For his upcoming performance as Benjamin Franklin in the HBO miniseries John Adams, based on David McCullough’s best-selling biography, British actor Tom Wilkinson had to look like a hundred bucks. “Everybody knows what Benjamin Franklin looks like because he’s on the hundred-dollar bill,” says Wilkinson, an agreeably grumpy chain-smoker who only slowly warms to the conversation at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “To play him, you have to have a bald head and long hair.”
Onscreen Wilkinson gamely adopts the founding father’s odd but immediately recognizable tonsorial habits—with little regard, one might add, for his personal vanity—but the actor also brings something rather more unexpected to the performance: his own native accent.
“One of the interesting things about this series is that most of the actors were encouraged to speak with British accents,” Wilkinson says, noting that the Revolution of 1776 was, after all, actually carried out by men who considered themselves English. “The fact is nobody has a clue what Benjamin Franklin sounded like. Apropos of nothing at all, I once heard a recording of Buffalo Bill, and if you had said this was a recording of an English country gentleman, I’d believe it.”
Wilkinson, 59, peers across the top of his shades to make sure his point has registered—that historical drama is just a re-enactment based on our flawed knowledge of the past—and then he drives it home with an amused grumble: “Probably Jesse James sounded like David Niven.”
Although Paul Giamatti has the title role as John Adams and Wilkinson is technically a supporting cast member (Franklin appears in just three of the series’ seven episodes, which begin airing in March), he manages to steal the show, just as Franklin overshadowed Adams in real life. “Their relationship is rather double-edged,” explains the actor. “On the one hand Adams values his experience and wisdom. But Franklin’s place in history is assured, which really gets up Adams’s nose. Part of him is saying, ‘Bastard! What is your secret? And why is it that everyone likes you and nobody likes me?’”
“The great thing about Wilkinson is that, as an actor, he can do two diametrically opposed things at the same time,” says HBO Films president Colin Callender. “He makes his character a man of intellect and erudition but also a very human, ordinary person you can relate to.”
The miniseries follows on the heels of Wilkinson’s recent high-profile turn in Michael Clayton, in which he plays a partner in a powerful New York law firm who suffers a crisis of conscience while defending an agribusiness giant. It’s a high-octane performance that garnered the actor Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.
The two recent roles mark something of a career turn for the actor. Wilkinson has been steadily employed since he graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1970, but even at home in London, where he lives with his wife, television actress Diana Hardcastle, and their two daughters, he says that he can stroll around anonymously. That is no doubt because his film résumé, which really took off with 1997’s The Full Monty, is full of lumpen, emotionally throttled middle-aged men. One writer described his range as “uptight” to “upright,” and Wilkinson’s characters often suffer from an inner life that makes one worry about their blood pressure. Even the best of his everyman roles, such as an Oscar-nominated turn in In the Bedroom, were not exactly starmaking performances. Instead, Wilkinson is, by talent and perhaps by design, a consummate character actor.
“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.
“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.”