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It’s easy to look at Patrick Wilson and think of him as a “conventional” leading man – square-jawed, masculine and charismatic – but the majority of his roles are anything but. From “leading man gone wrong” in Little Childre to the frumpy superhero Nite Owl II in Watchmen to small-town soccer dad in Young Adult, Wilson has repeatedly taken characters that are either perceived or written to be straightforward, or even boring, and given them dimensionality, sophistication, layers of substance.
In director James Wan’s The Conjuring, he plays Ed Warren, a real-life paranormal investigator who struggles to reconcile his professional life with the personal toll it takes on his family after he and his wife (played by Vera Farmiga) agree to help a family whose house appears to be possessed by an otherworldly menace.
Spinoff Online caught up with Wilson recently to talk about his Conjuring character, whose “paranormal expert” bona fides the actor declined to judge while playing him. Additionally, he offered some insights into how he continues to find a variety of interesting projects that allow him to take leading roles and invest them with an unusual, and always rewarding, complexity.
Spinoff Online: I mean it as a compliment when I say you have a real gift for making characters who are supposed to be kind of bland or clean-cut interesting. How much is that a result of the writing and how much is it a result of work you do on the character?
Patrick Wilson I don’t know. I’m not one to comment on my own ability or believability; I only know how I approach roles. I remember – I mean, this sounds like shameless name-dropping, but I remember Mike Nichols saying to me very early on about Meryl Streep when we did Angels in America together, and you’re working opposite Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, who both achieve acting greatness, but from the outside, or at least from an outsider’s opinion they approach roles very differently. And I remember Mike always talking about what he loved about Meryl was the mystery of it – the mystery of not having any clue how she came about her character. It’s just what she did. He said, “And I see that in you. I don’t know the work that you do, and I don’t need to know.” So I always sort of, not that I could even put a handle on how I do things, but I went to drama school and I have a certain way I approach roles, and approach every role with the same conviction, whether it’s Ed Warren, or you know, William Travis. It doesn’t matter, it’s just all the same non-judgmental view, because I love the mystique of acting. So that’s sort of the way I look at it, you know? I also, I think if I’m playing a dark character, I look for the light, and I would say the reverse too – if I’m playing a lighter character, I look for some chip, some edge, some darkness, something.
You seem to get the chance to play conventional leading roles – like, say, a superhero in Watchmen – but in an unconventional way. How much is that a product of deliberate choices and how much is it simply a result of what you’re offered?
I think it’s a bit of both. I think I gravitate towards certain characters because I probably do them OK (laughs). But talking about something like Watchmen, Zack Snyder and Debbie [Snyder] saw me in Little Children and so I think it was that role, this anti-hero, this coming-of-age guy, and I think they saw something in that – this sort of leading man gone wrong that they probably could apply to Dan. But it’s a lot of things; I still get people that go, “Man, I saw you in Angels in America,” and blah blah blah. So I think I had a great opportunity very early in my career with Angels in America that I think probably still opens a lot of doors. So I think that’s part of it. But then I also just gravitate towards roles. You know, if I get offered roles that are kind of bland, I just try to find the other side of it. And sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not – I know that. But that’s part of what appeals to me, so it’s not only what appeals to me, but what people look for in me. Even in something like A-Team, it’s like, he’s not just a bad guy, let’s make him a funny bad guy. You know? That’s sort of I guess what I bring to the table, but it’s something I think certain directors respond to more than others, to be honest with you.
Despite the fact that the Warrens have a pedigree as paranormal investigators, many of their claims have been debunked. Do you look at this script or this story from the point of view of it being a story, or as something based on true events?
Well, I look at it as it’s what they believed in at that time, and it’s not for me to judge. It’s what they say they saw. And certainly there are things in the movie, and certainly I think if you have two people in a room, I think even the police would tell you two people watching the same crime are going to walk away with different impressions of what happened. So I think when you’re dealing with something as nebulous as the paranormal world, there are certainly different views – I bet even within the Perron family – of what went down. And that’s not really for me to decide or judge. But you know, I also look at this time period as a much less cynical time; I mean, you’re talking about pre-Amityville. No one was out there, charlatans trying to make a buck off of unsuspecting people. I think that kind of theory came later. But I believe they saw what they saw; it seems bizarre that they would fabricate some sort of lie from the get-go. I don’t believe that’s the case.
How tough is it to lose yourself in the moment in a film like this where your co-star is made up like a demon and you’re performing an exorcism? Is it the same as any other acting, or does it require a special kind of imagination?
No, I think it’s almost easier when someone’s right next to you in full make-up; it’s much easier doing that than working on a green screen where you’re having to imagine everything. Or try a driving scene where you’re not actually moving and you have to move your hands on a steering wheel; I mean, that’s even stranger. But that’s part of the joy of this movie and this genre, that you kind of relish those moments that could be melodramatic, they could be kind of outlandish, but we feel like we’ve grounded these people in a very real and human world, and that’s one of the things that always appealed to me about this script – the humanity of everybody involved. So that’s sort of the way I approached it.
These are the kinds of films that probably tap into some of my deepest fears. What is the thing or genre that scares you the most?
You know, I love being surprised. I’ve seen my fair share of horror movies, I guess – I’d put Jaws in there, just movies that sort of keep me on the edge of my seat. Thriller-horror is more my speed. I’m a fan first, and those movies appeal to me. But I don’t know – I don’t really have anything that’s [scary like that to me]. I mean, you know, obviously anything that deals with kids, and there are things that go bump in the night when you’re a homeowner and you have children, you want to lock the doors and keep an eye out. But I don’t worry about that stuff; but I’m sure like every man with a family and children, you run through that scenario a hundred times in your head – what happens if somebody comes in? And thankfully I’ve never had to deal with it.
What then was the scariest or most surprising thing in the movie for you? Is there a part of it you were a part of that when you look at it all finished and you go, “holy shit!”
The scariness of it doesn’t really affect me in this kind of movie – I don’t get scared by it. I’m more fascinated and proud of it. But if anything stuck out to me it was the kids’ performance; I knew Ron [Livingston] and Lili [Taylor] and their work, and I’ve loved them in tons of things, whether it was Office Space or Mystic Pizza (laughs), so I know what they bring to the table. But the kids really surprised me; just right down the line, they all had this believability and passion, and you know, that was great.
You mentioned that this took place at a time when there was less cynicism. Do you think it has anything to say about where we are now culturally?
Oh, sure. I mean, I think we’ve been oversaturated with so many different, I mean, even different types of horror movies. People classify some gory movies as a horror movie, but that’s not scary. I think that’s watered down now, and I think the paranormal side, the clairvoyants, all of these things, it’s always being debunked in some fashion. So of course there are people out there that don’t have the clairvoyance. But for my money, I believe that she does, and always has. But, you know, it’s okay for people to judge that, I guess – but that’s not for me to do.
The Conjuring opens Friday from New Line Cinema.