A consummately British leading man, actor James Wilby cut his thespian teeth in the British theater world and appeared in a number of British period films during the 1980s and 1990s.
Though he was born abroad, Wilby was educated in England, attending a private school and Durham University. Intent on becoming an actor, he studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in the early '80s and began acting in plays, including Another Country. He added films to his resumé, with small roles in the drama Privileged (1982), alongside fellow newcomer Hugh Grant, and the Lewis Carroll biopic Dreamchild (1985).
Wilby firmly established himself as a rising British film actor with producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory's adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel Maurice in 1987. Centering on love affairs between Wilby's 1910s title youth and Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves, Maurice earned Wilby and Grant the Best Actor prize at theVenice Film Festival and an international art house audience. Wilby garnered more accolades for his performance as the repressed 1930s husband caught in a love triangle with wife Kristin Scott Thomas and interloper Rupert Graves in the highly regarded Evelyn Waugh adaptation A Handful of Dust (1988). Continuing his winning streak, Wilby subsequently appeared in Masterpiece Theater's well-mounted miniseries of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (1989), and co-starred with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in another acclaimed Merchant/Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster, Howards End (1992). Though the rest of Wilby's 1990s movies were not as impressively received, he continued to appear regularly in British films and TV, including Immaculate Conception (1992), the World War I drama Regeneration (1997), and the children's movie Tom's Midnight Garden (1998). Wilby reunited with Ismail Merchant in the producer's directorial effort Cotton Mary (1999), but the British colonial drama did not match the success of Wilby's prior Merchant/Ivory work.
Wilby subsequently appeared among the distinguished ensemble populating Robert Altman's Oscar-winning period piece Gosford Park (2001). As "upstairs" guest the Honorable Freddie Nesbitt, Wilby was a most dishonorable schemer and a possible murder suspect in Altman's witty anti-Merchant Ivory dissection of the British class system and its usual depiction in polished costume dramas and Agatha Christie murder mysteries.