Who better to receive the Career Achievement Award from the 11th Gasparilla International Film Festival, which takes place in his hometown from March 2-9, 2017?
A Carnegie Mellon graduate, young Wilson started out on stage, with his combination of jock looks and musical artist’s sensitivity. Seen on stage by legendary director Mike Nichols, he made the jump into movies in 2003 with HBO’s miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. Wilson then appeared in films that range from the very independent (like 2005’s Hard Candy) to Oscar-nominated dramas (2006’s Little Children), with a couple of superhero movies thrown in for good measure (Watchmen in 2009 and now the upcoming Aquaman). He’s become something of a horror darling, too, leading both the Insidious and The Conjuring franchises. Outside of film, he’s a two-time Tony nominee and occasional TV star, with a lead role in the second season of FX’s Fargo.
MovieMaker listened in at an intimate press conference and the Career Achievement award ceremony last weekend, an coinversation that covered Wilson’s ties to the Floridian community, the role that family has played in his professional life, and his desire to direct a film set in his old stomping grounds.
“I grew up in St. Pete, as most of you hopefully know, and the decision for me to go into this as a career happened in high school between my sophomore and junior year. I went to Boston University for a summer program and that was where it happened. I remember doing some scenes, and you are in a college setting and everyone is acting and singing, and it was the first time I’d been around a bunch of kids who had the same interests. It was a defining factor, and I bring it up because it was the first time where it didn’t feel like I was just going out there to make my friends laugh. I remember reading some material in a couple scenes and being emotionally moved by it, and I thought, ‘If I feel like this, maybe I can try to make people feel that way.’ That’s where it sort of clicked: ‘This is what I want to do as a career.’ When you grow up here, pre-Internet and all that, Hollywood seems so far away that it wasn’t even like, ‘I want to go to Hollywood’… I didn’t have those dreams, really. I didn’t understand what that even was. I just wanted to be an actor, wherever it took me. The boy-band craze was starting then—this was late ’80s or early ’90s—but I didn’t want to do that.”
“My mom and dad are very supportive of the arts, to say the least, my dad being a TV anchor here for such a long time—he was on TV every night—and my mother being a singer and was a choir director. I bring that up because I was always surrounded by the arts. When I wanted to go into it as a career, it was only met with complete support. Now, not only support but ‘then you have to train for it.’ It wasn’t just, ‘I’m going to go to New York or L.A. and try to make it.’ Their opinion was, ‘If you were gonna be a doctor, you wouldn’t go hang out at a hospital. You gotta train for it. Let’s look at the best school, see if you can get in, and then go from there.’
My brother went to Florida State and [so we] didn’t really know Julliard, Carnegie Mellon, Yale or all the big [theater] schools. By the time I got to high school, we started reading the Theater Week magazines, American Theater and Backstage and started to understand, “Oh, there are actual schools that train for it.” That’s the long way of saying I treated it like a career. I knew it wasn’t about driving to Orlando and get an agent. I did one little local production here, almost 30 years ago. It wasn’t about any sort of fame. It was about wanting to go study.”
“In the first real movie that I did of note, Angeles in America for HBO, Mike Nichols and I would have these conversations for me to approach [acting] in a similar vein to [co-star Meryl Streep]. That was something that I didn’t do consciously, but you listen to Mike Nichols when he talks to you. He said, ‘You start from the inside out,’ if that makes any sense. It’s not about putting on a funny walk—you need all that eventually, but you’ve got to start at the core of something. Meryl is drastically different than someone like Al Pacino, who is constantly paring down. When you do it like her, whether you are playing to the back wall or whether you are doing the tiniest of close-ups, it’s still grounded.
I don’t look at life as one big break, but that [miniseries] gave me my film career, hands down. I’d done musical after musical and play after play, and Mike Nichols saw me in The Full Monty and called my agents. He really gave me my career, and that means more to me than anything, because it just represented so much of who I was at the time. I was shooting that while I was doing Oklahoma. I was shooting during the day and doing Oklahoma at night, and I certainly couldn’t do that now with a family. That’s a single man’s game, doing that. I never once felt any pressure, and that’s a tribute to Mike Nichols and how he directed you and made you feel like you were coming up with these ideas. An actor just wants to feel comfortable. Nichols just had this way of being like, ‘Oh, you’ll be fine; maybe try this.’ It was so nonchalant that you never felt like, ‘Listen, you are opposite Meryl Streep right now, don’t screw it up.’ You never felt like that.”
