Tom Wilkinson does not hesitate to say no. If you approach him wrapped snugly in your assumptions, he will handily disabuse you of them.
Gallivanting off to Jaipur with a gaggle of revered thespians including Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy to make The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the comic drama that opened last week – that must have been an adventure, yes?
Not really, Wilkinson answers, pouring himself a cup of coffee in a posh suite at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. “You’d have to talk to the director [John Madden, best known for Shakespeare in Love]as to how difficult it was,” he says, “because our side of it was not at all adventurous. We stayed in wonderful hotels and were fantastically well looked after.”
Fair enough. Did India entrance Wilkinson?
Not so much. “That fantastic contrast between poverty like you’ve never dreamt of and wealth like you never dreamt of is not something I ever got used to,” he says. “There is an element to Indian culture that if you are wealthy, you show it off. It provokes a surge of anger: ‘Look at this woman who’s washing her baby in a puddle in the road, while you are flashing your diamond ring.’ If you’ve been there you know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t, you can’t begin to know. All one can do is hope for the future, that maybe the burgeoning wealth of the industrial middle class will lift others out of poverty.”
All right, then. How about his career? In the past 15 years, Wilkinson, age 64, has received two Oscar nominations and played heartbreaking loss ( In the Bedroom), harrowing mental breakdown ( Michael Clayton), and charming comic relief (as the over-earnest apothecary in Shakespeare in Love).
In Marigold, his character, Graham, has one of the more emotional storylines: He returns to India to reconcile with his first love, a man whose life he always feared he’d ruined. Does this feel like a particularly rich run?
Again, no. “No richer than any other time,” he says. “I’ve been lucky from day one of my acting career, that I’ve always done stuff that I wanted to do, stuff that was good to do. I’ve never been a leading man, so I don’t have that sense of – a friend of mine was in Cary Grant’s last film, Gidget, and at one point Grant, who was in his 60s, said to my friend, ‘This is the last movie I’ll make, because I don’t get the girl any more.’ Well, I’ve never got the girl, so I don’t miss that. I do roles that interest me. In fact, I like the small role, because it doesn’t take too long to do.”
By this point, a small smile is playing around Wilkinson’s lips, and you’re getting the feeling that he’s – not playing a game, exactly. Not engaged in some kind of contest. It’s more like, he’s a professional pitcher and you’re an amateur batter, and every time you swing, you miss.
He’s not trying to humiliate you. He’s not being rude or making some kind of point. After each no, he looks at you calmly, and considers your next question without prejudice. He’s simply a much better pitcher than you are a batter. Just because he’s British and mild-tempered and well-spoken does not mean he’s going to do your work for you, fill in the silence that follows each “no” with elaboration, i.e., “It’s not like that, but it’s like this instead.” He’s fine with stopping at the no, while you rack up strike after strike. But as you’ve only got a few more minutes in the batting cage, you might as well keep swinging.
Did Wilkinson take any interesting day trips during Marigold’s nine-week shoot? “There was one bathing place,” he says. “A series of little waterfalls going into these pools. Sort of a holy place.” Did it feel holy to him? No. “I’m not big on the spiritual side of things. The woman washing her baby in the puddle in the road is a tremendous antidote to any spiritual aspirations you may have.”
Was part of Wilkinson’s attraction to Marigold that, unlike many films about characters over 60, these are not marginalized, patronized or made tragic? No. “I liked the role. I thought I could tell that story. That’s all, really. I didn’t think we were striking a blow for old age.”
Does he think the film’s message, that one is never too old to change, is true? “Ahh – I was thinking about that this morning,” he says. (Contact, at last. You head for first base.) “I think I can believe it to be true. Graham has an attempt at redemption, doesn’t he? It’s a literary concept. I don’t know whether it happens in life. But it could. Even if it’s as crude as, somebody has lived all their life in Toronto, and one summer, instead of saying ‘Let’s go to our cottage again,’ they say, ‘I don’t want to die not having seen the Eiffel Tower close up.’ If you are post-60, and there is a burgeoning curiosity, that is a good thing.”
Did Wilkinson have any preconceptions about being this age? “What I was not prepared for is the fact that your brain doesn’t change,” he says. (Contact again. Second base.) “You’ve still got the brain of a 27-year-old. I don’t have old-people thoughts – ‘It was much better in my day, when there were no motorcars.’ But when I look in the mirror I’m not 27 any more, that’s for sure.”
Why does Wilkinson think he was lucky in his profession, when so many aren’t? “I had a very thick skin,” he says. (Three in a row! You take third.) “I could take rejection. Apart from talent, that’s required at the beginning, and a lot of people can’t. I didn’t get bitter. I’d think, ‘Okay, screw you, there is a world elsewhere.’
“You’ve got to love it,” he continues. “I look at people like Marlon Brando and think, ‘Such a waste.’ If he’d have loved it, he’d have had such a happy life, instead of the miserable life he gave himself, because he didn’t trust that entertaining people was worth doing. If that’s not important, what is?”
Last pitch: Is that why Wilkinson does what he does? Just when you think you might make it home, he shakes his head. “No,” he says. “I just can’t stop myself. I think, ‘I’m not going to do anything this year,’ and then somebody sends me a script. I go” – he mimes pushing it away – “then I say, ‘Well, let me have another read.’ You keep on doing it because you can’t stop yourself.”
I know the feeling.