While directing Owen Wilson in "The Royal Tenenbaums," Wes Anderson realized there was something different about the way his writing partner and close friend was acting during rehearsal. It had been five years since Anderson last directed him, in "Bottle Rocket," their first project, which jump-started their careers. Wilson had become a better actor, but he had also developed an annoying habit.
"We were rehearsing a scene, and Owen was kind of mumbling and reading off the page and we had Gene Hackman there," Anderson said. "[I said,] 'You're supposed to have it memorized.' Owen's like, 'I don't memorize before the rehearsal.' [I said,] 'What are you talking about?' [He said,] 'Wes, this is my seventh movie. This is the way I do it.' Somewhere around 'Anaconda,' he made a shift which I didn't even know about."
Owen Wilson is a hard guy to keep up with these days. In the last few years, Wilson (along with Anderson) has written three movies, including the acclaimed 1998 comedy "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," a dark comedy about a dysfunctional family that opens Dec. 14. His acting career was boosted last year by the surprise success "Shanghai Noon," in which he co-starred with Jackie Chan as an insecure train robber, and by his role as an unctuous ex-fiance in the blockbuster hit "Meet the Parents," starring his friend Ben Stiller. Earlier this fall, he teamed up again with Stiller, playing dueling male models in "Zoolander."
But it's "Behind Enemy Lines" that could change the trajectory of Wilson's career. In the film, which opened Friday, Wilson stars as a Navy aviator shot down in Bosnia who's hunted by Serbian forces because he flew over a mass grave site. Although he co-stars with Hackman (who's also featured in "Royal Tenenbaums"), Wilson gets top billing (and $3 million). If the film is a hit, it could catapult him from a cult favorite to mainstream star--the next action hero.
"Let's face it, it's really Owen's movie," producer John Davis said. "It's his first major leading role. He's going to get very expensive very quickly." The role is a dramatic departure from the unique--he doesn't care for the often-used term "quirky"--persona he created from a Dallas drawl, a twice-broken nose and a sly, self-parodying sense of humor. It was Wilson's acting range in "Shanghai Noon," oddly enough, that impressed Davis enough to fight to cast him in "Behind Enemy Lines."
"There's a freshness here you haven't seen before. That's what I wanted. It's the modern movie-star character: It's sardonic, charismatic. It's cool. It's real," explained Davis, who believes the old movie-star concept is wearing out. In "Behind Enemy Lines," Wilson suggests a new, post-Sept. 11 type of American hero: the imperfect guy next door, Davis said. In sharp contrast to Tom Cruise's macho fighter pilot in the 1986 film "Top Gun," Wilson's character was downgraded from pilot to navigator to make it more real--at Wilson's suggestion.
His sometimes terrified hero joins a new group of offbeat leading men that includes Stiller and comedian Jack Black who moved up to romantic lead in the current hit "Shallow Hal."
Despite the buzz around him, his life hasn't changed, Wilson said in an interview a few weeks before the release of "Behind Enemy Lines" and "The Royal Tenenbaums." Comparing himself with friends he grew up with who have married and started families, he said without any detectable note of irony: "If anything, it seems I'm behind the curve."
At home in his modest--by movie-star standards--Santa Monica neighborhood, the New American Hero slouched sideways across a big leather chair, bare feet dangling, toes in motion. His younger brother, Luke, a co-star in "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," was upstairs; his older brother, Andrew, who has also appeared in Wilson's movies, popped in with his son to say hello. A yellow dog wagged its tail outside some French doors.
Compared with a Schwarzenegger type, Wilson seemed almost slight in person, a wiry 5-foot-11. He was as relaxed and irreverent as his on-screen persona, but unexpectedly open and thoughtful. He expressed surprise that anyone might consider him anything other than normal.
"I don't know how it works when you become a movie star," he said in the instantly recognizable Owen Wilson twang, half gravel, half honey, served up in the laid-back rhythms of his generation. "I think it's something people have to call you."
The 33-year-old Wilson said he judges whether or not someone is a star by how nervous he gets when he first meets them for work. "Like I was nervous with Gene Hackman. I was real nervous with [Robert] De Niro [in 'Meet The Parents']."
