“I had made the assumption that theater was something done by other people—Southern, middle-class, a certain sort of educated class I didn’t have any access to,” Wilkinson explains. “But somehow the spirit of the age enabled me to think, I can do that too.”
One might say that Wilkinson is having a hot moment right now—and certainly sharing the screen with George Clooney in Michael Clayton has added luster to what Wilkinson admits has been “a good year.” But on the other hand, Wilkinson’s particular talent doesn’t register high on a Hollywood star-o-meter. Instead, it seems plausible that like, say, Tommy Lee Jones—who has made a career of playing gruff, world-weary characters—Wilkinson has finally aged into the parts he was born to play.
The actor doesn’t disagree with the idea when it’s proposed to him, but generally he displays a rather fatalistic view of his accomplishments. Certain roles have been presented to him, he says, and he’s just chosen from among them. All the rest—money and critical acclaim—just happened to result; he couldn’t have planned it. (A lapsed Anglican, Wilkinson paraphrases a bit of verse he learned as a child: “The mills of the Lord grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small.”)
Even after nearly four decades as an actor, Wilkinson maintains a relatively modest standard for measuring his success. “I always felt that if you had enough money for a pack of cigarettes and an Italian meal, you were doing okay,” he says. “That hasn’t really changed that much.”