If you looked at the most recent movie offerings, you might see Patrick Wilson as the face of contemporary horror. But even with Insidious: Chapter 2 now in theaters, a mere two months after The Conjuring’s release, the former Broadway star says it’s more about the role than the genre.
“I wasn’t seeking out horror,” he explains. “Usually, if something catches my eye, it’s different than the last movie that I did. I usually just try to vary it up as much as I can.”
At the end of the first Insidious, Wilson’s Josh Lambert was possessed by the ghost of a creepy old woman. Insidious: Chapter 2, which picks up right where the initial 2010 installment ended, introduces us to a very different — and decidedly more malevolent — patriarch of the Lambert family.
For Wilson, playing a transformed Josh was an added benefit. As an actor, he looks for roles that are unique, and that can be especially troubling when doing a sequel.
That’s where James Wan comes in. The Insidious: Chapter 2 director ushered in an era of torture porn when he created the Saw series with his collaborator Leigh Whannell. He also directed The Conjuring, this summer’s hit horror film, also starring Wilson.
“James is so varied, even within the genre,” the actor says. “The difference of Saw to Insidious, to The Conjuring, or Insidious 2, really — I mean, you look at the difference of The Conjuring and this, it’s like it’s a whole different genre.”
That kind of variety can be tougher to find in horror movies, which is why Wilson has never angled to be the next “scream king.” These aren’t roles he sought out, although his horror-heavy resume, dating back to 2005’s Hard Candy, might suggest otherwise.
“I’ve been offered a few [horror films] along the way and they were not always very actor-friendly,” he reveals. “I sort of felt like, Well, anybody can play that guy. That doesn’t do anything for me. So I always turned them down.”
For Wilson, choosing roles always comes down to how challenging the character is. He’s played a slew of complicated men, from a cheating husband in the twisted 2006 drama Little Children to a somewhat misguided superhero in 2009’s Watchmen.
But that desire for complexity has kept Wilson from returning to one of his great loves, the Broadway stage.
“This is the longest I’ve ever not done a musical,” he says of his 11-year hiatus. “It’s difficult for a number of reasons — difficult because of the roles, because you don’t find as great of shows. You just don’t. There’s just not a role for a 40-year-old guy that I look at on Broadway and go, Man, I really wish I could play that.”
Network TV isn’t much easier, and that’s an area in which Wilson has more recent experience. In 2011, he starred on the CBS drama A Gifted Man, playing a surgeon visited by the spirit of his dead ex-wife.
The series received mostly positive reviews from critics, but it was relegated to the dreaded Friday night time slot. The final three episodes aired with little fanfare.
“Yeah, I was sour at the end,” Wilson admits of the experience. “I didn’t like the way things were handled. It’s just not the way I operate, so I was kind of vocal about it.”
But Wilson clarifies that he has no hard feelings. His experience on A Gifted Man does, however, speak to a larger issue: the difficulty of producing strong original content on network television.
“At the time, the sort of chasm between network TV and cable TV — and it’s even changed now, two years later — it’s very different,” he offers. “When you’re in it, you always think, I’ll be able to do great work. And then you’re like, Well, no.”
Cable is a “much different beast,” as Wilson puts it. There’s far more creative freedom, which allows for edgier content, something Wilson is drawn to.
Earlier this year, he starred in the memorable “One Man’s Trash” episode of HBO’s Girls, in which his character, also named Joshua, romanced Lena Dunham’s Hannah over the course of an intensely intimate weekend.
“Certainly with Girls, you see how it’s very bold,” Wilson says. “It shows the faith that they have in Lena, the faith that Lena has in her audience and her show. And she’s always pushing the buttons in the right way. And you felt that.”
The episode aired to plenty of controversy, but not in a way Wilson expected. What people seemed most offended by was the suggestion that Wilson’s hot doctor character would ever have sex with Hannah.
“[It’s] completely asinine for anyone that’s an adult, certainly that lives in New York, or knows what it’s like being single,” Wilson says. “It’s crazy. It’s ridiculous.”
But while Wilson was surprised by the response — particularly by people tweeting it directly at him and Dunham — he wasn’t upset. That kind of passion, regardless of where it comes from, is what drives his work.
“You want to inspire people,” he explains. “You want to inspire conversation, even if it brings out the negativity in people, which that did, a lot.”
The episode got people talking, and to Wilson, that’s sometimes more important than what they have to say. It’s the reason he looks for varied projects, whether smaller indie films or studio productions, like the Insidious franchise.
Ideally you like what he does, but even if you don’t, he hopes his work leads to conversation.
“I like things that sort of push an envelope or just inspire people to talk,” Wilson says. “It’s just about raising questions. If you can’t wrap it up in a tidy little bow, that’s totally fine. That’s OK. It’s important just to make an impression, if it’s just something bold. Just be bold.”