Examining Patrick Wilson’s filmography can feel a bit like the parable of the blind men who touched an elephant and believed it to be three different animals. Fixate on Wilson’s early work, with key roles in Joel Schumacher’s big-screen Phantom of the Opera and Mike Nichols’s mini-series treatment of Angels in America, and he looks like the inveterate board-treader he truly is. Train your focus on his mid-to-late-aughts roles, and he resembles one of the studious character actors quietly excelling outside the brightest spotlights. Lately, as the Insidious and Conjuring franchises have brought him a new degree of public recognition, he’s been getting comfortable with the honorific of “scream king.” (To that effect: Do yourself a favor and take a look at the underseen Bone Tomahawk, a peerlessly grisly horror-Western that doubles as a showcase for Wilson’s talents.)
And with the release of the new Aquaman, he adds yet another wrinkle to an unpredictable, intriguingly irregular C.V. He portrays the mighty Orm, nemesis of Aquaman and would-be Ocean Master. The effects-heavy, big-budget production was foreign territory for the actor, as was the persona of a bellowing, muscular, alpha male. While many thespians have chafed under the demands of blockbuster filmmaking, Wilson eagerly met the test of a task that lay way outside his wheelhouse. For a performer determined to disrupt his own steadiness whenever he can feel himself settling into a particular beat, diving into the choppy waters of superheroism makes all the sense in the world.
The varied nature of Wilson’s work was evident in a recent conversation with Vulture, which jumped from his work on the Watchmen adaptation to a brief sample of the physical stresses endured on Aquaman to the whole Girls brouhaha from 2013 to that brief run of movies he did about testicular mutilation. Wilson was glad to discuss it all and more, “more” being “friendship with Barbra Streisand.”
First off, one point of clarification, about the moment where you’ve got some enemy under your trident and you go, “Call me … Ocean Master!” Big fan of that series of words, but I’m unclear as to whether that’s him choosing his supervillain name, or if that’s an official title, like secretary of Defense.
That is an official title. But of course, secretary of Defense wouldn’t be half as dramatic. I can’t have a guy at my mercy and growl, “Call me … Vice-Governor of the Sea!” I don’t know if other people have been Ocean Master in the past, though. I like to think maybe there’s been a long history of Ocean Masters, but that very few people or creatures — actually, I’m gonna make a choice. There’s always been knowledge of the Ocean Master, but it’s been dangling out there, like, “If you can align four of the seven kingdoms, then you’ll become Ocean Master.” If! And Orm feels like he can do it, which, of course, he does.
This is a dramatically different sort of picture than the last superhero movie you did, 2009’s Watchmen. In terms of your experience, how do they compare to one another?
Every movie I’ve done, superhero or not, has been a departure from the last. One thing: I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but my fitting for Aquaman was in the same room at Warner Bros. as when I went in for the Nite Owl costume. But, yeah, the thing about Watchmen was that there wasn’t so much green-screen work. Technically and physically, Aquaman was much more involved and demanding. For Watchmen, I was eating everything in sight because the character’s supposed to be out of shape and have a gut. I knew when I squeezed into the costume, it’d do some of the work, but I had to have the belly there. This was a different story, though. I had to gain about the same amount of weight, only in muscle, so this had to be done through the gym and nutrition. Not quite the same experience!
To be fair, I didn’t know what I would need for the Aquaman costume. They’re built to shape shoulders, they have built-in abs. But Jason’s got all these shirtless scenes, and even though I didn’t know how much time I’d be spending with my shirt off, I didn’t want anyone watching the movie to wonder, Hmm, why are those two guys evenly matched? I had to be the biggest, most fit version of myself. That’s what he is in the comic; he’s not one of the skinny, intellectual-type villains. He’s supposed to be badass.
Acting “underwater,” is there a physicality you’ve got to be mindful of? Like, moving while simulating resistance?
It’s a lot of core strength. Takes a lot out of you. There are basically four different types of harnesses: You’ll be on wires, for if you’re supposed to be floating in; what we called a “tuning fork,” a two-pronged thing for if you needed to spin or go up and down on an axis; there was one that hung from the ceiling, where a guy on the back uses a wheel to drive you around; and then one that was like, well, just put your legs up. Seriously! Lie down on your front, and make sure to lift your legs, and keep your head up.
[Interviewer assumes a planking position suspended on his chair.] Wow, yeah, I hate this.
Right? Now do that for about eight hours! We were all strong as hell by the end of this. Thank you for doing that, by the way; I did not expect you to actually lie down.
But even in average scenes, there’d be passages of just me and [co-star] Willem [Dafoe] talking, and we’re swimming or swaying or just doing something to remind the viewer that we’re in water. If your legs just sit there, dangling, it looks wrong. You’ve got to be conscious of that, but it was cool! When else in my career have I done something like this?
Whenever I talk to actors for superhero movies, I always think back on something Idris Elba said about working on the Thor movies, how he was hanging from a crane in front of blue screens for three hours and thought to himself something like, Man, I played Nelson Mandela last month. You’re someone who comes from the stage — was there any point at which you felt estranged from the usual nuts and bolts of acting?
