The cryptic text came in 2015 from director James Wan: “Do you know Ocean Master?”
Patrick Wilson did not, in fact, know Ocean Master, or whether it was a person, a cruise ship or perhaps a chain of all-you-can-eat seafood restaurants.
“Luckily in this day and age, there’s Google,” Wilson says, miming furious thumb-typing as he sips coffee in a Chelsea photo studio. “Ocean Master? Looks cool. Oh, cool mask.”
Turns out, Ocean Master — aka Orm — is the ruler of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis and the archnemesis of Aquaman. And Wilson must have expertly bluffed Wan with his knowledge of undersea villains, because later this month, he dons Ocean Master’s (curiously unrusted) armor for “Aquaman.”
Playing opposite Jason Momoa, who reprises his role as the titular hero, presented a particular challenge for Wilson. “Jason is like 6-foot-4,” says the 6-foot-even Wilson. “When I signed on, I said to James, ‘I want to get big for the role.’ You want to be a formidable opponent.”
Wilson, a CrossFit devotee, hit the gym with a trainer five days a week for four months. He jumped from 190 pounds to 210, and continues to look quite jacked months later, wearing a simple white T-shirt.
Playing a scene-chewing undersea villain who rides a giant prehistoric crocodile and gives verbose speeches about the destruction of the oceans may seem like a left-field choice for Wilson, who made his name onstage and in acclaimed dramas including 2006’s “Little Children” and one of the buzziest episodes of “Girls.” But the actor says he came to appreciate the over-the-top nature of the superhero genre after playing Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg in 2009’s dystopian comic-book epic “Watchmen.”
“I like the theatrical nature of it,” he says. “In my earlier films and in my theater days, it was internalized and all behind the eyes — I like things that push me physically and emotionally and make me get out of my comfort zone.”
Case in point? The recent horror hits Wilson has starred in, including “The Conjuring” and “Insidious” franchises, also made with Wan.
“When you’re giving an exorcism or speaking Latin or damning a demon back to hell, you can’t half-ass any of it,” Wilson says. “It requires that extra-theatrical or melodramatic touch, fueled with real emotions. It had to be something almost otherworldly.”
Exorcisms and tylosaurs — few would have predicted this kind of career path for a kid growing up in Florida. But Wilson was raised in a showbiz-friendly household alongside two brothers. His father was a local TV-news anchor, his mother a choir director who gave voice lessons. Wilson’s first commercial, when he was 7, was for Vess, an off-brand cola out of St. Louis. He played opposite Cardinals football great Dan Dierdorf.
By his teenage years, Wilson was playing football and baseball and also acting in stage productions at his tiny high school. “There weren’t enough kids, so we did everything,” he recalls.
At age 16, he ditched sports to concentrate on acting. He later attended Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, throwing himself completely into acting and earning a drama degree. Like a lot of his classmates, Wilson headed to the Big Apple, in 1995.
“I came to New York with $1,000 saved up, an Equity card and an agent. I was stacked,” he says. “New York didn’t seem so far away. It seemed like, ‘We’re gonna do it.’”
He, his then-girlfriend and her brother all moved into a two-bedroom rental at 525 W. 49th St., #5D.
“It was shady on the West Side. Nobody went past 10th Avenue then, man,” he says. “My girlfriend’s brother got mugged a few blocks away within his first six months.”
But within a week, Wilson had landed his first theater role. More followed, and by 2000 he was singing and dancing on Broadway in “The Full Monty” — a role that earned him a Tony nomination. During his run, he was cast in HBO’s adaptation of “Angels in America.”
“When you’re the new guy and you’re in the [televised version of] arguably the greatest play of the century, [Hollywood] just goes, ‘Oh, OK. You can act,’” Wilson says. “Even though they might never have seen it.”
Within months, he’d landed roles in big-budget flicks “The Alamo” and the film version of “The Phantom of the Opera.”
His guiding career principle has always been diversity — a box DC Comics’ “Aquaman” definitely checks. Wilson plays the hero’s half-brother, who is trying to keep Momoa from claiming the throne. Unlike Momoa, who spends lots of time on land, Wilson’s scenes take place in the underwater kingdom, requiring him to be a guinea pig for special effects.
For example, he wore a special cap over his head, which allowed the filmmakers to later add CG hair that swayed and flowed as if underwater. Wilson and the other actors were also strapped into harnesses that let them swing around the set in order to simulate swimming.
“Me and Willem [Dafoe, who plays royal advisor Vulko] geeked out over that swimming,” Wilson says. “We both felt like we were doing some weird experimental play, and I loved it.”
The actor says it was the most physically demanding role of his career. But a project so reliant on effects naturally has the potential to go very wrong. Couple that with the fact that Aquaman has always been a bit of a punchline in the superhero world, and the film was hardly a sure thing.
“I didn’t have any concerns,” Wilson says. “I knew if [Warner Bros.] gave James the keys to the kingdom — if they let him see through his vision, that it would be an enjoyable movie.”
The film certainly hews much closer to the winking, popcorn tone perfected by rival Marvel’s films, and seemingly tries to move away from the operatic bleakness of director Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman,” which first introduced this version of Aquaman in 2016.
“Part of the reason for doing this movie was because it was finally one my kids could watch,” he says.
He and his wife, actor Dagmara Dominczyk (whose sister, also an actor, is married to Scott Foley from “Scandal”), have two boys, ages 9 and 12. Wilson has already provided his youngest son with something few fathers can: The boy sleeps with an Orm action figure beside his bed.
The family had been living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, but in search of more space and a yard, packed up for Montclair, NJ. The next stop for their kids, however, just might be Hollywood.
“My wife and I live and breathe this stuff, so I’d never knock it,” Wilson says of his children’s performing ambitions. “They know we didn’t get into this for stardom. Whenever those words come out, we go, ‘Yeah, no. If you want to be an actor, study and go to school.’”
Wilson will be seen next year in “Midway,” a big-budget retelling of the epic World War II battle. He’s playing Rear Admiral Edwin Layton and currently shooting in Hawaii and Montreal.
“It’s going to be a very truthful retelling,” Wilson says. “We worked with the Navy. I knew from early on, when they said, ‘These are the actual glasses [my character] wore.’”
For now, it’s unclear whether there will be an “Aquaman” sequel or if Orm will return. Wilson says he doesn’t think there’s a “magic number” the film has to hit to warrant a second. He guesses its success will be judged more on “buzz.”
If Orm doesn’t return, Wilson is content with his spandex oeuvre.
“I like that, at the end of the day, if my two forays into superheroes are Orm and Dan Dreiberg, that’s cool,” Wilson says. “That’s very odd, and I like odd things.”
Fashion Editor: Serena French; Stylist: Anahita Moussavian; Groomer: Anthea King
By Reed Tucker