Patrick Wilson's dark side: "I have a real fascination with prison and crime"

Salon talks to the "Fargo" star about going from playing a cop to shady suspect in new Patricia Highsmith thriller

Published April 22, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Patrick Wilson in "A Kind of Murder"   (Tribeca Film Festival)
Patrick Wilson in "A Kind of Murder" (Tribeca Film Festival)

Need an actor to play amoral? Patrick Wilson seems to have cornered the market, having misbehaved on screen as a pedophile in “Hard Candy,” an adulterer in “Little Children” and a family man obsessed with hookers in “Zipper.”

But Wilson can also play noble: Check out his impressive turn as State Trooper Lou Solverson in season two of TV’s “Fargo.”

In his latest film, “A Kind of Murder,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, Wilson’s character, Walter Stackhouse, is borderline amoral. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, “The Blunderer,” the film has Walter, an architect who writes crime stories on the side, unhappily married to Clara (Jessica Biel). She has emotional problems and no interest in sex. Before long, Walter becomes infatuated with Ellie (Haley Bennett), a comely singer who lives in the Village. When Clara ends up dead, Walter is suspected of the crime, in part because it mirrors the recent murder of Kimmel’s (Eddie Marsan) wife, which Walter was tracking. As Detective Colby (Vincent Kartheiser) investigates, Walter’s secrets and lies threaten to become exposed.

Wilson excels at playing characters who should be upstanding leading-man types, but who are often masking a quiet desperation. As Walter, he feels a palpable sense of guilt, maintaining his innocence even as he gets deeper into trouble.

The actor chatted about “Murder” at the festival.

You play a writer in the film. What do you like to read?

I’m a part bookstore owner, and husband of a novelist and writer, but I don’t read a ton. I have eight scripts on my iPad that I’m scrolling through. I didn’t grow up reading much. The last book I read was Nick Offerman’s “Gumption.” To be quite fair, I was hosting him at the bookstore, Word, in Jersey City. I read music books… rock and roll biographies fascinate me.

Do you have an interest in crime or murder like Walter does?

I do. That I can talk about! I’ve seen every episode of “The First 48” and “Lockup Raw.” I have a real fascination with prison and crime. “Making of a Murder,” “Jinx,” “The Staircase.” I remember shooting a scene for “The A-Team” with Liam Neeson. We were in a prison, the only maximum security prison in BC, and during a lunch break, the warden came up and said, “Do you want to walk through with me?” And everyone else said, “No,” but I was like, “Yeah, I do.”

My wife was like, “Why are you fascinated by that?” And I said, it’s because I’m staring at a man no different than me. And yet he’s killed several people. He’s very nice to me—he recognized me from movies—but he has this complete other side to him. And that does fascinate me. And the flip side is Lou Solverson. He’s a straight-up kind of guy. You shake my hand, and I’m gonna believe you. Whether that’s naiveté or extreme optimism…

What can you say about playing characters on both sides of the law—Walter in “A Kind of Murder” vs. Lou on “Fargo”?

I am interested in the dark side because my parents are still together; they have been married for 50 years. I have a very strong belief in family, and a strong family relationship. I’ve lived a nice life. I like to discover those sides of me that I don’t have…. I liken it to traveling down the highway in your car and thinking, “I could drive this car off that bridge. I could. I could with the wheels…” A number of things make us not to do that, but some people do that. That’s a lot of what’s in “A Kind of Murder”—wanting to be involved in something like that.

Where does all this come from? Have you had trouble with the law?

No, and I think that’s probably why. There’s a real fine line… I used to be fascinated with Kurtz and the violence that is within men. What makes that guy that different than me? Which is similar to Walter, I think.

Patrick tells Ellie "there's nothing straight up about me!" What can you say about the character's secrets, lies and self-deception?

I think what separates Walter from Kimmel is that Walter is unsatisfied as a writer, as a husband, as a lover. He’s not a parent. He doesn’t feel valued, or important, or that he can make a difference. He’s drifting. He’s convinced he’s worked out how Kimmel has murdered his wife.

Do you gravitate to playing amoral characters, or just tend to get offered them more?

I look for guys who sort of belie the look. You have to understand your type and use it to show the flip side. That’s why I’ll gravitate to [playing] good or bad characters… Lou was in some way a real departure. He’s so solid—the kind of guy you want to be. I’ve tended to play guys who have a real weakness that you do not want to be.

As your career began, you frequently played characters who were sexy, objects of desire, but now you seem to be moving away from those kinds of parts to play more complex characters, like Walter, who project their desires on others. Can you talk about this shift in your career?

There’s no grand plan. Whether it’s the things you get offered or that appeal to me. The only conscious effort I have is to try not to retread the same old ground. When I did “Zipper,” because I’d done so many different love scenes, and showed a lot of skin, I felt that this was probably it for a while. It doesn’t get much dirtier, or more exposed than that. I’ve satiated that for a bit.

Can you talk about the themes of guilt and doubt in the film? This has much to do with Walter being suspected of murder, but also there’s guilt and doubt in his relationship with Clara…

Absolutely. Like most men, he wants to fix [his relationship]. If I’m nice to her, or more intimate with her, and have sex more, it will fix itself, but she has her own issues.

“A Kind of Murder” is a period piece. What observations do you have about getting into the mindset of the character, doing research on the era and the costumes? Walter tucks his sweaters into his pants! How do these elements inform your character/portrayal?

It’s awesome! Every time you play someone who is falling apart, it’s nice to try to put them together as much as you can. It’s playing the opposite. In this era, this style, there’s a specific look. When you are looking at a lot of those old photos—the tucked-in sweater, the high-waist pants, the very clean-cut, cropped hair—that’s someone trying to hold onto an image of the ’50s as the ’60s are on the rise. That’s why with the film was set a few years later than the book… it’s a different era. 

How do you find the sympathy or humanity in a character like Walter? How do you identify with him?

I don’t play words like “sympathy” or “emotional.” You have to remain active. You have to show him trying to succeed. I don’t really care if you like me or don’t like me, it’s do you care? You do that by actions. You show him trying to be a better husband, even if he fails.

So with the success of “Fargo,” are you looking for more projects like that, or to do something of your own?

Absolutely. But the bar is set pretty high. “Fargo” was a dream job for a number of reasons, mostly the writing, the time, the support, the direction, the cast—that rare combo of critical and commercial success. I’m certainly looking, and I get offered a nice amount, and I’m very thankful for that, but it’s hard. There’s a big difference between “Fargo,” an episodic miniseries, and a true series that you’re signing on to for several years, and a network show. It’s a much bigger difference that even two years ago. I have a few projects in mind—I’m writing a movie I want to direct and be in. There’s a Florida Western that I’m writing with my brother. I have lots of little passion projects.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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