Dinner With Patrick Wilson - A Conversation with One of Broadway's Favorite Leading Men

March 23, 2000 was a typical evening for the Encores! audience at the New York City Center. The concert performance of Bock and Harnick's musical TENDERLOIN was competent and the audience was enjoying themselves despite the show's obvious flaws. However, all of that changed when the handsome young man playing Tommy stepped forward to sing "Artificial Flowers", the show's hit tune which was popularized by Bobby Darin in the 60's. The singer's voice soared into the cavernous Byzantine-styled theater and his personality projected beyond the footlights reaching the highest climes of the balcony. The rendition was greeted with tumultous applause which, in turn, was followed by the rustling of PLAYBILLS as the audience tried to glean some information about who this talented young man was.

What they learned in the "Who's Who" section of those PLAYBILLS was that Patrick Wilson had received a Drama League Award for his Broadway debut in GERSHWIN'S FASCINATING RHYTHM and had appeared Off-Broadway in the musicalization of BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY. He had also played leading roles in touring productions of CAROUSEL and MISS SAIGON. His regional credits included SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH and HARMONY at La Jolla, THE CIDER HOUSE RULES at the Mark Taper Forum and ROMEO AND JULIET: THE MUSICAL at Ordway, as well as LUCKY IN THE RAIN at Goodspeed. There was also a reference to his just-completed (and still unreleased) film, MY SISTER'S WEDDING and a mention that his next project was the Broadway-bound production of THE FULL MONTY, which would originate at the Old Globe Theater in California.

Not only did THE FULL MONTY make it to Broadway, it earned Patrick Wilson his first Tony Award nomination for his portrayal of Jerry Lukowski, the unemployed steel-worker who becomes a male stripper. This was quickly followed by Trevor Nunn's acclaimed revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA! which earned Wilson his second Tony nomination. While performing in OKLAHOMA!, Wilson was busily filming Mike Nichols' acclaimed version of ANGELS IN AMERICA, earning Wilson an Emmy Award nomination for his performance of a sexually confused Mormon. He also played William B.Travis in THE ALAMO, which was released before ANGELS IN AMERICA was aired. That was followed by the soon-to-be-released movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. The PHANTOM assignment was followed, at breakneck speed, by a role in the just-finished movie HARD CANDY. Wedged somewhere in between all this was his participation in the all-star reading of SUNSET BOULEVARD, in which he assumed the role of Joe Gillis. Along the way he got to work with such luminaries as Trevor Nunn, Nicholas Hytner, Mike Nichols, Joel Schumacher, Susan Strohman, Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

All of this is pretty dazzling for a fellow who turned 31 this past July 3rd. Taking a break from his busy schedule, Patrick Wilson gladly agreed to be interviewed for BroadwayWorld.com. Would his Hollywood experience bring about any changes in a performer who was known for for being accessible and candid?

All fears were quickly assuaged when Wilson warmly greeted this interviewer by name, following that with a hearty handshake and a recollection of our last visit two years ago. Obviously he was still the down-to-earth and good-natured man he had been during his successes in New York. Although we had agreed to meet just for coffee, Wilson admitted he was hungry and we ordered light meals to sustain us during our lengthy conversation.

The chat began in a very light-hearted key, for as Wilson learned that one of the previous interviews I did for BroadwayWorld was with theater legend Carol Channing, he broke into a fairly good Channing impersonation, telling me of how he had been dating a gal who appeared in the last tour of HELLO, DOLLY! This lass arranged for Wilson to see the show several times, but each time it was his job to accompany Channing's then-husband. As most people in the theater world know, the late Charles Lowe sat down front in a conspicuous seat at almost every performance and was the first one to leap up and lead the standing ovations for his wife throughout the show. One evening Mr. Lowe was unable to attend, so Wilson showed up solo and assumed the role of "claque" thoughout the performance. Afterwards, in her dressing room, Channing was effusive for her praise about how Wilson filled in for her husband.

"I had done SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH when I was 27 it was awesome and would like to do it again. I'm obsessed with Tennessee Williams and always have been. I love the way he writes about the South and Southerners"

One of the first topics broached was the benefit concert he and his family planned to give in Florida for those who were affected by Hurricane Charley. Born in Virginia, Wilson moved with his family to Florida during his younger years, when his father became a news anchor in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area and one of his older brothers followed suit. The Wilson family hadn't been terribly affected by the hurricane, but reporting the devastation on television made the elder Wilson want to do what he could to help the victims of the storm. Unfortunately, the first date for the concert had to be scrapped because yet another hurricane struck the area. In fact each time the concert was rescheduled, another hurricane caused its postponment. Right now the family is hoping to reschedule the event around mid-January. Patrick Wilson is eagerly anticipating the event because it will mark the first time he will be able to sing a program of music he performed in Broadway shows, on tour, and in the movies.

