Owen Wilson: He’s charming. He’s relaxed. And he talks . . . real . . . slow
The ‘No Escape’ star can come across as a stereotypical Texan. But with a career that spans both indie favourites and Hollywood blockbusters, this actor has always had more than one string to his bow
Owen Wilson: “Playing exactly yourself? You never quite do that. But you try to get it to make sense.” Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty/DIFF
Rebel hell: Owen Wilson and Lake Bell in No Escape
We shouldn’t really stereotype Americans by the state of their birth. But for all his years in Hollywood and his lengthy companionship with the artistic elite, Owen Wilson still comes across like one popular conception of a typical Texan. You’ve seen him play it up in films such as Wedding Crashers, Meet the Parents and Shanghai Knights. He’s charming. He’s relaxed. He’s romantically successful. He talks . . . real . . . slow . . . like.
“Yeah, look, you usually play somebody you can imagine yourself playing,” he drawls good-naturedly. “You try to play something you feel credible doing – that you think is funny. In terms of playing exactly yourself? You never quite do that. But you try to get it to make sense.”
Owen Wilson has tweaked the “Owen Wilson” persona a little more vigorously than usual for his role as a desperate father in the impressively rugged, consistently gripping action thriller No Escape. The film concerns a family who, after relocating to an unnamed country in south-east Asia, are forced to flee when rebels launch an assault on all foreigners. Dad is forced to take any number of risks for his children. As a father of two, Wilson must have connected with the character.
“I think that, for me, was one of the things that was helpful about playing the part,” he says. “I could see myself doing that. We learn that he was a Navy Seal. But it is more important that he’s a father protecting his kids. That’s pretty primal. Seeing your children in danger can really trigger adrenaline.”
So did the family make it on to the set? Currently romantically unattached, Wilson had one son, Robert Ford, with Jade Duell in 2011 and another, Finn, with Caroline Lindqvist, a personal trainer, in 2013. Both lads live in Los Angeles. “Ford came over to Thailand. That was fun for him. He is already pretty well travelled for a four-year-old. He has been to a lot of places where I have worked over the past year.”
It’s worth reminding ourselves about the conflicting eddies within Owen Wilson’s career. He is best known as a charming comedian in films that rarely aspire to be even middlebrow: The Internship, Zoolander, Starsky & Hutch. But he first emerged as an associate of the indie darling (as he then wasn’t) Wes Anderson. Wilson starred in Anderson’s low-budget 1996 debut, Bottle Rocket, and was also credited as a cowriter and executive producer on the picture.
“I think all this really began with meeting Wes in college,” he says in that disconcertingly ingenuous way. “We became friends and room-mates. From the beginning Wes wanted to become a director and wanted to work in movies. It never even occurred to me and my brothers that that was a possibility. It was just good luck meeting Wes.”
Their partnership has remained fecund over the succeeding decades. Wilson also has writing credits on Anderson projects such as Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Yet he hasn’t put his name to any other scripts. What is going on?
“No. I haven’t. Look, if you’re acting, you end up exercising that writing muscle if you are trying to improve a scene or you have ideas for the character. Nothing will concentrate the mind like looking at dialogue in the morning and not thinking it’s so great. In terms of writing something from start to finish, that’s more personal; I haven’t done that for a long time. But I hope to do it soon.”
Wilson is the middle of three siblings. Luke Wilson, the youngest brother, can be seen in Legally Blonde, The Royal Tenenbaums and Anchorman. Andrew, the eldest and least well known, also works as an actor. The boys’ mother is the distinguished photographer Laura Wilson, whose work has appeared in such outlets as the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and GQ over the decades. But Wilson also credits his dad with agitating creative juices in the brothers.
“He is a very creative figure as well,” he says. “He was a writer and became head of the public TV station in Dallas. That was the first station that carried Monty Python. Both my parents are creative in that way.”
The Wilsons somehow managed to develop the most unlikely careers. As Wilson goes on to explain, becoming a movie star in Dallas never seemed like a realistic possibility. “It would have seemed laughable as an ambition,” he says. I wonder if, having battered their way into the industry, they continue to compete with one another. That is often how brothers operate.
“Oh, we are extremely competitive,” he says, laughing. “We are hypercompetitive. But it’s usually about something else. Like, we just got these skateboards that have these two wheels you lean on – and we are doing time trials against one another. We almost broke our necks doing that. Dad was very competitive. We are like that in life, but in movies there hasn’t been any competitiveness. It’s a selfish thing, maybe. If Luke does well it helps us all if we want to do something together.”
Anderson’s drive persuaded the Wilsons to give it a go. Later on, when a short version of Bottle Rocket ended up on the desk of James L Brooks, the renowned director and producer, they benefited from the assistance of another older mentor.
“That gave us the biggest break in getting the first movie made,” he says. “But it all began with making that short film and the support from our families: my dad and Wes’s dad. They both put up $1,500. That felt like a big thing back then. And they took it seriously. My dad let me know it mattered.”
It would be wrong to suggest that Wilson has had any kind of charmed life. In 2007 he was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles with a severe case of depression after the end of his relationship with Kate Hudson. But since his arrival in Hollywood he has never found it hard to locate work. The most saleable of the Wilson boys popped up in The Haunting, Anaconda and Armageddon. His turn opposite Jackie Chan in the western romp Shanghai Noon made him a star as long ago as 2003.
“Yes, that really kicked me up,” he says. “After that I was getting leading roles. “Gene Hackman saw me in that and I got a role in Behind Enemy Lines.”
It’s a strange business. That 2001 action film helped turn the Dundalk man John Moore into a mainstream director of Hollywood blockbusters. Owen didn’t return to the genre until he signed on for this week’s No Escape. In the same year that Behind Enemy Lines emerged, Wilson starred opposite Ben Stiller in Zoolander, the durable satire on fashionistas. That film was a flop on release, but it has gained a huge audience on DVD and, finally, spawned a sequel. Zoolander 2 will be with us next year.
“I wonder if that’s going to be a groundswell towards doing sequels 14 years later for a movie that didn’t do that well to begin with,” Wilson says. “That one developed a cult following, and there does seem to be excitement. We all hope it’s going to be good.”
We may see Starsky & Hutch II yet.
FAMILY BUSINESS: WHAT ARE THE WILSON BROTHERS UP TO?
The youngest of the brothers, Luke Wilson, is having a particularly busy time of it. Following close on his fine supporting turn in The Skeleton Twins last year, he will soon be seen opposite Olivia Wilde in the romantic drama Meadowland, the directorial debut of the cinematographer Reed Morano. He will also appear in the already controversial comedy western The Ridiculous Six, with Adam Sandler. (The project saw Sandler fall out with offended Native Americans.) You want more? Luke will be voicing the titular canine musician in the upcoming family animation Rock Dog.
As well as No Escape and Zoolander 2, Owen, who is the middle brother, will shortly appear in Jared Hess’s heist comedy, Masterminds. Hess is the brains behind the much-admired Napoleon Dynamite and the criminally under-regarded Gentlemen Broncos.
Andrew Wilson has always been the least visible of the Wilson boys. He has, however, recently received strong reviews for his turn in Marni Zelnick’s drama of grief, Druid Peak.
No Escape is on general release