“It’s an honorable tradition,” says Wilkinson, when asked if he minds the designation, which could seem like faint praise. “You might as well describe me as that. I’ve been an actor all my life. I guess when you get past 40 you become a character actor. You go to another paradigm.”
With his recent performances, though, Wilkinson gets to cut loose. Indeed, in Michael Clayton, his Arthur Edens goes raving mad and strips naked in a crucial deposition scene that was shot on the first day of filming. “In a way it was good that it was the very first thing I had to do,” Wilkinson says. “It just plunged me into the deep end.”
As it happens, Wilkinson’s next role after John Adams is another influential American statesman in the heat of a more recent national crisis. In May he can be seen as former Secretary of State James Baker in Recount, a star-studded HBO movie about the contested 2000 presidential election. “It becomes a sort of thriller, cutting back between the Democratic and Republican camps as they negotiate this legalistic checkers game,” Wilkinson explains.
Wilkinson’s Baker is the head of the Republican team, while Kevin Spacey plays Ron Klain, former Vice President Al Gore’s chief of staff and later general counsel to Gore’s recount committee. Laura Dern dons the blue eye shadow as Katherine Harris, Florida’s notorious secretary of state who oversaw the recount process. “What’s interesting about the film is that you have a situation that is absolutely unprecedented—the hanging chads, etc.,” Wilkinson says, “and you see men and women at the edge of their temperament, their experience, their emotions, their intellects—trying to deal with it in such a way that they can present something in a court of law and get a result that is favorable to them.”
Wilkinson may not look that much like Baker, but he says that as with Ben Franklin, his aim was not so much to impersonate a real figure as to interpret a character. “You have to get certain things right,” says Wilkinson. “James Baker is from the South; he has silver hair and a very shrewd and subtle intelligence. But no one is going to say [of my performance], ‘Get this guy his own TV show doing impersonations!’”
Wilkinson was born into a farming family in the North of England; when he was young his father sold the ancestral land to start a new life in Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where he wound up working in an aluminum smelter. Wilkinson was the first member of his family to attend college, studying literature and American history at the University of Kent in England. He reports that his early career ambition was to become a gym teacher. (He was a good athlete, he recalls.) But in his senior year, he directed a play for a student competition and instantly recognized his affinity for drama. He credits the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, kids from the provinces or the lower classes who had overturned London’s cultural scene, for their “galvanic” influence on his future.