Patrick Wilson, Hollywood’s Almost Star

Or why there are no small movies, only small actors.

With all the hullabaloo surrounding Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, it’s entirely possible that you overlooked the new Patrick Wilson movie in theaters this weekend. Two of them, actually. In The Hollow Point, Wilson plays the sheriff of a small town along the Mexican border who is swept up in violence as he investigates a local drug deal. In A Kind of Murder, Wilson plays a sixties businessman caught up in a web of deceit and murders after he becomes obsessed with a local killer. With a few recognizable actors and a limited theatrical release – The Hollow Point opened in New York City, A Kind of Murder in Los Angeles – neither film is quite video-on-demand fodder, but neither are they mainstream Hollywood releases. They’re sort of caught in the middle, an analogy that works just as well when we extend it to the career of Wilson himself.

I’ve always had a bit of a weakness for actors who balance precariously between big summer movies and fringy small theatrical releases. This gray area between Hollywood and obsolescence is often populated by actors clearly on the downswing of their careers – the usual suspects such as John Cusack and Nicolas Cage – as well as a smaller selection of actors whose talent is still intact but whose selections are often hard to reconcile with their body of work as a whole. People like Aaron Eckhart, Ethan Hawke, and, yes, Patrick Wilson are all actors who continue to prove themselves when given the chance but who are also relegated to second-tier titles more often than not. In some ways, Wilson is a cut above his peers. In others, he’s considerably more entrenched in his ways.

Before he was a leading man in film and television, Patrick Wilson was a Broadway star. In the early 2000s, Wilson was cast as one of the male leads in both The Full Monty — a pretty enjoyable adaptation of the popular British film – and the Broadway revival of Oklahoma, garnering Tony nominations for both performances. After a turn in HBO’s adaptation of Angels in America, Wilson was the first person to be officially cast in the Warner Bros. movie adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, giving the movie at least one male actor who could carry a tune. If you were one of those who saw Wilson in The Conjuring 2 this summer and were surprised to hear his pitch-perfect Elvis impression, you shouldn’t be: Wilson was a singer and a dancer long before he was known for taking on demons in big-budget horror films.

What’s most striking about Wilson is how often his talents as an actor play against his evolution as a leading man. Wilson is at his best when he’s playing relatively earnest people. His most recognizable performances – Ed Warren from the Insidious franchise, Dan Dreiberg in Watchmen, and Lou Solverson from Season 2 of Fargo — all offer different version of the same basic character. These are men with strong moral compasses and a quiet competence, people who remain rational and focused as things around them devolve into violence. None of Insidious, Watchmen, or Fargo ask Wilson to anchor the film so much as provide ballast, offering the supporting cast a chance to spit fire while he keeps the story moving forward. And while a few films have tried to play Wilson against type – typically as the reluctant partner in a suburban affair – even these films must first subvert his ever-present affability before they can use it for better ends.

As a result, Wilson has had an odd career. He’s moved easily between dramas, action, and horror films, standing out in films as diverse as Young Adult and Bone Tomahawk (minus that one scene we all hate). When given a chance to really cut loose – like in Joe Carnahan’s Stretch – he shows all the range and wry humor of a Hollywood leading man. But then there are the other films, the ones that slip out of theaters or straight to video at the blink of an eye; films where he acts alongside Katherine Heigl at her nadir and doesn’t seem out of place. In those films he seems less like an actor in search of creative fulfillment and more like someone stuck in a tailspin he cannot quite pull out of. It’s Wilson’s ability to never quite lose focus – to stay relevant even as he makes ostensibly irrelevant movies – that makes him such a fascinating actor to follow.

There’s Something Fishy About the Recently Announced Aquaman Villain

There’s a sense of purpose in all of this, a desire to be seen – to be out in front of the picture – that Wilson speaks openly of in interviews. “I have to go where the roles are,” Wilson told The Daily Beast in 2015. “Not be the fourth lead in the movie that everyone might see but not really care about you in it.” There’s an idea embedded in this that Wilson valued visibility above all else, and would rather be a big fish in a smaller pond than get lost in the ocean. Even within the last year, though, that seems to be an approach that’s subtly changing. With RogerEbert.com, Wilson hinted at a desire to move into bigger projects and not just the ones where he would be the star. “I’m not running to do indie movies people may or may not be seeing as much anymore,” Wilson explained. “That was fun and I did that for a few years, but time’s a bit more precious.”

Whether Wilson is indeed done with the independent scene or not – and his upcoming projects on IMDb suggest otherwise – he does seem to have made at least one major change in his career: according to Deadline, Wilson has recently signed on to play the villain to Jason Momoa’s hero in the DC Cinematic Universe film Aquaman. In addition to reuniting him with The Conjuring director James Wan, this film will also ensure that Wilson is seen by perhaps the biggest audience of his career, hopefully giving him a bit more creative freedom in whatever project he chooses next. Whatever the future holds for Patrick Wilson, we can likely still count on him to be an earnest and affable leading man. Hopefully he continues his balancing act for the rest of his career.