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The Performance

Patrick Wilson: The philanderer of 'Little Children' goes toe to toe with Samuel L. Jackson's bad cop in 'Lakeview Terrace.' 'I love that challenge,' he says.

September 18, 2008|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

Patrick WILSON wanted a piece of Samuel L. Jackson.

"I love that challenge," he said of facing off against Jackson in "Lakeview Terrace," which opens Friday. "Maybe it's the athlete in me. You channel those nerves into performance. 'Yep, I'm doing a scene with Sam Jackson, how cool is that?' But then when you're working, it's 'All right, let's get to it.' He didn't want me to back down; he wanted to go toe to toe with someone. I absolutely loved working with him."

Wilson's idea of fun, apparently, is being stared down and poked at by Jackson, who plays an outwardly calm but inwardly seething L.A. cop rankled when an interracial couple (Wilson and Kerry Washington) moves in next door. The movie clearly has racial elements, but it's no "Crash," or even "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" with nightsticks.

"I don't think it's about race," said Wilson by phone from his home in New York. "Is race a part of the plan here? Absolutely. But I think it's as much about the old values and new values, and about class.

"You know, we have this idea of suburban life that everyone tries to get to, and then you go to the suburbs and every house has their own set of values. These people [in the movie] live right next to each other and they have completely different morals, and those are challenged. It gets ridiculous. Both these guys go off the deep end. And if people laugh at 'wrong' moments, I think that's great. We finished that scene of us going at each other through the fence and we were laughing."

As movie audiences watch him wage suburban war, Wilson, who proved his mettle on Broadway with two Tony nominations, is delving into another enduring piece of Americana with a remount of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons."

"It's an unbelievable play," he said. "It's painfully apropos to where we are. I don't do theater to stand on a soapbox; I do it because I enjoy it. But it's a real bonus when you've got a play that's talking about the effects of capitalism and war and how that affects even the smallest families and the responsibilities we have, not only to each other but to the world."

On screen, the actor has played relatively thankless regular-guy roles with distinction, as in "Little Children" and "Lakeview Terrace." In the former, his sensitive turn as an adulterous suburban dad was often overlooked in the glow of costars Kate Winslet and Jackie Earle Haley; in "Lakeview Terrace," he has to hold his own against the Jackson juggernaut. But he'll have a chance to expand -- in several ways -- in one of 2009's most hotly anticipated movies, "Watchmen," in which he re-teams with Haley, who plays Rorschach in the film.

Considering Wilson's handsome, athletic appearance, devotees of the "Watchmen" comic series might have been surprised that he was cast as the pudgy, depressed Dan Dreiberg (a.k.a. Nite Owl II) when he seemed a natural for the physically perfect Dr. Manhattan. When the script was sent to Wilson initially, it included a note, he thinks from his agency, suggesting he look at the Dr. Manhattan part. But months later, after Deborah Snyder (co-producer of "Watchmen" and wife of its director, Zack Snyder) had seen 'Little Children,' Wilson was told to look at Dreiberg.

"There was a sense of loss in Dan and a real sadness, that you sort of saw in 'Little Children,' " Wilson says. "Even though it was completely different physically, you saw a guy who was once the captain and is now finding himself lost. I think that's what Debbie and, hopefully, Zack saw," he says, confirming he gained unglamorous weight to play that universe's Batman analog, a caped crusader with a midlife crisis. "I think the similarities to Batman are intentional, but there's certainly no Bruce Wayne in him."

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Where you've seen him

You might have caught Patrick Wilson's Ovation-nominated turn on the L.A. stop of the 1996 "Carousel" national tour. On Broadway he was nominated for Tonys for "Oklahoma!" and "The Full Monty." He considers his first real on-camera work to be the HBO adaptation of "Angels in America." He played Raoul in Joel Schumacher's "Phantom of the Opera," with Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum, and starred as the suburban philanderer Brad in "Little Children" with Kate Winslet. Perhaps his most memorable role so far has been as the pedophile whom Ellen Page tortures in "Hard Candy."

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