Tom Wilkinson grew up in England but, of course, like any child of the 1950s, he could see the Old West just fine thanks to the powerful and focused lens of Hollywood. The two-time Oscar nominee plays a rapacious railroad baron named Latham Cole (that’s him in the new poster above) in Disney’s The Lone Ranger, the most expensive western in history and a bold bid to revive that once-dominant screen genre.
“In their heyday westerns provided a metaphorical universe in which moral fables of varying complexity could be acted out in an exciting way,” says Wilkinson, whose film credits include Michael Clayton, In the Bedroom, Shakespeare in Love and Batman Begins.
The actor, who won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his portrayal of Benjamin Franklin in John Adams, said the sky is the limit for The Lone Ranger (which opens July 3) and he shrugged off the suggestion that contemporary audiences think the western should be up on Boot Hill not back at the box office.
“The Lone Ranger is big, beautiful, exciting,” Wilkinson says, “so what’s not to like?”
Perhaps, but young moviegoers didn’t get in the saddle for Wild Wild West or Cowboys and Aliens, two expensive and now-infamous and Hollywood failures that tried to get back on the horse by adding new bells and whistles to the tradition-bound genre.
This new film will follow a different trail, Wilkinson says, because of the script work by Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) and the work of director Gore Verbinski, who 10 summers ago shocked Hollywood by successfully reviving the swashbuckler film with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Verbinski is a recently minted Oscar winner thanks to the daft and dusty Rango, the animated western that starred Johnny Depp – the star of the Pirates of the Caribbean films and (as Tonto) co-star of The Lone Ranger with Armie Hammer (who wears the mask of the title character).
“After all,” Wilkinson explains, “there are only three rules that apply to all movies: narrative, narrative and narrative. And The Lone Ranger has all three.”
The Hollywood western road off into the sunset so long ago that now it is easy to underestimate the sheer dominance of the genre as it filled the American screen for decades. Look back at network television schedules and ratings for 1959, for instance, and you can almost hear the stampede of six-shooter shows; there were 28 different westerns series aired during the fall prime time schedule and 11 of them finished in the season’s Top 20 highest-rated shows.
The archetypal characters made familiar by the western didn’t leave us they just changed their wardrobe and horsepower preferences. Mad Max, Han Solo, Justified, “Dirty” Harry Callahan, Top Gun, Firefly, The Walking Dead, Indiana Jones, Toy Story 3, Snake Plissken, Uncharted – you don’t need GPS to find the Old West and its maverick landscape in every corner of screen adventure.
Wilkinson said that Verbinski is the right man at the right time to bring the Old West to a new horizon moment.
NEXT: Wilkinson talks working with Verbinksi and his character.
“[Working with him] was an honor and a privilege,” Wilkinson said. “Not only does he have the vision that all good directors have but there’s the sheer capacity for hard work that such a project demands. That he accomplished all this with such remarkably good grace, temper and humor was truly awesome to behold.”
Wilkinson’s character in The Lone Ranger also has tireless drive, but not so much when it comes to that grace and humor aspects. “I was intrigued by the mixture of his vision and his pragmatic amorality and the challenge of making that human,” Wilkinson says. “I hope I succeeded.”
He’s already added a quirky career note with the role in The Lone Ranger. His character may be the enemy of the Lone Ranger this time around but, in the 2011 film The Green Hornet, the actor actually played a descendant of the masked man.
To explain: The Lone Ranger premiered as radio show in Detroit in 1933 and sprung from the imagination of writer Fran Striker, who three years later introduced a companion show with a related masked man – Britt Reid, a.k.a. the Green Hornet, was presented to listeners as the descendant of John Reid, the lawman who wears the mask of the Lone Ranger. In the 2011 Hornet film, Wilkinson plays publishing mogul James Reid — that’s the father of Britt, another heir to the legend of the Old West’s most famous mystery man and, now, the enemy of his ancestor.
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