Luke Wilson wasn’t exactly his first choice for the male lead in his new film “Alex & Emma,” director Rob Reiner concedes. In fact, he wasn’t even on the radar screen until Kate Hudson, the actor’s co-star in the film, put in a pitch for her pal.
“I thought of the character as a Jewish neurotic guy, the way I approach everything,” Reiner says. “But I decided it could be interesting to take a laid-back Texan and make him as neurotic as possible. My dad [Carl] filtered Jewish neurosis through a goyish personality with Dick Van Dyke and came up with a hybrid that worked.”
That revelation comes as no surprise to the actor, who knew he was under the microscope. “I could feel Rob looking at me,” Wilson says over breakfast recently. “ ‘Strange guy,’ I’m sure he thought, imitating my accent (‘Roooob!’).
“But you don’t have to know me very well to see I’m less laid-back than I seem. I chew toothpicks ... I got ‘em right here. I take the second or third newspaper in a stack -- if there’s only the last one, I may not read it. Owen likes to say that one minute you’re swimming with me in the ocean, and the next, you look up and I’m driving away.”
The “Owen” in question is Owen Wilson, Luke’s older brother, with whom he’s still confused. For the uninitiated: Owen, star of such movies as “Behind Enemy Lines” and “Shanghai Noon,” is blond with a broken nose. Luke, brown-haired and square-jawed, is more conventionally handsome, if less well known. The two have paired up in a trio of quirky Wes Anderson movies -- “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” -- that let Luke show his colors. But in mainstream fare, he’s been relegated to comedy: Martin Lawrence’s sidekick in “Blue Streak” and an aging frat boy, with Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn, in “Old School.” Or earnest, sometimes bland sorts in a host of “boyfriend” roles propping up an A-list of leading woman. One critic noted that he’s solid but irreverent, “Clark Kent and Han Solo rolled into one.”
This summer is a busy one for the actor, who’ll be surfacing in four films. In addition to “Alex & Emma,” in which he plays a writer struggling to pay off a $100,000 gambling debt, he’s reprising his role as Cameron Diaz’s significant other in the just-released “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.” On Wednesday, he’ll again be seen as Reese Witherspoon’s legal mentor-romantic interest in “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde.” And he’s also playing the right-hand man to a rebounding rock legend (played by Bob Dylan) in “Masked and Anonymous,” due out on July 24.
McG, director of both “Charlie’s Angels” installments, points to Wilson’s breeding and his self-deprecating style to explain the actor’s appeal. “Some guys are all hat and no cattle -- but not Luke,” he observes. Even in his endless reaction shots, the actor holds his own.
“Luke is the ultimate Texas gentleman -- the antidote to your notion of a pretentious leading man,” McG said. “He’d never allow a lady to enter an elevator after him, which is part of his charm. He reminds me of a Cary Grant or a Gregory Peck, guys who speak softly and carry a big stick. I needed an actor who could stand with Cameron in a two-shot and not be overwhelmed by her cinematic presence. Luke’s character must be in the service of hers, but he makes a meal out of an appetizer.”
Close-knit Texas family
Wilson grew up in Dallas, where his father managed the local public television station and later wrote ad copy and political books; his mom is a photographer. Having his picture taken regularly made Wilson comfortable with the camera: It wasn’t about smiling for a photo, he recalls, but about being himself. He was one of three brothers -- Andrew, the oldest, is a documentary filmmaker and actor. They all remain best friends.
“In the family, I was the drummer, playing behind everyone, following those guys around,” he says. “Even my mother calls me ‘Owen’ or ‘Andrew’ and I don’t bother to correct her. There’s a funny picture she took of my brothers and five of their friends. I was off to the side and thrilled to be there -- unobtrusive but part of things.
“It bothers me when people ask if Owen and I are competitive,” he says with a touch of annoyance, tired of that refrain. “It’s not like ‘my rentals are higher, but you’re beating me at the box office.’ We’re not the Sunshine Boys, but we love each other. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it weren’t for him.”
Wilson was on the verge of dropping out from his third college (“I call that period ‘the Lost Years’ ”) when Owen and his University of Texas buddy Anderson threw him a rope -- Hollywood-style. How about making a movie? They had co-written a script called “Bottle Rocket,” the story of two Texans turning to an unlikely life of crime. He’d play one -- a former mental patient who finds love with a motel maid.
The 13-minute short was shown at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival and, with backing from big-time filmmakers such as James L. Brooks (“Broadcast News”), released by Columbia Pictures as a feature film four years later. The quirky project generated mixed positive reviews and put the Wilsons on the map. (“Engaging performances by Owen C. Wilson and his real-life brother Luke stand out,” reads the blurb in Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide.)
