It’s funny about Owen Wilson

Times Staff Writer

OWEN WILSON may be the only Oscar-nominated screenwriter who’s never owned a computer. He’s not going to take the plunge now at the advanced age of 37 because he’s afraid he’d get addicted to computer games.

“If I got one at this point, I’m very susceptible to getting super into it,” he drawls over turkey burgers in a joint in Venice. “I’ll look at these ads for these war games they have, and they look so cool.” He elongates the word for effect. “I feel I could really lose myself.”

It’s hard to reconcile the various faces of Owen Wilson: the wildly competitive devotee of ping-pong, foosball, bocce and a game called head soccer (soccer played on a tennis court), the girl-chasing figure labeled “The Butterscotch Stallion” in the tabloids, with the guy who cries at “The End of the Affair” and reads the Graham Greene novel afterward, who can quote chunks of dialogue from films such as Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.” With director Wes Anderson, Wilson co-wrote two of the most amusing but poignant distillations of precocity of the last dozen years: “Rushmore,” with Bill Murray, and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which was nominated for an Oscar.


Yet he’s also a charter member of the comedy frat pack, a golden circle of 30-something funny guys that includes Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, Jack Black, Steve Carell, Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, whose broad antics have powered mainstream comedy for the last half-dozen years and whose most potent screen relationships appear to be with one another. That was all too apparent in last summer’s raucous, hard-R comedy “Wedding Crashers,” in which Wilson and Vaughn troll for chicks like a particularly libidinous Lewis and Martin.

At first, it appeared as if the latter incarnation came to lunch as Wilson ambled up in a rumpled T-shirt, loose pants and no wallet. His freakishly blue eyes peer out from under a mop of longish blond surfer hair, and the famed, twice-broken beak looks more Roman in profile than the mashed-up boxer’s schnoz that defines his face from the head-on perspective. And then there’s the grin, which alternates from shy, polite Texan to louche ladies’ man. Still, while some major movie stars seem shellacked in narcissism, Wilson emits a wry curiosity. He actually asks questions and listens for the answers.

Like Woody Allen, Wilson is less an actor than a comic persona who acts. And the shtick does vary from a kind of mouthy, ironic parody of a Tom Cruise action figure (“Armageddon”) to a mouthy, ironic, arrested-adolescent party boy (“Wedding Crashers”) to a so-sincere-it’s-ironic adolescent slacker (“You, Me and Dupree,” landing in theaters Friday).

The latest film is a comic paean to the underachiever. Wilson’s Dupree is a wide-eyed naif who at 35, 36, 37 can’t manage to get a life, a career, a girl, a sense of direction, some hard elbows useful for clawing one’s way through the grown-up world. In the film, Dupree, beanbag chair in tow, moves in with his newly married best friend, the uptight Carl (played by Matt Dillon), and his wife (Kate Hudson), and wreaks havoc, ultimately imparting some addled life lessons. Perhaps the most important involves being true to oneself -- a theme that echoes from both “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” -- although here the message is delivered with goofy glee rather than drenched in loss.

Wilson developed the idea for “You, Me and Dupree” with writer Mike LeSieur and produced the Universal film while ad-libbing more than a few of the movie’s signature scenes.

“He’s got an amazing ability to improv, because he has such a mind for storytelling,” says Anthony Russo, one of the forces on the cult TV show “Arrested Development,” who directed the film with his brother, Joe. “Owen keeps his improv right on target. Normally you can use about 10% of what somebody does, but with Owen, you can use 90%.”


“The way he works is he likes to keep every take fresh,” adds Joe Russo. “He changes every take, and he rarely does the same thing twice. He’s like a jazz musician who goes on a 10-minute riff. He’ll find a new melody to start playing.”

“Owen is great because you get all the imaginative, addictive stuff that the great comics bring, but without the angst,” says director Shawn Levy, who just employed Wilson as a 3-inch-tall cowboy in the upcoming holiday release “Night at the Museum.” “Maybe there’s angst, but if so, he’s disguised it well. I had all the pleasure and none of the pain. For a comic, that’s unique.”

Unlike some of his counterparts (Stiller or Vaughn or Anderson, for instance), Wilson doesn’t bristle with ambition and perfectionism.

