In just the past decade and a half, Patrick Wilson has already racked up dozens of credits in a wide variety of roles, from intricate dramas (Little Children) to wry comedies (Young Adult) to superhero flicks (Watchmen). Most recently, he’s been fortunate enough to headline the successful Insidious and Conjuring horror franchises, and this week, he stars in a sweet romantic comedy called Big Stone Gap, alongside Ashley Judd.
RT spoke to Wilson about his desire to be a versatile actor, as well as the inspiration he received from watching Michael Keaton’s powerhouse career unfold during the late 1980s and early 1990s. He also talked about the inconsistency of movie ratings and gave us a tiny preview of the upcoming second season of Fargo, which premieres on Sunday and stars Wilson as a young Lou Solverson. But before we get to all that, here are Patrick Wilson’s Five Favorite Films:
When I think of five favorite films, it’s hard for me to put in, like, Citizen Kane, because while that movie and many classic movies are amazing, I couldn’t lie and say, “If it’s on, I’m going to watch it,” whereas a movie like Fletch, I’ll watch. So I have to consider that one of my five favorite films.
What’s interesting about that movie to me is, aside from the ridiculousness of Chevy Chase and his comedy, the plot’s pretty interesting. You’re trying to figure out what’s happening. He’s trying to write this article, he uncovers this whole scam, this fraud, and he’s being set up for this murder, and it holds its own. You can do the wacky characters for Fletch Lives, but you don’t actually have as interesting a central plot. Maybe you’ve just already seen a lot of the jokes.
And he’s very good at his job. He’s actually very good at his job; he’s not just an idiot. He can say all the crazy lines and be hilarious, but he’s good at his job, and I think that’s actually what’s kind of cool. And truthfully, I think that’s one of the reasons why – they’ve been trying to reboot, remake that movie forever, but all you’re going to be doing is trying to find somebody who can be as funny as Chevy Chase. But I think what actually makes the movie stand out to me is that, if you break it down, he’s actually legitimately trying to uncover this plot and move the story along. He’s a good detective!
So Fletch is the kind of movie that, if it’s on, I’m going to watch it. I’m going to watch it, and I’m going to recite every line. [laughs] I have to keep that in there.
Next, I’ll go Die Hard. You have to understand, my son, who’s nine years old, is constantly asking me, “What’s your favorite movie? What’s your favorite action movie?” Every day. So, it’s hard to say to your nine-year-old, “Well, son, actually, I love watching The Magnificent Seven.” And I do, I love The Magnificent Seven. But he wants a movie that he can look forward to and see, something he can relate to, and I think, ultimately when I start talking about great action movies, you know, it’s Die Hard. Die Hard is a top five favorite film. Great villain, the right amount of humor and strength and, you know, sadism. [laughs] And Bruce Willis is fantastic.
And again, the scenes with Bonnie Bedelia, you really get it. The estranged husband, conflicted home, and yet he really cares about her. It’s not just some cookie-cutter thing, like, “This is my wife; I’m doing this for you, baby!” They have major marital problems, but he’s there, and all of a sudden, he’s in the midst of it. It’s certainly the best out of the ‘80s, I think, one of the best action movies.
I’m going Empire Strikes Back, 100 percent. My favorite of all of them, hands down. Yes, the dark undertones, but I think you get some of the greatest lines out of it. I think coming up with the idea for Hoth and the wampa and the AT-ATs was unbelievable during that time. It still holds up, which is tough, and I say this as a diehard Star Wars fan. A New Hope gets a free pass because it’s the first one we saw, but you go back, and of course we’ve all seen a lot of the gaps, and some of the stuff is so cartoony and over the top. You don’t get that in Empire Strikes Back. You get a group of guys who came back for the second one with a new director and were like, “Alright, we’re in it to win it.” We’re going to get deeper into these relationships; we’re going to see them kiss, and how awkward that is; we’re going to see Han save his buddy and throw him inside a tauntaun in the first 20 minutes. And you’re like, “Whoa! We’re going very deep here.” And I’m not even talking about the ending. That’s just the first 20 minutes.
