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Remembering 'Full Monty' actor Tom Wilkinson

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Actor Tom Wilkinson died on Saturday at the age of 75. He caught the eye of American movie audiences in the 1997 film "The Full Monty," where he played a laid-off factory manager who joins a ragged band of male strippers. Wilkinson was born in Yorkshire, England, and was familiar to British TV and stage audiences for years, appearing with Helen Mirren in the "Prime Suspect" series and in many other roles. In the '90s, he turned his focus to movies with roles in "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," "Shakespeare In Love," "Batman Begins," and "Selma." He earned two Oscar nominations, one for his performance in the 2001 movie "In The Bedroom," where he and Sissy Spacek starred as a couple dealing with the murder of their only son. His second Oscar nomination was for his role in the movie "Michael Clayton." Dave Davies spoke with Tom Wilkinson in 2005 when he was starring in the movie "Separate Lies." He played a high-powered British lawyer whose well-ordered life is shattered when he learns about his wife's infidelity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVE DAVIES: In "Separate Lies," you play a powerful lawyer in a seemingly happy marriage, but who discovers all kinds of problems. What drew you to this role?

TOM WILKINSON: I liked the idea of playing somebody from the upper middle class because it's not something I do. It's not a class that I - my background is much more sort of blue collar. So I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to play somebody from the upper middle class. One of the characteristics of that class, I am led to believe, is that they believe in continuity, but the continuity is not the continuity between now and the future. It's a continuity between the past and the future. They want things to be like they always have been. If it was good enough for my father and my grandfather, it's certainly good enough for me and good enough for my children. You know, in a certain sense, they're - they lead a rather unexamined life.

And that's the sort of penalty that poor old James Manning pays when he realizes that his wife is being unfaithful to him, because, of course, his first response would be, but why? She's got everything she needs. What could possibly motivate her to have an affair with this fellow? And so on and so forth. So it's that sort of - you know, the more you can establish somebody reveling in the things of his power and wealth and so on, the more you'll - the more fun the audience will have watching him sort of looking again at his job and thinking, is this - was this the best job I should be doing? Shouldn't I be doing something else? Is this - was this the right house to be living in, or should I have lived in something - you know, seeing somebody sort of rebuild the sort of moral universe that has been shattered.

DAVIES: You were born in England. Your dad was a farmer when you were young. And then you moved to Canada, I think, from ages 5 to 11 - right? - and then back to England, where your father pursued a number of different activities. And I'm wondering - you know, it's a pretty varied background - kind of what those travels might have exposed you to or - I mean, did that affect the kind of creative insight that you drew on in your career?

WILKINSON: I'm not sure. The thing what it - here's the situation. As far as my family are concerned, from my father's family and indeed my mother's, but my father's particularly, they were farmers in the same bit of England for a thousand years. There is just no evidence that anybody - any member of my family - was anything other than a farmer. And my grandfather was a farmer. My father was a farmer. And to all intents and purposes, had things turned out differently, I would have been a farmer, and my brothers would have been farmers. At the point - but what happened, of course, that this was kind of shattered. This sense of continuity was shattered completely. For one reason or another, the farm went, and there was no - never any question that I was going to follow in my father's footsteps.

So this sort of, as it were, discontinuity perhaps gave me a kind of rootlessness. There was no home. There was no - nothing I could sort of return to, nothing I could say, you know, that's the real me there. You know, it's - I should be running the farm, but my brother is running the farm. There was no farm. There was nothing of that. So - and I think in a certain sense, rootlessness in that sense is quite good for an actor. It's not necessarily going to make an actor, but it means they are much more wide ranging in the things that they will allow themselves to be influenced by, that they're perhaps not as set in their cultural ways as perhaps they could be if they had that thing which we crudely call a strong sense of themselves. An actor probably doesn't have a strong sense of himself in that sense. And I think probably that's one of the reasons.

DAVIES: Reinventing yourself, in effect...

WILKINSON: Yes.

DAVIES: ...In life and on...

WILKINSON: Yes.

DAVIES: ...The stage, right?

WILKINSON: Yes.

DAVIES: You were introduced to a much wider audience with the film "The Full Monty." And to remind our audience, this is the story of a group of men who lose their jobs when their Sheffield steel plant closes, and one of them hatches upon this idea of creating a male strip team. This is a remarkable film, and it was hugely successful. But I can imagine when you looked at the script, you must have thought, my heavens, what is this? What was your reaction?

WILKINSON: I had no hesitation whatsoever in doing this film. I read it, and the first time I read it, I thought, this is good, and I want to get it made. And it was a point in my career where I decided I'm going to stick with films. I'm not going to do any more television or theater. I'm going to stick with films until I find out whether it's going to work for me or not. But with this one, I just simply had no - not the faintest hesitation in doing it.

DAVIES: What told you it was going to work 'cause it seems to me so much of what works here is - I don't know - the chemistry, these guys, the way you all do it?

WILKINSON: Yeah, well, I thought the kind of - the writing was wonderful and worked perfectly. But added to that, I thought it was one of the most brilliantly cast movies that I've ever seen. You know, there was lots of actors in it, none of whom I'd ever heard. Robert Carlyle I knew, but the rest of them I never heard of. And they - turned out that they were just perfect for it, and that, together with, you know, all the rest of the kind of imponderables that go to making a film - it absolutely achieved what it set out to do.

DAVIES: How do you decide which roles you will take? Are you drawn to...

WILKINSON: It's simple, Dave. You just follow your nose. You ask those simple, really instinctive questions like, you know, can I shine in this role? Can I do this role better than anybody in the world? Is there something in it that I recognize? Nothing - you know, it's not - really not to do with the money or the director or the other members of the cast. The first simple thing is, am I going to enjoy playing this character? And it's childish, I know. And I shouldn't, for my great age, be admitting to something so sort of, you know - do I like the look of this toy, or am I going to wait to the next toy shop and see if there's something even cuddlier? No, that's how it works. It's purely instinctive decision.

DAVIES: Well, Tom Wilkinson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

WILKINSON: Thank you, Dave. It's been a pleasure.

MOSLEY: Dave Davies speaking with Tom Wilkinson in 2005. He died on Saturday at the age of 75. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we talked to Bloomberg reporter Emma Court about Ozempic and the new class of medications revolutionizing the medical treatment for people with obesity. She'll share more about how they work, the latest research on the long-term impacts, and explain how and why the shortages and high costs has widened the divide on who has access. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOC CHEATHAM SONG, "SQUEEZE ME")

MOSLEY: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOC CHEATHAM SONG, "SQUEEZE ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dave Davies
Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.