Star of stage and screen, Patrick Wilson has over the decades crafted a varied and accomplished career. From his Tony-nominated roles in Broadway shows like Oklahoma!, Emmy-nominated turns on shows like Angels in America, and big-screen turns in everything from genre pictures like the Insidious and Conjuring films to the upcoming Aquaman, he’s proven to be a versatile and effective thespian.
To celebrate these accomplishments Tampa’s Gasparilla International Film Festival chose Wilson as the recipient of their annual career achievement award. Wilson’s roots are tied to the area, so this was a homecoming of sorts. Just prior to receiving his award, Birth.Movies.Death. had the pleasure of hosting a conversation with the actor about the breadth of his work, some of his films that may have been overlooked and his own views on the current political situation.
What was the first thing you saw that made you think “I can do this!”?
When you grow up St. Petersburg [near Tampa], pre-internet and all of that, Hollywood seems so far away. I didn't have those dreams, really. The decision for me to go into [acting] as a career happened in high school between my sophomore and junior year. I went to Boston University for a summer program in a pre-college setting. Everything's sort of acting, singing, dancing and all of that kind of stuff, and it was the first time I'd been around a bunch of kids that had the same interests. I remember reading some material in a couple of scenes and being emotionally moved by it.
You weren't some teen who drove down to Orlando and wanted to sing on a Disney stage?
No, I was not that guy. The boy band craze was starting then - this was late 80s early 90s - but I didn't want to do that. My mom and dad are very supportive of the arts - my dad being a TV anchor here for such a long time, and my mother is a singer and was a choir director. I was always surrounded by the arts. So when I wanted to go into it as a career, it was only met with complete support. Their opinion was, if you're going to be a doctor, you're not going to go hang out at a hospital. You've gotta train for it. So let's look at the best schools, see if you can get it, and we'll go from there.
From the outside, we see a radical difference between you being in something like Oklahoma!, and being in something like a James Wan horror film or working in Fargo. For you as a performer, do you see them as radically different aspects of your performance?
No. That was one of the reasons that I got into musical theatre, because when I went to Carnegie Mellon and I studied musical theatre, I looked at it the same was I did Chekov, David Mamet or anything else. [It was done] with the same respect, the same attention to detail. I could sit there and dissect a scene in Carousel just as I could in Henry V, with the same about of intensity and respect.
I was not a song and dance guy. Yes, I sang and I danced, but I was not a big showy guy.
Similarly, when you're in horror films, you're also not the “horror guy”. Some have called you “Scream King”, yet it seems you’re the most human character within the surreal reality of the situation.
It's true. If anything horror films have been the most theatrical. James and I always laugh because, look, if you've got lines damning Bathsheba back to hell you've gotta just chew it! It feels like melodrama, in the best way. Look at how Hugh Jackman was the same way, he just inhabited Wolverine because he'd come from musical theatre. You had to just be in it to win it - You can't half-ass it, you've gotta whole-ass it.
On the other hand, you don't want to be constantly singing to the rafters when you're doing intimate scenes on film.
I'm constantly toeing that line. In the horror stuff with James I become very technical about where are you with the camera. I have to have faith in a director that's going to go tone it down, or I need to see more. There are many times in every film, where I can think of moments that are maybe too big, that need to dial down, and just the opposite. The first real movie that I did of note, being Angels in America for HBO…
Oh, there were two unknown performers you played against, one who the president thinks is overrated, the other some kid who was in the The Godfather.
Right, so the overrated one who's been nominated for 20 Oscars is Miss Meryl Streep. She, Mike Nichols and I would have these conversations about [how] I approached [a scene] in a similar vein to her . That was something that I didn't do consciously, but you listen to Mike Nichols when he talks to you, because you start from the inside out if that makes any sense. She's drastically different from someone like [co-star] Al Pacino who's constantly paring down.
So compared to your castmates you're Streepian instead of a Pacino-like method man?
Yes. So when you're doing that, there's never a, whether it's you're playing to the back wall, or whether you're doing just the tiniest of close ups, it's still grounded.
Looking back on your career is there a film or show that you think is underappreciated?
There was a movie that I did maybe two years ago called Zipper. There was a scene I did in that movie that was the hardest scene that I've ever done, period. I loved the little movie Barry Munday, I thought it had a lot of heart.
What objectives did you set for yourself as a young actor
When I came to New York and I was doing musical theatre, my goal was to be nominated for a Tony and to be on an original cast album. I was fortunate to pull that off in a handful of years.
What are your goals now?
I don't sit home and feel I want to be nominated for an Oscar, I want to be in Oscar calibre movies. I’m trying to navigate as much as I can the muddy waters that are Hollywood and not let the system get me down.
Do you still see a great difference between film and TV acting?
To be honest with you, [with] so many movies now you don't have the luxury you used to of taking time. It used to be very commonplace to have 40 days to shoot a film. Now it's “can you do it in 24?” With Fargo I think we had 10 or 11 days per episode. So I didn't see a lot of difference. You know you're not going to get a ton of coverage on a scene, so you're not going to sit there and have 15 takes from one angle. But I've done a lot of independent film where you're going to get 3 takes and then you're moving on to another set up unless somebody really screws up.
Do you still watch your films in theatres? Is it still important for you to see them on the big screen?
If they make it there, yeah. I don't think that will ever end. There's nothing like that experience. You're not seeing adult dramas done in theatres that much anymore. I'm fortunate that the horror, genre movies are one of the lasting franchises.
This is why film festivals are so important, because you actually have a chance to see some of these little films on the big screen.
Absolutely, that's the, 100%, I cut my teeth doing independent films. For me, that's the grit, that's the good stuff.
Any chance of you getting behind a film and maybe directing?
There's a movie that I wrote with my writing partner and my brother Paul that I want to direct and it takes place here [in South Florida]. I've directed some theatre and I would love to get into directing film.
You grew up with a father and brother in broadcast media – Of late the press has been under great attack as being “fake news”. As the person in your family trafficking in fiction do you have any comment?
These days I feel like I'm defending the media. I came from a generation of loving and watching my father navigate the waters. I see the effort that it takes.
When you marry someone that's from a communist country you see what it's really like when the media is not allowed to speak their voice. It's so valuable to have the news persist and pursue. Yes, they annoy people, and yes, it gets sensationalist. Al that being said, it's a bedrock of our society to have a free press.
Would you say the diligence of journalism has influenced your desire to tell the truth through your art?
Sure. The only difference is, my dad and my brother look in to the camera, I just look to the side of it.