It becomes evident that that the actor is close to his family. Several times in the course of the interview he mentions "home" and it is apparent that he is not referring to an apartment in New York City, but rather the place where his parents and brothers live in Florida. There are strong and admirable family ties among the Wilson clan. Wilson explains that he began singing in the choir his mother directed while still in his teens. He was active in school sports but recalled how there were many times when he had to approach his coaches and tell them he couldn't attend the annual sports dinner because he was "scheduled to sing in a performance of Handel's 'Messiah' or something like that."

He quickly adds that he never formally studied voice with his mother and that his first voice lesson took place when he was in college. When informed that his choral background was evident in the clear diction and enunciation was apparent in his aforementioned performance in TENDERLOIN, Wilson lit up like a beacon. The character he played in that show was rather "streetwise and lying to everybody" but when called upon to sing "Artificial Flowers" he would prove to be the perfect choirboy--hence, the clear diction. The recording of the show's score remains one of Wilson's favorites.

An incredulous look came across Wilson's face when he learned that a large group from BroadwayWorld were planning to hire a bus to take us down I-95 in order to see his performance as "Brick" in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF at the Kennedy Center. It took a moment or two for the information to sink in. Yes, it was true: his popularity is such that many of us were willing to meet a bus at 6 AM and arrive in Washington for a matinee performance of the Tennessee Williams classic. Of course those plans were scrapped as soon as it was learned that Wilson had withdrawn from the project. He explains: "I still want to do it. I had done SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH when I was 27 it was awesome and would like to do it again. I'm obsessed with Tennessee Williams and always have been. I love the way he writes about the South and Southerners. I also love CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF but the problem with this production was that it was only scheduled to run two weeks. In that time I had some post production work on the PHANTOM film and was committed to doing the studio recording of the musical BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY. It was obvious that I couldn't do all these things." He added that he would really like to do another production of SWEET BIRD in the near future.

It was remarked that the period when he was performing OKLAHOMA! on stage and filming ANGELS IN AMERICA at the same time had to have been a strenous time for Patrick Wilson. He admits it was. He also thanks director Mike Nichols for being so considerate of OKLAHOMA's performance schedule and worked the filming around Wilson's commitment to the show. Yes, it caused for an exhausting stretch of time and ANGELS went far beyond its filming schedule, but that was mostly because it was a six hour movie that would be shown in two parts. It amounted to filming two movies simultaneously. The schedule kept Wilson so busy that he didn't have the time to realize how impossible it all was. As one watches ANGELS IN AMERICA, the viewer immediately realizes that the scenes between Wilson and Al Pacino (who plays Roy Cohn) set off genuine dramatic sparks.

Wilson readily admits that the two actors had no difficulty playing off each other and that they have become true friends off-camera.

"The show really lends itself well to film. I'm the biggest proponent of musicals. I believe in musicals. I believe in the device of musicals."

Wilson has been touched to learn that his performance in that TV film affected so many people who were struggling with their sexual identities. He comments: "What we do for a living is entertainment and you hope people will have a good time; some people will cry, some people will laugh and others sit and eat their popcorn; it's as deep as you want to make it. But ANGELS is hard to ignore. If you're an actor and you talk to people, you study, you do your work trying to create a character that is believable and as non-judgemental as possible. Then it's nice to get an honest reaction from people. You rarely get those opportunities where your work really has an impact and moves people. I've met several gay Mormons and they are really appreciative of what they've experienced in this film."

The question of how acting differs in the mediums of film and theater really gets Wilson going: "For me the intention is the same; the acting is the same. Acting is acting. With a film the director brings the focus to you. There's an intimacy in a number like "All I Ask of You" and the Phantom could do minute things in his quiet moments where he is introspective. It's a question of tone and volume and different things that you can do in films that is quite special. Believe me, there's nothing like a musical on stage and there's nothing like being in one, but what I think is interesting is that PHANTOM, LES MIS and MISS SAIGON are really to the theater what action movies are to Hollywood. They were were either all-sung or partially sung and there were helicopters and chandeliers, so it naturally becomes cinematic. In films you can have a real chandelier falling and crashing; you can have us really rowing a boat in the Phantom's lair. It captures the heart of the play, which in itself is very romantic and epic and the comedy is this almost vaudevillian style in which Minnie [Driver] plays Carlotta. With the romantic part of the story we were able to take that one step further and have me coming in on a white horse and the shirt and the sword...it doesn't get any more romantic than that! There are also those close-ups when you get into the Phantom's eyes and see this disfigured man. You get to see what's in his heart. The show really lends itself well to film. I'm the biggest proponent of musicals. I believe in musicals. I believe in the device of musicals. That's why I'm so happy to have worked with Nicholas Hytner and Trevor Nunn and people who look at musicals with the same respect, dedication and focus that others have for Sam Shepard, Chekov and Shakespeare. That's what musicals are to me and that's where my style of acting comes from. It comes from the heart and it comes from the script. The acting is the same whether it's in a film or on stage. It's just a question of how "big" you want to be and how broad you want to play it."

