Patrick Wilson is on his knees. He’s ostensibly doing press at the Waldorf Towers for “Insidious: Chapter 2,” but a question about his worst audition has launched him out of his armchair and onto the floor of the 37th-floor suite. One of the film’s publicists is watching from the back of the room, her panicky impatience almost palpable as Wilson, like any good raconteur, teases out his story. Without the visual the punch line is lost, but suffice to say that Wilson’s worst audition involved a German production of “Starlight Express,” a dance call, and ending the routine facing the back wall. Later, after the publicist has successfully pried him from the room, Wilson casually mentions that he’d broken a toe the day before on a dock. “The show must go on,” he jokes before stepping onto an elevator.
Wilson’s spent the last decade making more films than stage appearances, but he remains a theater guy at heart—and maybe the least likely horror movie star of recent memory. He laughs off suggestions that he’s a 21st-century Jamie Lee Curtis by pointing out that he’s only made three scary movies out of 27 films. “It’s fine—I’ll take it!” he laughs. “I either get ‘You’re the horror guy!’ or ‘You’re the guy who takes his clothes off!’ ”
Wilson’s reputation as a pretty-boy scream king rests not on quantity but on quality. After 2010’s “Insidious,” that movie’s director, James Wan, cast Wilson as real-life paranormal investigator Ed Warren opposite Vera Farmiga in summer smash hit and genuinely terrifying “The Conjuring.” Now Wilson and the rest of the “Insidious” cast—including Rose Byrne as his wife and Barbara Hershey as his mother—are back as the Lambert family in “Insidious: Chapter 2,” which picks up mere hours after the first film ended. If Wilson is this generation’s Jamie Lee Curtis, then Wan just might be its John Carpenter.
“We’re always looking for stuff to do together,” Wilson says of his three-time director, calling their different strengths complementary. “He loves character and storytelling, and that’s something he and I dig into. But he knows where I can elevate something, and I obviously know this is his medium, so I’m happy to do whatever for him.”
Wilson swears he was never a connoisseur of horror films (as unwitting proof, he name-checks “Salem’s Lot,” of all things, in a list of films he saw growing up), but he finds the melodrama of the genre to be a good fit for his particular talents, one that Wan has obviously spied as well. Summarizing all of the reviews of him in musicals as calling him “very realistic, very convincing,” Wilson says that the sense of groundedness he brought to bear on characters who break into song has been an asset in films such as “The Conjuring” and “Insidious.” “In the wrong hands—and whether mine are the right hands or the wrong hands is not for me to say—dialogue that might seem melodramatic on the page looks campy in a bad way,” he says. “If it’s good, it’s heightened and convincing and melodramatic in a strong way. Which I think is the goal.”
To make Wilson’s point more explicit, imagine almost any other 40-year-old male actor playing a father whose ability to astral project has been passed on to his oldest son, now lost in a world populated by the dead that is called the Further, and who has to listen to a metronome to go into the Further himself on a rescue mission. All set to “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” That Wilson made that not only work in “Insidious” but actually terrifying may be why Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell returned to the family’s story for the sequel, which proceeds to leave the first film in the dust.
“They wanted to swing a big stick,” Wilson says of the twisting, layered, jaw-dropping sequel. “I can’t be scared anymore. Rose can’t just cry and wonder what’s happening. We’ve already done that. You can’t just do a haunted house movie. As equally fascinated as [Wan] and I are by the realism of possession and demonic spirits, he’s also completely fascinated by ‘Carnival of Souls’ and these outlandish movies.”
As for preparing to play an astral projectionist, Wilson says it all comes down to curating your research. “The first one became a father-son story, trying to get your son back and deal with your own demons,” he says. “You can look up what astral projectors think they do, but it’s just not necessary. You have to ask yourself if you’re doing the right homework. The script is always the Bible, so what relates to it? The hardest thing was the toll it takes on your body because you’re not used to screaming over and over. That stuff is much more difficult because you’re not preparing like you do for the stage.”
Wilson’s homework for “The Conjuring” was very different, since he felt a responsibility to honor the real Ed Warren. His and Farmiga’s commitment to bringing the couple to life extended into territory that might have inadvertently worried the studio when the suits realized that neither actor was about to shy away from the more outlandish styles of the 1970s. “I think they thought they got Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, and we look like this, and it’ll be cool—we’ll kiss each other and do an exorcism. And we came with our own dialect and our look, and they were like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ ” Farmiga and Wilson persevered, and the result was a movie predicated on heroes who seemed so genuinely strange that the whole film became unsettled in an extremely satisfying way.
The same holds true for “Insidious: Chapter 2,” which is so ambitious that there’s no guarantee of a happy ending. But don’t expect Wilson to stick around in the horror genre for long; he has his eye on the next level of his career. “You can’t just sit back and wait for a great role,” he says. “And usually, they offer you scripts based on the movie you just had out. You constantly have that battle where you’re trying to find what will take you to the next level. You have to be proactive.” Part of the battle was the short-lived CBS drama “A Gifted Man” and some of the romantic comedies he’s done over the years, which he admits didn’t work. “How do you reinvent yourself?” Wilson says. “I’m constantly trying to find something that plays to my strengths but also really pushes me. I like the variance. I like changing it up.”
Does that mean that the former star of “The Full Monty” on Broadway has put his singing stripper days behind him? Or could the upcoming “Magic Mike” lure him back to musicals after almost a decade’s absence? “That’s really what I’m hoping for,” he deadpans. “Yeah, no, that’s not going to happen. That’s not going to be me.”