Tom Wilkinson is one of Britain’s best and most versatile actors. So why did he come to Australia to make Felony, a police drama where he plays a corrupt old school Sydney detective together with burly young Aussies Jai Courtney and Joel Edgerton?
The 66-year-old character actor from Yorkshire, who was born the son of an urban farmer in Leeds, really liked Edgerton’s screenplay. It follows Edgerton’s popular detective, who runs over a young boy early in the morning and does not stop. Wilkinson plays his alcoholic senior officer who is keen to cover up the mess, while Courtney is his new young righteous partner who wants to expose it.
Achieving recognition late, Wilkinson has twice been nominated for an academy award for his roles in In the Bedroom and Michael Clayton, so there are no pretentions here. Adept at both comedy and drama on both sides of the Atlantic, he has portrayed real life US politicians (Benjamin Franklin, Joe Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson), English aristocrats (Lord Queensbury, Lord Cornwallis, Lord Mansfield), regular Joes (a working class stripper in The Full Monty) and hardened criminals (a mob boss in Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla). Of course, the retiring Wilkinson regularly acts his younger co-stars off the screen, as is somewhat the case in Felony.
HB: I want you to talk ‘Strayan, mate!
TW: Oh, right! (Very convincing Aussie accent)
Were you nervous playing an Australian in an all-Australian cast?
I’ve done a lot of going into an American cast and being the only English guy and playing an American, so it’s okay. The only thing to fear is fear itself. They were a particularly welcoming bunch of Australian people on Felony and I was so enthusiastic about the project.
What were the best and most difficult moments making the film?
There were some nice scenes with Joel and Jai that were very well written from an actor’s point of view. Our characters represented three particular aspects of the moral dilemma and that was very skilfully done.
How do you choose your movies?
By the script. With Felony, I was on holiday, they sent the screenplay, I read it and said, “I’ll do it”. It’s very rare that I read a good script that I won’t do. I usually don’t care about the cast; most actors are generally all right.
Did you get out and about when you were in Australia?
I didn’t go out much. I stayed in because I was concerned about the film’s very long speeches, so I thought I’d better make sure I knew the bloody things. I stayed in a luxury flat overlooking the world’s most pretty harbour with all the ferry boats going in and out and everyone would phone me up and invite me to dinner and that would be very nice.
Do you recognise how people view you as a great actor? At Felony’s Toronto premiere, even though you’re playing a potentially reprehensible type, you received more claps than anyone on stage. You remind me of Stephen Frears; you’re dismissive of adulation.
Yes, it’s not a card I’ve ever played. I don’t really respond to it and I find it slightly baffling, because it’s not why I started doing what I do.
Where does your acting talent come from?
I don’t know. I don’t think there is a proper answer to that. It’s just a quality that you have that you don’t have a lot of control over. But what you have to do when you’re acting is to absolutely see it from the point of view of your character. You can’t morally disapprove of a character and build that into a performance. If he’s a bad guy you have to think what’s he thinking and ask what he thinks he’s going to achieve by this. You can’t comment on it.
In The Debt and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, you worked with actors of your generation.
It’s fun; I mean you know them. I’ve done a few like that. It’s kind of like being back in the theatre, having a group of people who are on your team. Again, they were good scripts.
What is left that you would like to do that you haven’t done? You’ve already played such a wide variety of roles.
It’s much less specific than that. I remember years ago doing a job with Alec Guinness and at one point he asked me to go and have supper with him. That was the only time I ever met him and you still had the feeling, and he was in his late 70s then, that he still thought his best work was in front of him. All actors have that vague sense, but they don’t know what it is. I’d like to do a pirate film! (Laughs) But I want to do something really good and I’ll recognise it when I see it.
Is theatre your be all and end all, like so many British actors?
No, I haven’t worked there for 13 years and I will not work there again. No, no, no. I’m done with the theatre.
Is it too exhausting?
It is, yeah.
You acted together with your wife of 26 years, Diana Hardcastle, in the 2011 mini-series The Kennedys, as Rose and Joe Kennedy Snr.
We’ve worked together a few times. She was in Marigold Hotel, actually. I love working with my wife.
We get on terrifically well when we work together and she’s happy because she loves to work and I’m happy because I’m with her. Generally, we’re away from home and having fun without the terrible responsibility of running a household and having to cook for ourselves.
Dramatic films, independent films, are now struggling to make it into cinemas. Do you bemoan the way things have gone?
It’s sad that those kinds of movies don’t get the acknowledgement they used to; there’s a big change. Sometimes they get through and they work for you. But it means you have to keep doing them because I generally do independent movies—I don’t do an awful lot of studio stuff—so it’s nice when they do break out like Marigold Hotel. That film was made for a small budget and became very popular.
Why did you start acting?
Because I was good at it. It was the one thing that I could do. I didn’t discover it until I was about 18 when I directed a play at school. I knew exactly how it worked; I knew exactly what to do. It was like a religious conversion, finding something you just love doing. And I’ve been really lucky. Really lucky.
How did you get into the business?
I went to university then I went to RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). In those days, of course, every town had its own permanent repertory theatre and I went to Nottingham for two years. That was quite a high stature rep and generally we performed new plays and classics—no potboiler populist stuff. Two years of that and I was off and running.
What gave you your break?
There wasn’t one. It was all done in slow gradations. I didn’t have any breakthrough where you suddenly become the flavour of the month. Never happened.
In the Bedroom was quite monumental even though it was a small movie.
Well, it had all the Oscar kind of stuff, which is good.
Have you ever been tempted or asked to move to Los Angeles?
No. When I first started making movies my children were very, very small and I was not going to uproot them and take them to a place I never wanted to live. I would hate to live in Los Angeles.
Felony closes the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival on Sunday, 17 August. The film will be released nationally on 28 August. Watch the trailer below: