Tom Wilkinson passed on Tolkien

JIM SLOTEK - Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:31 AM ET

Why would a rich, powerful lawyer suffer his wife's infidelities and even cover up a case of vehicular manslaughter for her?

For the same reason, perhaps, that Tom Wilkinson turned down The Lord Of The Rings.

Wilkinson (The Exorcism Of Emily Rose) plays barrister James Manning in Separate Lies, the taut, acclaimed directorial debut of Gosford Park scripter Julian Fellowes. Manning's life begins to unravel when he discovers not only that his wife (Emily Watson) is having an affair with a cad neighbour (Rupert Everett), but that they were jointly culpable in a vehicle/bicycle accident that killed their housekeeper's husband.

It's a confounding character study, with Wilkinson's character willing to appease to the nth degree to keep some semblance of his marriage together.

"I think what this guy has done is arrange a perfect life, or at least a life he thinks is perfect for him," says Wilkinson over the phone from his London home. "Once you've done that, and once you've entered into that mindset, it's difficult to unravel it. Would he have done that forever? Well, he loved her, and he's a simple man. He's not a complicated guy or sophisticated like you and me. We would see the writing on the wall very soon."

Wilkinson seems to have created his own perfect life in his marriage to actress Diana Hardcastle, a union that has produced two now-teenaged daughters. One of the busiest of British character actors (The Full Monty, The Patriot, Shakespeare In Love, the Oscar-nominated In The Bedroom), he has carved his career while keeping to a policy of never leaving home for long.

"I don't like being away from home for forever, yeah," the 58-year-old actor says. "If somebody said 'We've got this fantastic movie in Tibet, but you'll have to be there for nine months,' I'd have to think very hard."

And what about Lord Of The Rings? "Well, I was never offered a role outright. They did what was called an 'availability check.' They drew up lists of people for various roles and, in the case of Actor X, if he was committed to the Royal Shakespeare company for six months, then he can't do it.

"So they asked me, and I said, 'What's the deal?' And they said 'A year in New Zealand.' And I said, 'That's never gonna happen.' " To this day, he says he's not sure which part he was being considered for. "If they'd said, 'You'd get a piece of the action,' I'd certainly feel slightly regretful about not doing it. But that was never going to be part of the deal."

Though often cast as one sort of repressed Brit or another, Wilkinson has some facility for playing Americans (as in In The Bedroom). For this, some measure of thanks goes to his partly-Canadian upbringing. Faced with financial hardship, his family moved to B.C. when he was a young boy. "We lived on Vancouver Island for a year, and then we moved up to Kitimat where there is a big Alcan smelter where my father and brothers worked. It was the best place ever for a boy to grow up, no question. At the bottom of our garden, the woods began and didn't stop until you were on the other side of Alaska."

It's a rather plebeian beginning for an actor so to-the-manor cast. To that extent, he feels uncomfortable commenting on what Separate Lies might have to say about Britain's upper classes. "It's a good question, but as I'm not a member of that class, you'd have to ask Julian, the director, who is."

On the other hand, Wilkinson was named to the Order Of The British Empire, a precursor to a knighthood, so one assumes he does get invited to finer teas. "Well, if I do get invited, I generally say no," he says pleasantly.


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