Tom Wilkinson has never played a part that’s so easy to predict. In Aaron Sorkin’s latest TV project, the veteran British actor takes on the role of the greedy big-time financier and bad-husband lawyer in “Succession,” Sorkin’s drama pilot for HBO based on the lives of a Brooklyn real-estate mogul (HBO’s first original drama series on a pay channel) and his family. And it’s an easy role, a role he’s been performing his entire professional life, much to Sorkin’s delight.
“It’s only surprising to me when something, in its entirety, was a total surprise to me,” says Wilkinson, who went to the same high school in Roath in northern England as Sorkin did and can draw upon a personal connection when the writer comes to him for a part. “But I understand Aaron now, and know what his instinct is, and feel comfortable doing his part. I felt that way with him on ‘The West Wing,’ and I feel the same way with him on ‘The Newsroom,’ and I know he’s helped me do my job the right way on this show.”
In terms of the characters themselves, Sorkin’s first good job was setting up a stacked deck — one man in charge of everything, his wife (Ashley Jensen) stepping up with a savvy business savvy and his children scrambling to figure out who got what, and why — but it was up to Wilkinson to pick out each one with the characters of Will, Alec and Kendall.
“I knew how to make a political speech, but I didn’t know how to say ‘the chickens are coming home to roost.’ And I didn’t know how to do either one of those three things,” he said. “But I knew to pretend that I did, so I got somebody who knew who Will was and wanted to play that part very badly. And it was a tribute to HBO that they were prepared to write a part that Sorkin wanted, and I do feel that my performance will come across because I was able to improvise it.
“Kendall had the same problem, though in the first season, it’s not immediately clear how she’s going to be defined. But what Aaron is good at doing, as he’s been so good at doing for the last 30 years, is creating a portrait. These characters have secret history. The secret history that the show will play out and be what we discover and reveal. These are all characters that have histories. They’re past characters.”
Wilkinson was also very impressed with John Slattery, who’s playing Alec and had the complex task of establishing the three men’s relationship, while also creating a prodigal son in Kendall — a role he’s played several times before. “He’s excellent as Alec. I don’t think I’ve played a father more dear, and with more sympathy for his sins than I’ve ever played before.”
And it doesn’t hurt that Sorkin draws on the reading material that would keep a privileged man up at night — James Michener’s 1971 novel “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” which he’s been reading for “as long as I can remember,” as well as the David Mamet play “Edmond” for his role of Will. “And yet, I’ve always had my own interests of my own and my own readings and my own thoughts and thoughts of where I come from.”
“Succession” premieres on HBO on Jan. 17.