Patrick Wilson, one of the busiest forces in Hollywood, is also a proud native of the South who still uses a cast-iron skillet to make cornbread from scratch. This year he will star in two blockbusters: the Aquaman sequel, reprising his role as King Orm; and the sci-fi epic Moonfall. He’ll also be working on his directorial debut, the fifth installment of his Insidious franchise. Wilson has an eclectic résumé—he dazzled in the TV adaptation of Angels in America and has headlined in series such as Fargo—but is perhaps best known for carrying the most successful horror series in box-office history; The Conjuring films have grossed more than $2 billion. He’s been nominated for multiple Golden Globe Awards and Tonys and has appeared in some of the biggest shows on Broadway. And although Wilson has acted with Pacino and sung with Streisand, he talks about his wife, the novelist and actress Dagmara Domińczyk, and their two sons much more than he mentions his career—just one more reason he’s known as one of the nicest people in the business.
You gave a commencement speech at your alma mater, Carnegie Mellon, in which you recounted an elderly neighbor putting tobacco on a bee sting you had. That seems like such a Southern thing to do.
That was when we lived in Charlotte. Beulah—I called her Boodie—and Carl Schilkowsky babysat me. They smoked those unfiltered Pall Malls; there was always a haze in the house. They were the first people I knew who would do anything for you. We only lived in Charlotte from the time I was eighteen months until I was about five and a half, but she had a tremendous impact on my life. Both of them were such kind, helpful people.
You were born in Norfolk, Virginia, and spent most of your youth in St. Petersburg, Florida. What was your childhood like?
I was in choir, I had youth group—we were there three, four times a week. I always had this balance between my school friends and my church friends. I was always the guy at football practice who had to ask the coach if I could leave early to go to choir practice. Looking back, I’m so glad my parents gave me those opportunities and made me understand there were things outside of sports. That certainly shaped my vagabond life. I grew up watching my parents singing love songs to each other. They loved performing. They didn’t bat an eye when I said I wanted to be an actor; they just said let’s find a school and let’s go for it.
You spent a lot of time in Appalachia, too.
Both sets of grandparents lived in Virginia, but on opposite sides, with opposite accents. My mother’s side in Richmond, and my father’s side down in the mountains. Big Stone Gap. We’d play with crawdads in the creek all day long. We’d fish with our grandfather. I remember when the road got paved in the late 1980s, they changed the name to Wilson Road, and all of a sudden I felt like, “Oh, this is where I’m from.” That’s so important, such a luxury to understand where and who you come from. To know that my grandfather was born there and up the road was his sister, and everybody on that street was related. That’s such a special part of the world.
You sing, play drums, dance, act, and now you’re directing. How does one art form feed the others?
Some people want to take a big leap; I just want to keep moving forward. Producing, directing—those are all things I have naturally gravitated toward. And a lot of that revolves around family. I spent a lot of my thirties traveling from set to set. When my wife and I had little kids, we could travel, but as they got older and were in school, that became hard. So, I’ve found a movie I feel passionate about to direct. I can be home awhile.
Great performances can occur in horror films: Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist, or Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The New York Times recently said yours in The Conjuring 2 is “perfect.”
That’s the nicest thing a critic ever said. My standard for horror was always very high. I resisted doing a few of them because they seemed cheap, or gimmicky, or really gory. But then I read Insidious. They always say, “Nobody moves [homes] in a haunted house movie.”
But in that movie, the family does. To me, horror films are great when they surpass the genre. If you’ve got a really great horror script, it’s the closest thing to theater. I mean, if you’re damning a demon back to hell, you can’t underplay that.
I’ve never met a Southerner living outside the region who doesn’t miss the food. Can you relate?
Try as I might, I can never perfect my mom’s green beans; I have a feeling it has something to do with bacon grease. I spent many days during quarantine perfecting barbecue sauces. I can also still distinctly remember the joy on a Sunday morning, after church, when I would hear the jingle of change in my dad’s pockets. That meant I could get a quarter or two and go buy a couple Krispy Kremes. When I moved to New York, they had one location on Twenty-Third Street. I think I was doing Carousel, and I bought the cast boxes on day one, and only a few had ever heard of the gloriousness that is a hot glazed Krispy Kreme.
Are there any other ways in which your Southernness emerges?
Mostly when I drink. I still say “fur” instead of “for,” which is a real North Carolina thing. I hear myself saying that in movies. I’ve hung on to a lot of my Southern hospitality; I’m more easygoing in a place where people tend to be more direct. I guess there is something about being open and being cordial and having a smile on your face. I think it’s something we should all do.