Wilson is currently filming "I Spy" with Eddie Murphy, whom he said he also considers a movie star. None of them seemed nervous to meet him, he observed with a short laugh.
Wilson majored in English at the University of Texas, never thinking of an acting career. "I thought maybe I could write," he recalled. "If things worked out nice, maybe I could write some short stories or a novel, maybe go into advertising, writing little jingles and stuff." It was Anderson who had the ambition and the drive for filmmaking, he said. They met in a playwriting class, and Wilson made his inauspicious stage debut as the crazy brother in Anderson's student play, a comedy called "A Night in Tunisia." As Wilson remembered it, "We only did it one night, and [the author] James Michener went and he didn't laugh."
In fact, Anderson said, Michener later complained that some actors these days have no oratorical skill or training, "and he made it clear to everyone he was talking about Owen."
But then, Wilson said, he never liked Michener's books either. "He wrote these huge, big tomes called, like, 'The Universe.' Or, 'The Milky Way.' It begins and spans 2,000 years," Wilson said with an infectious chuckle at his own riff. "Why would I want to read a book called ... 'Ha-wai-i'?"
There was a time, friends recalled, when Wilson would turn down an acting role because he would rather write. Now, he said that while he likes writing, he prefers the process of acting because it's easier and more social. "You show up on the set, you make new friends, you get to be friends with the crew. Writing is more like having a term paper. You hole up and try to pull something out of nothing.
"The thing is with acting, it's like I'm tapping into the same stuff I would do with writing because I'm improvising sometimes. It's like the best type of writing because you're forced to do it that day. If you're given the lines you're going to say that day and the lines are embarrassing, there's nothing like that to motivate you to sit down and try to write something so you don't sound like an idiot."
Besides his brother Luke and Anderson, Wilson's career has been most closely linked with Stiller. They share a slightly twisted worldview--as well as acting and writing ambitions.
Stiller said he recognized a kindred spirit in Wilson when he first saw "Bottle Rocket," a poignant 1996 comedy about three friends who undertake a misguided heist. "The audience was getting it, but I was laughing more than anybody else," Stiller said. "I thought ... 'This is my sense of humor."'
As a director, Stiller cast Wilson that same year in "The Cable Guy" as a smooth operator on a date. "He improvised so much in that scene. It was fun to look at all his takes. It was almost like they were from a different movie. In retrospect, I was seeing how I would want to work with him in the future."
The two have worked together in four films since. They have become close friends, taking road trips together and night-clubbing as bachelors before Stiller got married last year. "Girls love him," Stiller said. "He has that little sparkle in his eye." Stiller said Wilson attracts women because he doesn't appear to try too hard. Wilson has dated singer Sheryl Crow. (Luke is currently dating Gwyneth Paltrow, his "Tenenbaums" co-star.) A social life is tricky with a nonstop schedule in far-flung locations such as Prague, where he filmed "Behind Enemy Lines," and Vancouver, Canada, where he is filming "I Spy." He is next scheduled to shoot the "Shanghai Noon" sequel, "Shanghai Knights," with Chan.
The fun of working with Wilson is that no one ever knows exactly what he might pull from, in Stiller's words, "this library in his head." In a scene in "Zoolander," Stiller and Wilson, two competing male models, get into an insult fight. "He challenges me with a line from 'American Me': 'Who you trying to get crazy with? Don't you know I'm loco?' It gets a big laugh. It's his own personal reference, and it doesn't even matter if you know it or not."
Whether scenes are scripted or improvised, Wilson's characters talk in a kind of stream-of-consciousness chatter that's part intellectual and part daffy. In "Permanent Midnight" (1998), another film with Stiller, Wilson's character, a would-be actor, muses to a woman at a Hollywood cocktail party about a play: "It's hard to describe. It's 50% avant pop; 50% Sam Shepherd meets Arthur C. Clarke." As an inept train robber in "Shanghai Noon," Wilson returns some jewelry to a pretty female passenger. "Is this the first time you've seen an outlaw? Scared? Kind of excited too?" he asks, pursing his lips in a kiss. In a dream sequence, he confides to a bed full of fun-loving working girls, "I felt like all the other cowboys hated my guts."
