Patrick Wilson: “When Kurt Russell Looks At You, You See His Soul”

By  · Published on October 2nd, 2015

RLJ Entertainment

Patrick Wilson has starred in musicals, dramas, romantic comedies, action movies, and a comic book adaptation. Now, with Bone Tomahawk, the versatile actor adds a western to his repertoire. The Little Children star acts alongside Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, and Matthew Fox in the film. Wilson plays a man searching for his wife who’s been kidnapped, making this a rescue mission story.

The film provided rare amenities for Wilson, such as a long rehearsal with his co-actors and director, S. Craig Zahler. It’s a low-budget Western, so obviously the cast and director needed all the time they could get to run through the story before principal photography ‐ which, to Wilson, worked in the film’s favor.

The actor was in attendance at Fantastic Fest to promote the film, and at the start of my interview with the man, I quickly recalled a lesson I should’ve kept in mind: sometimes it’s unwise to start an interview off with a joke, especially a poorly delivered one.

When you do a lot of interviews in a year, especially during a festival, you’re bound to slip up, and that’s what happened at the start of this conversation. Wilson has had many sex scenes in films, including Bone Tomahawk, and while some performers run from sex scenes, that’s not the case with Wilson ‐ a topic I was genuinely interested in.

Starting that discussion off with a joke, asking if it’s just a coincidence, was, admittedly, not a bright idea. Thankfully, it helped lead to an engaging ‐ and thankfully better ‐ conversation about the actor’s choices, what makes for good scene partners, and an unforgettable experience with Al Pacino.

Here’s what the Bone Tomahawk star had to say:

Wilson: So, you’re asking why adults have sex in movies?

[Laughs] No, but it is something some actors won’t do.

I mean, look, I think you could probably string several movies of mine together and find… I’ve done… I mean, whatever. There’s a lot of different commonalities with each movie, so I guess that’s usually what happens with either romantic or leading men: they tend to have relations with a partner in a movie [Laughs].

Saying that there are probably several themes that run through you work, are there certain roles you generally respond to?

Let me think about that. I try to pick roles that are very different, but if you try to string together some different throughlines between some actors…I usually gravitate towards roles that have some inner-struggle. I like to go against the whole “all American good-looking guy” on the page. If that’s all a character is, I tend not to play that ‐ and, if I do, it’s for some other reason. I try to gravitate towards a role that has an undercurrent of some other struggle. In this case, there’s definitely an arc and drive. Even when you’re playing a bad guy, you’re hiding something.

Is it difficult finding roles with internal struggles?

I guess. The difficulty comes in trying not to do something I’ve done before, which leads me to other genres. It’s sort of been that balance for me, trying to find interesting roles. There have been other movies where I try to swing a big stick, where I’m trying not to be a boring guy in a bad movie. Nobody sets out to make a bad movie, but I’m always trying to push myself ‐ and sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.

All you can do is swing for the fences.

I try to as much as I can and as much as the system allows me and as much as the roles I can get. I mean, usually those roles come to me at an independent level. For a number reasons, we probably bore each other and the audience talking about why there aren’t that many studio films like that [Laughs].

[Laughs] When you’re acting in theater, how do you avoid giving the same performance when you have to do the performance over and over again?

Because you never get it right. Using a sports analogy, for every pitcher that’s pitched a perfect game, they’ve probably said, “Yeah, but my slider was off.” You’re constantly trying to perfect something that can’t be perfected, because, of course, it’s impossible. Honestly, one of my first jobs… God, it was almost 20 years, but I did this show around 100 times. Doing the same line every single night, you realize sometimes it’s off and sometimes it’s on. You carry whatever you do in a certain day into work ‐ and that’s the beauty of theater. You’re basically tricking yourself in to thinking you can achieve perfection, but of course you can’t.

On a film like Bone Tomahawk, you probably get a limited number of takes. Say when you leave a day’s work in that instance, where there’s not much time, do you usually end up thinking, “I wish I tried something else in that one take”?

Right. I think that’s why you have to make choices right away. The benefit we had on this job is that I sat in a room with Kurt, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, and Craig Zahler for three days ‐ and that’s rare. We’d go to a hotel and talk through every single scene. That is such a luxury, and it almost never happens. Almost every director wants rehearsal, but because of schedules, you rarely get that.

For days we talked for hours, and I hadn’t done that in a long time. That means when you get on set you don’t say, “This scene doesn’t make sense.” You can think about other things, like doing your job, and I think the relationships in the film are strong because of that. You’re right, though, because you only get a couple of takes. Trust me, if they’re moving on, they’re moving. You might be able to get one more take out of them, but you better show up ready to roll. That only comes with experience and really understanding the parameters you’re working in.

In the cases where you don’t have time to rehearse or get to know the other actors before shooting, have you ever showed up on set and it all just clicked right away?

Well, it’s separate things. You may have all the rehearsal you want and never get it right. I did this film, Big Stone Gap, coming out in a couple of weeks ‐ and we didn’t have any rehearsal. We all loved the project and just clicked. I had never met Ashley Judd before I walked in that room ‐ and bam ‐ we just had a chemistry that worked. They’re two different things you’re talking about. You can sit around for days and not get anything right. Kurt and Richard had been attached to this for a while, and Matthew, too, so I was the new guy. We all just loved the script.

When you’re working opposite of Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins, that must up your game.

They’re unbelievable. James Wan (The Conjuring) and I always joke about remaking Big Trouble in Little China [Laughs]. Working with Kurt Russell, I had a similar experience working with Michael Keaton. I love working with guys that are my heroes. I remember very early on in my career I thought, You either want to sit by the court and watch Michael Jordan or you want to play with him. I want to play with him, even though I’m terrible as basketball. That was always me. I remember my first job with Al Pacino on Angeles in America, and he’s arguably one of the best actors ever. I loved it. I loved sitting and watching Kurt. Maybe it’s the athlete in me, but it’s a healthy amount of nerves of, “Yeah, man, let’s go.”

What makes for a good scene partner?

Listening. The best actors are not off in their own world, coming in and it doesn’t even matter to them that you’re there. The best actors are the best listeners. When Kurt Russell looks at you, you see his eyes and you see his soul. He takes what you’re saying and throws it right back at you ‐ and that’s a scene partner. A good scene partner isn’t, “Oooh, look at my bag of tricks!” You can have all your skills, but, for me, the best actors are the most giving actors, because they also want you to be better. You don’t have time to sit back and marvel at them, you gotta get in there and get dirty with them.

You mentioned working with Al Pacino. I’m a big fan of Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Angels in America. When you think back on that experience, what comes to mind?

I’ll give you one story, since we’re talking about Al. So much of that film for me was with him. I would get a call about once a week from his office, saying, “Al wants to rehearse. We got a studio. Can you rehearse Thursday at noon?” [Laughs] Actors hardly ever, randomly outside of shooting, calls another actor and says, “Hey, let’s get together and work on this.”

I remember thinking the first time, Is he going to direct me? Because I’m totally happy to be directed by him. We had a director, Mike Nichols, you know [Laughs]. Al would take a real go at it and we’d do the scene, do it again, and try it other ways ‐ going back and forth, doing the scene. I remember only once I said, “Hey, I’m stuck on this moment. What do you think?” He went, “Well, you know, uh, how about you try this?” He was so direct, because he knew his job, which is to be an actor, you know? That was my experience with Al: those once a week, off-the-grid rehearsals. That’s the kind of actor he is.

Bone Tomahawk opens in theaters and available on iTunes on October 23rd.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.