Oh, sure, I felt estranged. I’d turn to Willem, and we’d go, “What are we doing? What do we do for a living?” But it was never with a sense of, like, “I am a Shakespearean ac-tor!” I never looked down on it. I loved it! I just found it bizarre. I like to look back at the end of the year and say to myself, I did a lot of strange, eclectic jobs. I like that feeling, and my choices reflect that. This checked a lot of boxes as a very weird way to make a movie, lots I hadn’t done before. Definitely a new challenge, one I’d even be eager to take another crack at.
In the course of my research, I saw that you once performed a duet with Barbra Streisand for a compilation CD she was putting together. Are you two pals?
I did three concerts with her, did the album, hosted her at a town-hall thing for Sirius Radio. We’re friends, I’d say, sure. I haven’t seen her in a while, but that being said, I adore her. She really is unbelievable. It was an odd year, shooting a film in the spring and then all those shows in the fall, then another show in Miami. It was the gift that kept on giving; I thought I was just going to be doing a song with her, then suddenly, ‘They’re gonna come back and film me, wanna come?’ and ‘We’re going on tour, wanna sing a couple shows with us? Wanna do another one?’ We felt comfortable around one another; she was very easygoing and unassuming for someone who’s such a titan of her field. I grew up a singer, my mother’s a voice teacher, and I always marveled at her voice. Not even anything around it, but the quality of the instrument. How she’s maintained it, all through a career as one of the greatest singers of the 20th century and now the 21st, I’m in awe.
It’s curious that early on in your career, we see these two major successes with the Phantom of the Opera movie and the Angels in America mini-series, which I see as occupying the opposite poles of the theater-kid spectrum — a gloriously cheesy musical versus a five-hour Pulitzer-winning play with the words “National Themes” in the title. Do you feel yourself gravitating more toward one end or the other?
The trick is to not judge either! Angels and Phantom, which are both built around moments of spectacle, have more in common than you’d think. Musical theater, at its best, is one of the great contributions to American entertainment. When it’s good, there’s nothing like it, but when it’s bad, yeah, it’s terrible. Hard to watch, you know? I never have any judgments, and that’s carried me through my film career, too. I ask the same questions with Raoul as I would with Joe Pitt.
I liked your episode of Girls, “One Man’s Trash,” a lot, and a friend just reminded me of that whole deluge of furious articles that seemed to take the premise and writing very personally. Were you aware of that at the time?
Oh, yeah, my wife wrote several pieces talking about that. It was amazing, how people have this ownership over it. People said, “He would never do that.” What do you mean, he’d never do that? My wife, when this was happening, said, “His wife’s a size ten and we’re doing just fine!” It was all about appearance and body, and you know this would never be a conversation if the shoe was on the other foot. They’d never say these things if the gender dynamic was flipped. There were even friends of mine, where I’d go on radio shows and they’d try to bash it.
Maybe it’s just being a New Yorker, but to me, there’s nothing implausible about a middle-aged guy having a fling with an artsy younger girl he meets in Brooklyn. It’s hard enough finding a friend here, much less a boyfriend or girlfriend. I’m a grown man, and I had no doubt that this could be real. I’ve dated all types! Who cares? It hasn’t been an issue. I wonder if it’d play out differently now. That reaction feels very pre-#MeToo. What surprised me was how often it was women making these kinds of comments, because I assumed it’d be all men. These comments seemed misogynist, so you think men, but women seemed to take a lot of offense, too. How do you hit the Zeitgeist like that? If anything, that reaction probably proves that the writing is doing its job.
In the span of about five years, you did Little Children, Barry Munday, and Hard Candy, all films into which testicular mutilation figures prominently. I’m not saying this was something you were actively pursuing, but did this time in your life give you any new perspective on testicle ownership?
Throw Watchmen in there, too, that had some impotence. But I actually used to have this conversation a lot with people, and I think this reflects how many different ways there are to tell an emasculation story. Sometimes it’s literal, sometimes it’s figurative, and I think that speaks more to that time in moviemaking than the choices I was making. Back then, I thought it was interesting to play emasculated men. You always want to play your opposite, so if you look like an all-American guy, you want to unearth whatever lies beneath that — insecurity, fragility. You’re constantly trying to find the most unfamiliar way to use your skill set, and at that phase of my work, that’s what made me uncomfortable.
On your Wikipedia page, due to your work on the Insidious movies and the Conjuring, you are referred to as a “scream king.” Do you feel one way or the other about this distinction?
Hey, as long as people are talking about you. But what’s funny is that the title is usually given to damsels in distress, and my characters aren’t really the ones who are helpless. They’re in peril, I guess, but I’m not much of a screamer in these movies. Not too many screams, though I’ve gotten in a couple good ones, so who’s to say. I used to run from all this, you know. When it first started happening, it felt like I was someone else, people saying, “Oh, you’re the guy who does horror movies!” And I’d be like, “Well, I’ve done two, and lots of other things.” These days, I don’t even care. They’re good, they work, and I like playing Ed Warren. I’d feel hypocritical if I were like, “I hate that moniker,” because I could always just put down the sideburns.
I don’t have much occasion to scream in my everyday life. Does it feel cathartic, having a good scream?
It does! My wife and kids would tell you I’m a pretty chill guy, and that’s because I get to get it out in my work, whether that’s shouting at someone as Orm or damning a demon back to hell. That’s why I’m relaxed in the rest of my life — I do all my demon-fighting on the clock.