Patrick Wilson Masters The Complex Villain In 'Aquaman' [Interview]

With his blonde hair and classically handsome good looks, Patrick Wilson is the spitting image of the comic book Aquaman. Which is why his casting as the aquatic superhero's archenemy Orm Marius, aka Ocean Master, is such a stroke of genius. "Truthfully, me with blonde hair is closer to prototypical Aquaman," Wilson told me in an interview ahead of the release of Aquaman. "So I thought, 'Let's use that to our advantage.'"

Wilson dyed his blonde hair an even lighter shade — "almost a throwback to the older Aquaman," Wilson noted — and pulled his hair back in a severe bun that highlights his Nordic features. It offered a stark contrast to Jason Momoa's roughshod iteration of Aquaman, who made his big screen debut in last year's Justice League.

With Aquaman, Wilson makes a major return to the superhero genre after starring in 2009's Watchmen, but this time he's playing the baddie. But something drew him to the role other than the chance to work with five-time collaborator director James Wan again. Orm offered the chance for Wilson to play against type and to lend some sympathy to a comic book villain. "[Orm is] a villain but he's certainly a villain with a cause," Wilson said. "So he's not as black and white as much as somebody who's out there for blood." In our Patrick Wilson interview, Wilson speaks about what drives Orm to instigate a war with the surface world in Aquaman and why the audience can sympathize with the baddie's ecological mission.

This marks your return to the superhero genre after Watchmen. How do you feel taking on a villain role in a more conventional movie, shall we say?

It's funny, I don't know if any of them are conventional anymore, I feel like every one of them has to establish something new. It's great to return to the genre. I voiced the president in Batman vs. Superman and for me, when I look at both Nite Owl and Orm in the same vein, I sort of love if I hang it all up those are my two ventures into this world. I love it, it's a very quirky, strange feel. And yes, he's a villain but he's certainly a villain with a cause. So he's not as black and white as much as somebody who's out there for blood.

And this is your fifth collaboration with director James Wan. So did he approach you for this role?

He did.

How did that go about?

In a text, as all things these days do. We were shooting Conjuring 2 and we always love to talk — because at that time we had done four films together. We usually discuss what he's doing at some point just because I'm such a huge fan of him. And he said to me, "Do you know the character Ocean Master?" And of course just the name alone excited me. And I didn't, and I saw one picture — just the first thing you pull up, you see this crazy, baroque-looking mask and I'm sure I said something like, "I'm in." This was maybe a year before he had even signed on for the film but he asked me, and I said yes, and then it went away for a while just because we were all doing different things. I think then I asked him, because there wasn't even a script, but they had started planning things ahead. And I started planning my schedule, and I never want to hold anyone to their word, though when he says it, you believe it. And there are very few directors [like that] in my experience. That's not being pessimistic, there's just so many variables, it's the business. But he said it, and he meant it, and I believed it. So when I said, "I'm trying to plan my next 6 months and I want to do this film. How real is it happening." You always feel weird asking that, even when it's your friend. But these scripts go through so many versions, and especially with the villain — there's so many villains in the DC universe. I would never even say, "Is it a big character, is it a big part?" But I knew he wouldn't waste my time if it wasn't something worth it. That was more of the fun, of just reading it and realizing the weight of the character and going, "Oh this is fantastic."

Did you do a lot of research going into the character or did you want to bring your own style to it?

A little bit of both. The fact that Jason was cast, because they were shooting Justice League, and even in Batman vs. Superman there was that little shot of him, so they had cast him years ago. Then I thought, "Ok. They're already way different from the comics." And truthfully, me with blonde hair is closer to prototypical Aquaman. So I thought, "Let's use that to our advantage." So I said, "What if I go blonde, almost a throwback to the older Aquaman, or just suggest that?" Just a real contrast. Because even in the comics, Aquaman is very blonde and Orm is typically dark and brooding. But if you've got Jason Momoa, you can't go dark and brooding for both characters, it just looks foolish. I just wanted to be the complete opposite of Jason: as hairy as he was, then I'd be super clean, that was the goal.

Speaking of Orm, he's a very complex character. Like you said he's got a greater purpose in mind. Would you say Orm is more driven more by that purpose or more by his jealousy against his brother?

I think more by the purpose. Because I think that he's got this plan long [in the making]. He's grown up knowing that there was this half-brother out there. I think eventually he knew he'd run into him, that's how family works, but I don't think it was driven by that jealousy. I think he was driven by, ecologically speaking, he's driven by the environment, he's driven by centuries of pollution and destruction that the surface world has done to his. Maybe his violence or the way he wants to go about avenging that is rooted more in his relationship with his brother and with his mother and father who we don't see. They sort of define his personality. Even in the comics, Orm is always a very angry young man. So his character and personality traits is defined by his family, his drive, I think is defined by the environment.

There are some similarities between Orm and another superhero villain in a Marvel movie, Black Panther's Killmonger. They're both righteous figures who go about in the wrong way. Would you draw those comparisons? How would you say they're different?

I think I would draw those comparisons only in that the movie is so fresh in our minds and I loved Black Panther. Anywhere in comic history, I don't think you really would. I think the fact that there is that righteous cause, certainly that. The fact that they — even though Orm would argue he's not a human, he's an Atlantean — are people, real flesh and blood people. I think that's also something that's different from many superhero movies these days is having a villain closer to maybe what Zod was, even though he's an alien, some flesh and blood person who you can talk to and has feelings. In my opinion as an audience member, I tend to care about those villains more and they're maybe more right for the storyline. But that could be argued too that you need the other side of that, you need the sort of animated villains. But for my money, it's like practical effects vs. the CGI villain, I prefer that. Those kind of villains make it much more complicated, also because when you look at them and they're flesh and blood, you feel like you can't stray too far from that. You know there's a good guy under there, you know there's a good reason. Like Killmonger, you know there's a justifiable fight. How he goes about it, sure we can question that all day long. But not his sadness, his frustration.

Would you say that this is kind of an environmental movie too? Because pollution and the environment play such a central role to it – do you think this is one of the main messages for the movie, despite being a somewhat controversial topic in politics?

I don't think there's one person that would argue that we don't pollute our oceans, and if you do, you're ignorant and you're the villain. The movie doesn't set out for that. You look at Throne of Atlantis... Most comics, I think most great comics, echo social issues, political issues, environmental issues, they do. I mean Spider-Man and bullying, there's tons. Of course that's what the writers reflect, what's going on. You can't make an Aquaman story and not have it deal with pollution in the ocean. There's hundreds of Aquaman comics as well that deal with him fighting whaling ships, saving fisherman, helping out with the environment. I do think it's interesting that they leave the pollution aspect up to the villain, I think that's probably because it can give you a more visceral, violent, and reckless response. I think the audiences in a weird way go, "Yeah, go for it. Maybe don't kill anyone, but throw it all back." I think it is something very socially conscious.