He seems to treat the whole movie-star phenomenon as an incredibly fortuitous freak of nature, like a comet that happily landed on his head. He never intended to star in “Bottle Rocket,” his screen debut, which he co-wrote with Anderson, but they couldn’t get anybody else to take on the role of Dignan, the demented would-be burglar.

“I didn’t study to be an actor. It always seems like a lucky thing,” says Wilson. “I don’t think of myself as really driven as an actor to try to stretch myself. I think I’m sort of limited. I can do some stuff and make it sound real.

“A movie like ‘Anaconda’ -- it’s weird -- I would have been embarrassed to have written that movie but not to act in it. I don’t know why that is.”

Indeed, Wilson admits to being more “discerning” about the writing, which is partly why he hasn’t actually sat down and written his own script start to finish, since Anderson, his college roommate from the University of Texas, began writing without him. He and his good friend Woody Harrelson are planning to write one in August, but they’ve spent most of their time discussing in which beautiful spot on Earth they should write. And then there’s the issue of who will man the computer.

“What keeps me from writing more is I’m very particular. If I don’t feel something’s good, I don’t want it out there. I’m more discerning. I always feel with the writing I’m going to get to it.” He grimaces and sighs. This is himself he’s talking about. “I was also going to get to graduating college.”

Middle man

WHEN Wilson was 3, his mother wrote to her sister describing her second son: “Owen has a very zany sense of humor. He doesn’t like to read the same book twice, and he idolizes Bobby [Owen’s dad].”

We’re discussing nature versus nurture. Wilson has one of those minds that remembers all the nuances, the slings and arrows of childhood, coupled with a firm grasp on the mythology of family. He’s the middle son of a couple of cultured East Coasters who transplanted to Dallas, where his father ran the public television station and his mom became a photographer.

He remembers himself always being the “odd man out,” with his mom gravitating to his older brother, Andrew, also an actor, and his father having a special affinity for his younger brother, Luke, who’s starred in all the films Owen has written as well as appearing in “Legally Blonde,” “The Family Stone” and the upcoming “My Super Ex-Girlfriend.”

“It wasn’t like I was like Oliver Twist: ‘More bread, sir,’ ” adds Wilson, who knows that his parents love him. “It was maybe easier for my dad to be around Luke. They had more of a connection. Luke looked like my mother. My dad and I would butt heads.”

It’s pretty safe to say that his parents worried that Owen would turn into a permanent screw-up.

He always had problems in school -- not working up to his potential, as a raft of teachers pointed out. He wrote one of his first short stories in eighth grade -- about a real-life incident in which his brother Andrew shot a deer. It was so good that his teacher thought he plagiarized it. In 10th grade, he actually got kicked out of the tony Dallas prep school St. Mark’s for cheating on a math test and ended up transferring to a local high school for a semester, then getting shipped off to a military academy.

At least the trauma proved useful for the art. The deeply idiosyncratic protagonist of “Rushmore” flunks out of his tony prep school and winds up at the local high school. He befriends the industrialist played by Bill Murray, who looks at his own children, a pair of violent lunkheads, and bemoans, “Never in my wildest imagination did I dream that I would have children like this.”

“My dad would say that,” Wilson says with a laugh. “But thing is, my dad and all his friends, all the stories he told that were celebrated, were about getting around the rules. One of my earliest memories was my dad sneaking us into the state fair, saying he was with the Channel 4 news. It was pretty clear where we got this from.”

Even today, the Wilson boys are a tight clan, ferociously competitive in sports and games, and nothing makes Wilson happier than beating someone who deeply cares.

“I don’t have to win. I just want to know that the person I’m playing hates to lose and really wants to win, otherwise it’s no fun.” He insists that this competitiveness does not extend to their respective Hollywood careers. “Not because we’re so generous and loving -- it’s more selfish,” Wilson explains. “If Luke’s movie does really incredible, I know I can always get him to do a movie with me, or for me. It’s a rising tide. If one of us does well, it’s going to help the other guys too.”