"He's got this kind of obviously very laid-back view of the world," Stiller said. "Some people can imitate him, but nobody can understand where it comes from."
Wilson grew up in Dallas, the middle child of Irish Catholic parents who were both funny and creative; his mother is a photographer, his father a writer. The family is prone to a melancholy moodiness, an "Irish strain of depression," Wilson said, that goes back generations. "The Irish way of dealing with that is humor," he added.
It's not the type of humor that produces jokes, but rather the sort that comes from real life. To Wilson, typical comedies are not funny. But the scenes in "Raging Bull" in which Robert De Niro's prizefighter reveals his insecurities and jealousies to his brother, played by Joe Pesci, crack him up.
Wilson's parents encouraged their children to read and act. His father took them to movies--Hackman was their dad's favorite--but they weren't allowed to watch TV. Luke Wilson said he looked up to his brother, three years older, and picked up the books he had read, such as "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or the "Great Brain" series by John D. Fitzgerald about a silver-tongued con artist. Like the fictional models, the boys were troublemakers.
Recalled Luke: "I can remember my dad getting irritated with us as kids all hanging around together. He said when we got together, we were our own lowest common denominator."
Owen broke his nose twice, once in a high school scuffle, once playing football with friends. He's surprised that people sometimes tell him, "You look kind of odd, disfigured." Some say it's the crooked nose that sets him apart. But he said, "You know, probably my nose wouldn't have been that great even if it hadn't been broken." Expelled from prep school for cheating, Owen said at least he didn't tell on a co-conspirator (although he later used his name as a character in a movie). "There's a shabby nobility in that," he said.
As a result, Owen was sent to military school in New Mexico. "It defined Owen in a way," Luke said. "He dealt with the adversity of getting expelled. It was there he met a kid that later introduced him to Wes. It was strange the things that happened."
People in Dallas aren't much impressed with Hollywood, Luke said. When he returns there, he gets the feeling that people think they are in a weird business. "It's not oil or real estate. These people look at it like, 'So are you just going to see where this whole Hollywood thing takes you?"'
In the filmmaking community of Austin, however, everyone knew who Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson were, said Tom Schatz, a professor in the film school at their alma mater, the University of Texas."Owen didn't even need the film school part of it," Schatz said, somewhat chagrined that probably the school's best-known filmmakers never went through his department.
"He didn't even need our equipment. The combination of talent and ambition will get [people like Wilson and Anderson] where they want to go. These people are extremely rare. This is a tough business. The number of fresh and sophisticated flameouts is incredible."
When they wrote "Bottle Rocket," Wilson and Anderson shared a one-bedroom apartment with up to three friends to avoid getting real jobs. "We could have been going to some jobs and saving up a thousand dollars a month to make a movie, but we never did that," Anderson said. "We were just ambitious to try to get somebody else to give us money to make the movie."
They're still proud of "Bottle Rocket," although the film never found much of an audience. To Wilson, the lack of early success "allowed us to quietly keep working. Each movie built on the last [one]."
"I think our movies have gotten better and better. Wes did such a great job on 'Bottle Rocket,' but 'Royal Tenenbaums' is so much further along. The movie is bigger and more complicated and managed to weave the various family personalities into a unified tone and vision."
"The Royal Tenenbaums" continues a theme of forgiveness and healing that runs through the pair's first two movies, according to Wilson. "This guy [Royal Tenenbaum, played by Hackman] kind of abandons his family, and he's able to work his way back in. We put the characters through a lot, and in the end, it's no hard feelings. I think it's an element that Wes and I seem to respond to. Our humor isn't mean-spirited. There's a sweet quality."
Anderson is wistful and a little sad that Wilson's career is taking them further apart. An actor, after all, lives a different, more public life than that of a director.
"Owen and I have created a sensibility together. We formed each other. Over 10 years or so, we have made our own voice. Owen is acting a lot more lately, and it's hard for him to be around for all this stuff.... He's becoming a better actor, and next time I put him in a movie, he's going to bring even more things into the mix."
Anderson says he has a role in mind for Wilson in his next movie, but he adds, "Hopefully, Owen is going to be able to make enough time."