Then I gotta go Godfather II. I think it was my first, “Wow, I feel like I just watched an epic.” Because you get both sides of the story, because you’re able to see where De Niro’s coming from, just seeing those guys in the movie. Again, I think there’s something that, when a sequel can hit it right, to keep pushing, instead of, “Let’s capitalize on what we did the first time.” And for me, maybe one the first movies where I felt like, “Ooh, we’re getting a backstory.” That, to me, was really thrilling. And just to see those guys, that young and hungry. I mean, that’s it. That’s it, right there.
RT: And I think that it’s one of those movies that is a classic, but it’s also one of those movies that’s hard to turn off if it’s on.
Yeah, that’s sort of what I’m doing here. Look, there are a lot of movies here that are unbelievably masterful movies, but I don’t know if I’m going to sit down and really watch them. But when Godfather II is on, it’s hard to turn that movie off. You know, I think about those two guys – and I won’t include this in my five – but whenever Heat is on, it’s hard not to watch Heat, you know what I mean?
My fondness for the western has probably got to be included in here, but it can’t be something like Hombre, which is kind of silly. You know, I’d probably go Magnificent Seven, truthfully, if I’m going five, because seeing Charles Bronson, seeing Steve McQueen come into his own and just sit there and steal focus is kind of awesome. It’s one of those movies that has a pretty simple story, like a lot of great westerns, and I love simple storytelling. I think it’s so powerful. And I think The Magnificent Seven’s very simple storytelling and seeing that crazy group of guys – Yul Brynner, Bronson, across the board – all on horseback, sort of wondering what it was like shooting that, to me, as an actor, that always fascinates me. Knowing the amount of egos and the points in their careers when they had to shoot that movie, that, to me, as an adult, makes me put that on this list.
When you watch the McQueen documentary about him, it breaks down how, whereas Paul Newman always seemed so relaxed and cool on set, McQueen was a fighter. He was an orphan who was constantly fighting for validation, you know? And they would talk about how, if you were in a scene with him, forget it. He was going to steal focus. In one scene, I think he’s reloading his gun, and it’s not even his scene, and it’s like, forget it. He wants you to just stare him in the eyes. [laughs] It’s pretty great.
Ryan Fujitani for Rotten Tomatoes: You talked about your son asking you about your favorite action movie when you listed Die Hard. I know different parents have different standards for this, but I don’t suppose you’ve actually watched it with him yet.
Patrick Wilson: No, my son’s nine. A little early for that. Please, even in my line of work, I toe the line quite frequently, but without getting parenting complaints. You know, there are some PG-13 movies… I’m not going to let him watch The Dark Knight, for example, but I’ve let him see Avengers. It’s hard to explain that to a kid. And there are some PG-13 movies that I think, “Wow, that should absolutely be R.” And then there was something even recently that was R that I thought, “I don’t quite really understand why it’s R.” Oh, it was Mad Max: Fury Road.
Rotten Tomatoes: There were a couple of gruesome parts.
Wilson: But if you think about it, the gruesome parts… First of all, my buddy Angus [Sampson] who’s taking out the baby, you never see it. You see the umbilical cord after it’s taken out; you don’t see him make the cut. And, it’s just the women who are hooked up to those post-apocalyptic breast pumps. But, beyond that, there’s not much language, and the violence is so over the top. I have more of an issue with somebody mowing down a whole bunch of people in The Dark Knight or something – nothing against Dark Knight; that movie was awesome – but you know what I’m saying? Or, something like Winter Soldier, there are so many people just dying, being mowed down. At least in a movie like Fury Road, it’s so over the top, and people are flying around, and you don’t actually see a ton of bloody hits. But anyway, we could talk about this forever.
Rotten Tomatoes: The movies on your list are dominated by pretty strong leading men, like Pacino and De Niro, Steve McQueen, and even Chevy Chase in some respects, but they achieve their goals in very different ways. Was that the kind of versatility you hoped you emulate in your own career?
