early appearances in films like David Hare’s 1985 Wetherby or Ang Lee’s 1995 Sense and Sensibility, Tom Wilkinson was often cast in supporting roles. So it makes sense that his breakout performances should have come in ensemble films, like the working-class stripper comedy The Fully Monty, for which he individually won a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor and collectively, with his co-stars, took home a Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast. Likewise, Wilkinson’s part in the 1998 ensemble comedy Shakespeare in Love was also greeted with critical acclaim, earning him a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. (This was also his first time working with The Debt director John Madden.) In 2001, Wilkinson moved into the spotlight with a starring role as the father of a murdered boy in Todd Field’s In the Bedroom, a performance for which he was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, BAFTAs, and Screen Actors Guild Awards, to name just a few. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote, “If you want to see a master class in acting, watch [Sissy] Spacek and Wilkinson go at each other.” Despite all this critical attention, Wilkinson reportedly diminished his Oscar nomination, joking, “Oh, my goodness. I think I know who is going to win it, and his name isn't Tom Wilkinson."

Tom Wilkinson | In the Spotlight

From Michael Clayton

After In the Bedroom, Wilkinson’s Hollywood options opened up, as he pursued both big-budget superhero fare like the 2005 blockbuster Batman Begins and smaller, highly acclaimed work such as Michel Gondry’s 2004 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, gaining critical attention for both. While Wilkinson continued to be a go-to character actor for smart directors, his work was more and more singled out by critics. His role as an unhinged corporate litigator in Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton dazzled USA Today’s Claudia Puig, who wrote that “Clayton may be Clooney's best role in a body of work that is increasingly assured. Wilkinson is just as convincing as a brilliant but unhinged legal mind, with an innocence that leads to an epiphany, the nature of which he tries to articulate in his opening speech.” For the movie, Wilkinson received Best Supporting Actor nominations at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Screen Actors Guild Awards. Yet despite such accolades, Wilkinson keeps a workingman’s respect for putting in the time and learning the craft. He told The Guardian that as a young actor, “you are so ignorant; you don't know what a good production should be. You don't know what the rules are. And then, when you start doing it professionally, you learn the rules and become more intimidated. Then, when you get to my age – and I've been doing it for a lot of years now – you know what to do on any given job."


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