Wilson admits that during the filming of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, Andrew Lloyd Webber dubbed him "The Impossibly Perfect Patrick Wilson" In fact, Lloyd Webber called him that quite often. This was because Wilson performed most of his stunts himself and for the professionalism he displayed on the set. "It's very flattering," says Wilson, "but it's not true. I'm not 'perfect'." Wilson has great admiration for the British composer In fact, the two men bonded immediately. To Lloyd Webber, Wilson was "the only person in the room who could sit there and trade stories with him and go show by show with him and talk about how his music changed or what instruments he used. He'd tell me about the creation of this role or ask me if I'd heard a certain version of SUPERSTAR and what did I think of it? All the others there were Hollywood people so he and I hit it off really well. He's probably the only musical theater composer of the 20th century I'd never met. I mean, I'd met Sondheim and just about every other theater composer. You know, I've spent eight years in the business and I got to meet a lot of people, but I'd never auditioned for Andrew. When I did get to sing for him it was very comforting and relaxing because the part of Raoul sat in a good part of my voice and I'd grown up singing that style of music. I grew up on LES MIS--pop musical theater was what I grew up on. Each show swayed me in different ways, whether it was classical or pop, but this was sort of the core of what you listen to. Now quite a few "Hollywood people" had auditioned for the role, but unless you sing it eight times a week you either 'do it or you don't' and unless you do it like that it's hard to understand what it's like. From the start, it became obvious that Lloyd Webber and I came from the same world--the theater--and it wasn't like some actor who was saying, 'Well, I just learned to sing for this audition' or 'Well, I used to sing as a kid' and that's fine, but for this role, everything just felt right."

When Wilson hears that other sources deride Andrew Lloyd Webber as a pompous idiot who doesn't write his own music, the actor visibly bristles. "That's a ridiculous statement," he retorts forcefully. "Andrew is one of the most self-deprecating persons in the industry. He's the most reserved, the most gracious and the most grateful. He's written some incredibly melodic music. PHANTOM has made over three billion dollars and for a guy with that kind of power and the ability to reach that many people with his work...for him to be able to walk into a room and just be a fan says something about him. He was there three or four times a week, not as a producer who wanted to see how his movie was and whether we were keeping on schedule. No. He wanted to see the chandelier crash and what Joel Schumacher was coming up with next. That's great. He was like a kid in a candy store. To work with someone like that is unbelieveable."

Of course Wilson has seen the finished product and loves it. He adds that he's the most critical person when it comes to self-assessment, "but PHANTOM OF THE OPERA uses a 100 piece orchestra, which could hardly fit into the Abbey Road recording studio. The sound is great and it's everything that an old-fashioned musical should be. It goes back to a time when screen musicals were big and unapologetic. I must say that in the lair scene, Gerry [Butler, who plays the Phantom] and I connected and that was the time we kindda look in each other's eyes and we brought out so much in each other. We left our guts on that screen. It's very hard with something that's so personal and you open it up to criticism and that's part of it. However that scene captures the heart of the movie and every emotion you see there is played to the hilt, which is what it should be. The "funny" is really funny and the "drama" is really dramatic. I love what Joel did with the movie. I think he was the perfect director for it. Musically speaking, it is the biggest sound you'll ever hear. That 100 piece orchestra playing can be really loud. The other day this little old lady sitting in front of me at a preview literally jumped at the opening chords of the film."

After Thanksgiving, Wilson and other cast members of PHANTOM will embark on a world-wide media junket to promote the film. After that, he has the recording of BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY coming out. Although he doesn't have the exact date of the album's release, he believes it's around mid-January. Then, too, there's the independant film HARD CANDY which will be an entry in this year's Sundance Film Festival. However, Patrick Wilson hasn't forgotten his first love--the theater. He laughed when it was suggested that he might be an upcoming Billy Flynn in the revolving-door cast of CHICAGO. Then quickly added, "but never say 'never' !" He certainly wouldn't be averse to taking over a role in an existing production. The actor hopes to be back on stage in the autumn of 2005. Let's hope so, perhaps by that time his "Who's Who" in the PLAYBILL will cite several awards that he's received for his work in the film industry--and it wouldn't be a bad idea if PEOPLE magazine named him their next "Sexiest Man Alive," either! Patrick Wilson deserves all the honors that come his way.

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From This Author Joseph F. Panarello

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