“I auditioned for a lot of superhero movies and I didn’t get many of them, and I’m glad that I didn’t, because a lot of them were not very good and I’d dodged a bullet, but had I been given that bullet I would have taken it [laughs]. I’m glad. That’s where life sort of works for you. I auditioned for Elektra, Fantastic Four and—I’m giving you some good info because I don’t think I’ve ever said this—I met with director Louis Leterrier on The Incredible Hulk, I met with Marvel for a number of different movies, then got offered Ant-Man. I was gonna do that, and then backed out. I gotta say I’m glad I didn’t do any of those. For me and for the kind of things that I like to do, it couldn’t have worked out better. I’m working with my best film director buddy, James Wan, with whom I’ve done four films, and I get to be the bad guy, and it’s great. I’m thrilled for Aquaman. I’m proud of being part of the D.C. Universe.”
“There are things that I look back with fondness and can learn from. For Little Children, I didn’t read the book before I did the film. If I had to do that again, I probably would read it. That was a conscious choice. [Director] Todd Field said, ‘Don’t read it,’ and I thought, ‘OK, I won’t read it,’ which was easy because I was not a big reader. But then I read it afterwards and I thought, ‘I should have read this before I did it.’
I also think that I would give a different [performance] in Hard Candy if I did it now. I don’t know if it’d be any better, but probably it’d be different, because there was something so new about it. I had just come off two features, aside from Angels: The Alamo, which we shot over six months, and Phantom of the Opera, which we also spent five or six months doing. [For Hard Candy] they said, ‘We are gonna do a movie in 19 days,’ and I thought, ‘I don’t even know how you do that.’ It was really this crazy acting exercise. I had no concept of technique or anything. I’d be curious to know what I would do now, understanding the camera a little better. Those are still favorite performances of mine anyway. I can usually stomach a few of those scenes when I watch them. If something of mine comes on, I’ll watch and remember that day.”
“I did [have some concerns] when we started, but I knew that Insidious would just be two movies for me. The Conjuring was such a different beast. I’m not the character being possessed, for one, so that’s helpful. Other than it being in the horror genre and it being with James Wan, there are really not a lot of similarities. I knew that Insidious 2 would sort of end that story, and I couldn’t image dong any more Insidious movies. Nothing against them, but I don’t know where the character goes. Conjuring is a different beast. We are gearing up for number three. We’ll shoot number three and we’ll see how that does. Those are a lot of fun.”
“In so many movies now you don’t have the luxury that you used to. They are trying to cut everybody’s schedule down. It used to be very commonplace to have 40 days to shoot a film. Now it’s like, ‘Can you do it in 24?’ Your days become very, very, very fast-paced, which is closer to what TV is. In Fargo, I think we had 10 or 11 days per episode, so I didn’t see a lot of difference. You know you are not gonna get a ton of coverage on a scene, so you are not gonna sit there and have 15 takes from one angle. But I’ve done a lot of independent films: You are gonna get three takes and then you are moving on to another setup unless somebody really screws up.”
“There is a movie that I wrote with my writing partner Aaron Cooley and my brother Paul that I’m gonna direct and takes place here [in Tampa]. For many years I’ve been trying to shoot a movie here. I just want to come back here and have a reason to stay longer than a few days. Not that I need a reason, but in order to tell my ‘real work’ what I’m doing. That’s something that we wrote and that we’ll shoot here. I’d say when but I don’t even really know. It could be the end of this year or the beginning of next year, when it falls into place. But it’s something that I would love to do. I’ve directed some theater and I’d love to get into directing film. The beauty of being an actor in a movie is you do your few weeks or your few months and you are on to the next one, but directors live with their films for years.” MM
The 11th Gasparilla International Film Festival runs March 2-9, 2017, in Tampa Bay, Florida. Patrick Wilson received the festival’s Career Achievement Award on March 4, 2017.