Next from the idiosyncratic Anderson-Wilson posse: “Rushmore” (1998), the story of a determined high school student competing with a local factory magnate (Bill Murray) for the affection of his recently widowed teacher. Although Wilson was somewhat peripheral in this mostly well-received release, “The Royal Tenenbaums” -- a wacky tale of three child prodigies and the father who abandoned them (Gene Hackman) -- was a far better showcase. Peering over a bushy beard, Wilson played an emotionally adrift, Bjorn Borg-style tennis pro, his most complex role to date. The film did a surprisingly strong $52.4 million at the box office.
“The four of us lived together,” Wilson recalls, referring to the three brothers and Anderson. “We came out to Los Angeles together--and you can feel the closeness in our work. To me, our movies are just conversations between us guys. Now that we’re getting older, though, it’s harder to sustain the team. Wes went to New York and, after 10 years of living in the same place, Owen encouraged me to find lodging elsewhere. I was dragging my feet, the last to let go.”
Not surprising, says Anderson. A “homesickness syndrome” led Wilson to drop out of Occidental College and, before that, a private high school in New England. “Luke isn’t reliant on his family in a dependent way,” he explained. “But being around them feeds him and affects his mood.” Wilson, the director says, is an unusual blend of the soulful and the fierce. “There’s a good amount of fight in him, which is necessary to being totally interesting.”
Unlikely sex symbol
Few sexy leading men can play comedy. But Wilson’s satirical edge and physical grace make him a notable exception. “Luke’s an unsweaty actor who doesn’t chew the scenery,” Reiner says. “Very masculine, but not threatening to men because he’s a regular guy. Women, of course, are drawn to him like crazy. He’s like a kid in a candy store -- and can’t figure it out.”
That he’s perceived as a sex symbol, Wilson says, is more than a bit ironic. Raised in a primarily male environment, graduating from an all-boys high school, he’s always found women an alien species. That hasn’t been much of a deterrent. He started dating Drew Barrymore on the shoot of “Home Fries” (1998), a screwball comedy about sex, sibling rivalry and Oedipal ties, and Gwyneth Paltrow during “Tenenbaums.” It was Barrymore who, even after they’d split, cast him in “Charlie’s Angels,” on which she was a producer.
“Drew put the personal in front of the professional,” the actor recalls. “That she was in love with Tom Green at the time may have taken out some of the sting.”
Wilson makes no apologies for the “boyfriend” roles, which, he says, were a lot of fun. Still, when it comes to watershed experiences, “Masked and Anonymous” stands out. To prepare for the role of the guitar tech assistant, he hung out with Dylan, a longtime hero, on tour. . “He’s just a man,” he says. “A man who’s done all this work. He didn’t get famous and drift off. I like the idea of making something -- good or bad -- and moving on.”
Wilson isn’t the type to set goals -- for fear of not reaching them, he suspects. And he’s no more driven than he ever was -- despite his years in Hollywood. “Friends say that this business hasn’t changed me -- and they don’t mean it as a compliment,” he jokes.
Wilson is about to co-direct “The Wendell Baker Story” with his brother Andrew. Based on his own screenplay, it tells the story of a Texan schemer-dreamer (Wilson) trying to fly straight after serving time for selling fake driver’s licenses to Mexicans. Owen and Harry Dean Stanton are also starring in the $8-million Franchise film, scheduled to start shooting in September.
On the personal front, Wilson says, there’s less to report. Last year, his 30th birthday left him pensive. “At my age, my father had three sons, and I’ve always wanted my own family,” he said. “Though my characters in ‘Alex & Emma’ and ‘Old School’ are commitment-phobic, I’m not. I told Rob, ‘I’m a family man without a family.’
“I’m also a real watch-checker,” the “laid-back” Texan adds, glancing at his wrist. “The head doctor said that’s because I’m obsessed with my own death. Though I’m not ambitious, it’s the time thing. I feel I’m running out of time.”
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The Wilson brothers on film
FEATURING LUKE WILSON
Bottle Rocket (1996 ) A mental patient (Wilson) hooks up with a wacky, pseudo-militaristic friend (Owen Wilson) to pursue a life of petty burglary.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) An emotionally fragile ex-tennis champ (Wilson) is one of three neurotic siblings coping with the homecoming of the father (Gene Hackman) who abandoned them.
Old School (2003) Disenchanted with life, three men (Wilson, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn) try to recapture their college days.
Alex & Emma (2003) A struggling writer (Wilson) hires an outspoken stenographer (Kate Hudson) to help him complete a novel in 30 days so he can pay a gambling debt.
FEATURING OWEN WILSON
Armageddon (1998) Wilson plays a geologist, part of a team trying to head off a doomsday asteroid on a collision course with Earth.
Shanghai Noon (2000) A 19th century imperial guard (Jackie Chan) seeking a kidnapped Chinese princess joins forces with a small-time Nevada robber (Wilson).
Zoolander (2001) A superstar model (Ben Stiller) -- upstaged by a young upstart (Wilson) -- is roped into assassinating a Malaysian leader who threatens the fashion world’s supply of cheap labor.
Behind Enemy Lines (2001) A Navy jet navigator (Wilson) fights for survival after being shot down over Bosnia during a reconnaissance mission.