Tom Wilkinson: The Lone Ranger, theatre, First Among Equals

We chat to Tom Wilkinson about the state of cinema, the pursuit of The Lone Ranger, and his three different careers...

Before entering a rather plush hotel room to interview Tom Wilkinson – an actor I’ve really liked for a long time – I overheard the PR rep telling him that Den Of Geek were heading in next. From the way the next 20 seconds panned out, it was pretty clear that Den Of Geek is not a site on Tom Wilkinson’s bookmark file, and we and him have never crossed paths at any point. I worked this out by his simple asking of “Who?”

So after a brief introductory chat with him, I sat down, having no idea how the next 15 minutes would go. Fortunately, talking to Tom Wilkinson turned out to be something of a treat…

I’ve been watching your stuff since my dad put the BBC television adaptation of First Among Equals on the television. I gather it’s not your favourite thing of the projects you’ve done, but he really likes it…

I didn’t hate it. It was an amazing bunch of actors they got to do it. I didn’t hate it though. You decide to do it, then you do it. I loved doing it, and I met my wife there.

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There’s a lot of space in the series, and a lot of time for narratives to weave. It’d be tough to get so many episodes now.

It was thirteen parts.

You’d get that in America, but not the in the UK necessarily.

No. When I was a kid they used to do Dickens, and I can remember them doing them over 26 episodes. Now it’s six maximum, sometimes three. 

For you, you built a successful career in theatre, then a successful career in television, then a successful career in film.

I did. Crudely speaking, that’s true.

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Do you think too many actors shortcut that now, and do you think if anything it’s become the trend to go the other way round?

When I first started acting professionally in the early 70s, every town of modest size would have a permanent repertory theatre. You would move to that town, you’d get digs, and you’d get a six month or a year’s contract and live there. I had a year’s contract with Nottingham Playhouse, then did another year there. There was such a lot of theatre. That’s what you did when you left drama school – you got a job in theatre, because there was such a lot of it.

It was unusual for people to go into television. That was the next thing you did. You got small parts in things like Z-Cars. And then you were in TV. Now, theatre is tough. Somebody coming out of drama school will look to fringe theatre. They certainly won’t go to Nottingham Playhouse, which had a permanent company of about 15. So they want to go straight to TV, and that’s what a lot of young actors are keen on.

It strikes me as a shame. I live in Birmingham, and we’ve always had the Birmingham Rep, which is just reopening now. But the banners for all the productions are pushing named actors pretty much right across the board. If feels just a little less like a repertory theatre. I wonder if television has taken on that repertory feel?

Yes it has. There is a hell of a lot more work in TV now than there used to be. It’s not surprising that young people are looking there. Young people have become such a huge demographic I believe they call it. And they want to see dramas about young kids in a way that they didn’t in the 60s when I was growing up.

I grew up in the 80s and then in the 90s found 70s cinema. And it’s interesting now, that modern cinema has so many tools that make things quicker that it seems that the thinking time, the pregnant pause is going…

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It’s an interesting point that’s never really occurred to me, but I think you may well be right.

It is absolutely true that it’s easier in a certain sense to make a film than it used to be. It was quite well into my career when directors used to start watching on the video screen rather than standing next to the cameraman and trusting the operator to have got the shot he wants. All that kind of stuff. Certainly, the editing situation is much quicker than it used to be. They go okay, let’s try that sequence where the door opens after he takes a sip of the cup of tea, and the guy says okay, you go and have a coffee and they’ll have put it together in 20 minutes. Whereas now they go it’s there. It’s a good point.

You worked with Christopher Nolan, one of the few advocates left who works on film, and apparently rarely watches the monitor. Do you think that’s the right way?

I don’t know. If I was directing a movie I would have the monitor. I would certainly do that. 

Have you been tempted to direct a movie?

When I’ve had a couple of drinks! [Laughs] It’s too much like hard work!

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This particular film, The Lone Ranger, the outside world seems to have pursued it, almost willing it to fail in some quarters. How insulated are you to the hunting pack that goes on with modern day cinema. Does it matter to you?

It doesn’t matter to me. I have read a lot of the reviews that they got in the United States, and they are fantastically unfair. I think you’re right: they sort of want it to fail in a certain sense. The fact of the matter is that it’s a hugely ambitious movie, that doesn’t quite… but it’s close enough to realising its ambitions to warrant really serious discussions. There’s one guy saying ‘and then when the William Tell Overture comes on it’s a terrible crappy old orchestra that does the sound’. Well you weren’t listening to the soundtrack I was listening to!

I do agree with you. I think there are good chunks of this film that work really well, and there’s clearly a commitment to doing it properly. To put proper big screen sequences together. Particularly when it’s still: when we talk big screen cinema, it’s assumed sometimes we mean fast action, but it’s just as much about stillness.

It bothers me, because I know the people who have put this film together, and seen the kind of work that’s gone into it. I’ve seen it day after day after day. The grind, and the total lack of cynicism in the way it was put together, and the serious amount of thought that people had in trying to balance themes. And then to have it not taken seriously in a certain sense, it’s disappointing. 

That too many opinions were formed before people walked through the door?

Yeah, I think that’s true.

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I’ve read a couple of interviews with you in the past that it’s always the script, that it doesn’t matter about the project, but it’s the writing.


Where do you come to those projects then? Because when you have a script that particularly appeals to you, is the director already in place?


Is that something you insist on? Because you’ve worked with some fabulous talents.

It’s usually pretty well established by the time it comes round to me. Occasionally they’ll say do you want to associate yourself with this script because with your name on it we may be able to attract other people. So you do that. That doesn’t necessarily commit you to doing the finished thing. But I’m not like Johnny [Depp]! ‘I’ve got this idea where I want to do a film about a man in the moon’ – you can build everything around that. I think there are maybe ten actors in the world that you can do that with. Maybe less so no, but I’m certainly not one of them.

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The turning point for you and cinema in the past was The Full Monty. I remember reading you turned down a TV show to take the riskier project, The Full Monty. The variety of the choice you made post-Full Monty was staggering. You did a Brett Ratner shoot at one stage…

Rush Hour

Yeah! My question is though that you’ve had three such wonderful careers. Is there a particular bit of unfinished business in any of them, are there stories you still want to tell, and are you non-discriminatory about the projects you want to do next?

No, you’ve just got to keep on doing it. You’ve got to keep on doing it. Some people say ‘what I really want to do is a film about the Bengal lancers’ or something. Well I don’t. If there’s such a film, they want me to be in it, and it’s good, then I’ll do it. But it’s the thing: it’s the excitement of not quite knowing what you want to do next. I don’t have to be Tom Cruise, to sit down and discuss with people that I’ll do this and that, then another of these. I don’t have to do that, and I don’t.

There isn’t unfinished business.

Do you still have the same love for it?

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Yeah. It’s become less and less fun. Being away from home for lengths of time. The bit I still like is when somebody says action and then you do stuff.

Long may you continue to do so. Tom Wilkinson, thank you very much.

The Lone Ranger is out in UK cinemas now.

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