Tom Wilkinson reveals true-life story of Belle

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TOM Wilkinson is a star in demand. His new period drama, Belle, hits cinemas tomorrow, there’s a comedy with Vince Vaughn in the pipeline and he’s about to fly to the US for a role in an upcoming film about Martin Luther King.

But jetting off to far-flung places isn’t something the Full Monty actor relishes these days.

Tom Wilkinson as "Lord Mansfield" and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as "Dido Elizabeth Belle".Pic: PA

Tom Wilkinson as "Lord Mansfield" and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as "Dido Elizabeth Belle".Pic: PA

“I’m going away next week to do something [the Luther King biopic, Selma] and I don’t really want to do it,” he confesses. “I mean, I do if it’s filming in London, but getting into an aeroplane and flying to a strange town? I’ve done a lot of that.

“I’m getting very close to saying, ‘I don’t want to do that any more’. We’ll see how this goes. It’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be.”

It’s a refreshingly honest admission, and not one you can imagine many big-name stars making.

While the Leeds-born actor has shared the screen with A-listers from Johnny Depp (in last year’s The Lone Ranger) to George Clooney (in the Oscar-winning 2007 drama Michael Clayton), he’s about as un-starry as you can get.

In fact, on Wilkinson’s first trip to Hollywood - to promote the 1994 film Priest - he spent much of his time within the confines of his hotel room.

“I was in the middle of Beverly Hills and I thought, ‘There’s going to be a drive-by shooting, I’m a perfect target’,” he recalls. “So I went back inside the hotel.”

As for what he gets up to when he isn’t working? “Very little, is the answer to that.”

Luckily, Wilkinson hasn’t had to travel far today. He’s in the stunning former stately home Kenwood House, not far from his North London abode, to talk about Belle.

The film is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (played by young rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of an 18th century Royal Navy admiral who was raised as an aristocrat at Kenwood by her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Wilkinson), the Lord Chief Justice of England.

We see how, despite being wealthy and privileged, the colour of Belle’s skin prevents her from fully participating in the traditions and activities others of her status enjoyed - from dining with the rest of her family to ‘coming out’ into society.

“Slowly you see her emotional, political and spiritual awakening,” Wilkinson explains.

“It tells you something important about society at that time, and therefore society of all time. If you can understand a little bit about how society works, it’s an insight into your own society as well.”

The film also follows the historically significant Zong slave ship trial, which Lord Mansfield had the power to either uphold or pose a major challenge to the British slave trade.

“He was an interesting man, in the sense that he didn’t come from the upper class. He was Scottish, certainly not from the aristocracy, and he worked his way up through the ranks by virtue of his academic and legal brilliance,” says Wilkinson, himself born into a Yorkshire farming family.

The actor, who has two grown-up daughters with the actress Diana Hardcastle, likes the fact that his character has an emotional, loving relationship with his family.

“He didn’t have to - this was an age where marriages were often arranged at certain levels of society. That wasn’t the case with Mansfield, he truly loved his wife [played by Emily Watson] and his entire family.”

Belle is in cinemas tomorrow