22/09/2011 08:10 BST | Updated 22/11/2011 05:12 GMT

'The Debt' Star Tom Wilkinson: Moral Courage, Film Violence And Never Working In TV

"I was very single-minded about what I wanted to happen in my career. I wasn't going to do television or theatre, and then I got really lucky by doing Shakespeare in Love."

Tom Wilkinson is in London to talk about his role in John Madden’s intense spy thriller The Debt, which premiered in London last night. But he takes a moment to reflect on being propelled to Hollywood on the back of home-grown global hit The Full Monty. He still has no surprise at the phenomenal success of the film or his part in it:

"It read beautifully, and they didn't fiddle around with the script. When I first saw it, I knew it was going to work, because it had everything going for it. And then I heard they were queuing around the blocks in the United States, I knew everything would be all right.

The Yorkshire-born star is surprisingly intimidating in person – polite, friendly, but you get the impression he wouldn’t suffer fools, and his eyes bore through the recipient of his stare. It seems no surprise he has made such a successful career out of playing intense high-stake character parts – such as Lenny in RocknRolla, an Oscar-nominated turn in In The Bedroom and alongside George Clooney in Michael Clayton.

The Debt sees him team up with Dame Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain in John Madden’s latest big-budget production, a spy thriller set in 1960s’ Berlin, where three crack Mossad agents are sent to bring a Nazi fugitive to justice.

Tom Wilkinson is in reflective mood, questions whether he would have the moral courage to behave like his on-screen character: “Most of us, touch wood, have never been asked the big questions, like being called up to be a soldier in a war. I assume I'm not a coward, but there are huge areas of myself that have never been tested... moral courage, all those sorts of things.

"I think I have it, I'm nice to strangers, but whether that makes me someone who would stand up for something I believe in, I don't know."

"These people (in The Debt) had to tell the truth, but most people stick with a lie. Crudely speaking, that's what happens in life, and it's probably the best way to go about things.

The film sees Wilkinson’s character being played in the past by half-Kiwi, half-Hungarian Marton Csokas, but Wilkinson isn’t bothered by whether the casting department got this right or not, “It took me about to half an hour to work out which one was meant to be me. I thought it was the other one! But I didn't think the continuity of the acting between two actors was really central, besides people change dramatically.”

What struck him more were some of the more gruesome scenes in the film, unexpected for fans of director of John Madden who might be used to his more reflective dramas such as Shakespeare in Love, Proof and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. But Wilkinson thinks Madden’s got it right:

"It was pretty violent, I know, on two short occasions, but I think it had to be. I felt the violence added to the credentials of the movie, and if it had been generalised, it wouldn't have worked so well. I don't think it was overdone."

Faced with that stare again, it would take a braver soul to argue with him.