Wilson: Well, you know what? I’ve said this before, and I finally got the guts to say it to his face, but Michael Keaton was my sort of benchmark in the ‘80s, as you’re in high school and figuring out what you want to do with your life. He’s unbelievable now, but to have the run that he had in the late-‘80s, from Batman, Beetlejuice, Clean and Sober, Gung Ho, even into the ‘90s with Much Ado About Nothing and Pacific Heights. Those movies, to me, and the versatility that he showed — the studios believed in him. I could go off and try to do my most versatile work, but they end up being in independent movies that nobody sees. [laughs] And he would do that on a huge studio scale. So he’s always someone that I’ve looked up to. I think, certainly when you come out of theater school, you also want to have the most varied career that you can, so obviously you look to those kinds of actors.
Rotten Tomatoes: You said you had the chance to tell Michael Keaton this in person?
Wilson: I did, yes! I did about a week on the movie The Founder, where Michael Keaton was playing Ray Kroc. John Lee Hancock directed it, and I did The Alamo with John Lee, so I read the script and I thought it was unbelievable. I just thought it was such a great story. Then John Lee called me and said, “Listen, it’s only a week,” and I said, “Are you kidding me, man? I haven’t seen you in a while, I love the script, and I get to do two scenes with Michael Keaton? I’m in.” So I waited until day four. We had hit it off talking about Pittsburgh – he’s from Pittsburgh, I went to school there – and he was fantastic. Just a great, great guy, such a hard worker, still very much a hard worker – between takes, he’s still trying to figure it out, trying to get better. And yeah, on the last day, I said, “I gotta tell you, and I’ve said this before – I’m not just saying it now; you can probably pull it up online somewhere – your run was so inspiring for me to want to have a versatile career, because I just don’t know how you did it.” It’s very, very difficult to go back and forth from genre to genre, like he did. And I said, “And, people still think you were the best Batman.” [laughs]
Rotten Tomatoes: Well, if anything can be said about your career, versatile would be the word. I can see you in something like The Conjuring and then I can see you in something like Big Stone Gap. You’re a very likable actor in that way, and being paired with Ashley Judd makes you two a pretty irresistible couple. And you were born in Virginia where the movie takes place.
Wilson: I was born on the other side of Virginia, Norfolk, and my brothers were born in Richmond, so we’ve got family on that side of Virginia. On the other side, in Big Stone Gap, that’s where my father’s from, my grandfather, my great grandfather, so yeah, it was such a family affair, being able to shoot there, stay in the home that was built for my dad when he was a baby. The only sad thing was my grandparents weren’t alive to see it. My grandmother was such a big fan of ours, obviously, of her own grandkids. [laughs] But also of [writer-director] Adriana [Trigiani], growing up in that town. So it was the most personal movie that I’ve ever done because of that. It just doesn’t happen. It was always our little place tucked in the woods where we would go to see our grandparents every summer and some odd holidays here and there. You know, for three boys, it was like Disneyland. You’re running through the woods, catching crawdads and fishing and doing all that stuff. So to be able to shoot a movie there was insane. My house in the movie is a half mile away from Wilson Road, passing Wilson Bridge; right across the street was where my great, great grandfather is buried. That’s how personal the movie was.
Rotten Tomatoes: I’ve also seen the first couple episodes of season two of Fargo, and so far, it is amazing. Is there anything you can tell me about this upcoming season without spoiling anything?
Wilson: I mean, just get ready. Just get ready. So you haven’t seen [redacted] yet, right? Oh, man. [laughs] You’re going to love it. It’s sort of amazing watching how Noah [Hawley] weaves in all those storylines. I mean, I can’t wait. There are people who worked for six, seven episodes who I never even saw, because it was just a different storyline. It all comes to a lovely end.
Here is an exclusive preview clip from Wilson’s new film, Big Stone Gap:
Season two of Fargo premieres on Sunday, October 12, on FX.