As kids, Owen dreamed up the games and the clubs and forced Luke to serve as a pledge, getting hazed to get in. As grown-ups, Luke -- in a kind of Dupree moment -- moved into Owen’s Santa Monica house, bringing along a stuffed boar’s head, a wild javelina he’d appropriated from the set of “Tenenbaums.” Although Luke Wilson owned his own house a mile away, he stayed for a year. “When he finally moved out, he took the javelina with him. I miss it. It tied the room together,” cracks Wilson. “Even a mile away I don’t see him as much.”

His brothers are the only people Wilson has fought with -- physically -- as a grown-up. Right before the Wilson brothers and Anderson boarded a plane from Texas to California to meet writer-producer-director James L. Brooks about making their debut, “Bottle Rocket,” “Luke and I had a punching fight. I had scratch marks down my face. I had to get on the plane. It’s really emotional fighting your brother. We were crying a little bit on the flight. We went to the meeting. It was such a heavy vibe from us, they didn’t even ask us what had happened to our faces.”

‘Rocket’s’ red glare

WILSON doesn’t elaborate about what they were actually fighting about, but “Bottle Rocket” -- and meeting Anderson in a University of Texas playwriting class -- were the pivotal events in his professional life. Brooks, the director of such films as “As Good As It Gets,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Broadcast News,” arranged for the financing of the $5-million film, about a loopy gang of aspiring burglars.

But the making of the film was something of a bloodbath, an ugly collision between a renegade indie sensibility and mainstream Hollywood moviemaking.

The film got eviscerated by audiences in test screenings, a process that Wilson has said left him feeling so pummeled that he even considered joining the military.

Polly Platt, the film’s producer, recalls one particularly rough day when the boys were wrestling with the powers-that-be in the editing room. She went across the street to sit in the Roman Catholic church to get a little sanctuary. “I looked over to my left and Owen was in the same church praying. That’s the only indication I had that he was suffering.”

Anderson wrote his latest film, “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” with another partner, Noah Baumbach, which at first shocked Wilson, who still starred in the film, a much more sprawling, undisciplined work than the earlier Anderson-Wilson collaborations. The former screenwriting partners are still close. “I can hardly think of anyone that I have as much fun talking to as Wes. We’re really on the same page,” says Wilson.

The distinctive, stylized Anderson films definitely launched Wilson in Hollywood. “Bottle Rocket” might have failed financially, but it has turned into a cult favorite, drawing fans such as Martin Scorsese and Stiller, who wrote the filmmakers a fan letter. Wilson has gone on to star with Stiller in half a dozen comedies, including the upcoming “Night at the Museum.” Like Stiller, and much of the comedy mafia, he’s represented by United Talent Agency, who, in fact, were the ones who introduced him to “You, Me and Dupree” writer Mike LeSieur, then a complete unknown. The actor appears to have made peace with mainstream Hollywood.

“He has that breed of effortless Texan cool that’s incredibly winsome,” says Levy. “He doesn’t seem to have adjusted his life to the rules of celebrity. For better or worse, he’s doing whatever he damn well pleases, whether it’s going to a bar and chatting up a pretty girl or running along the sea wall in Vancouver alone during the middle of the day. He seems to have refused to rejigger his lifestyle the way many famous people do.”

“One thing I admire about Owen is he loves life,” says “You, Me and Dupree” producer Scott Stuber. “All of us get caught up in striving for success, and weirdly, when you’re in the middle of it, success ... tends to be the most stressful time of life. You feel this need to continue it. Owen understands that he’s in a great place as a person and has great opportunities as an actor and appreciates it. He travels. He reads a lot. He’s expanding himself as a person.”

One direction in which he does not appear to be expanding is maritally. Unlike Stiller or Jack Black or Ferrell, Wilson isn’t settling down. When asked if he’s ever a Dupree himself, he admits that he occasionally gloms on to Woody Harrelson’s family unit. He went to visit the actor and his wife and young daughters in Hawaii for four days but stayed a month. Recently, he bounced over to Italy to see them and their new baby in Ravello, where they were vacationing.

“I’m single. I’m still out there,” he muses. “But who knows for how much longer.”

He laughs. Devilishly.

“I could be winding down.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. At 37, he has at least 40 more years in which he can procreate. That’s in Hollywood-movie-star years, which is something akin to dog years for men.

Adds Wilson, “If you read the Bible, I’ve got till I’m 120.”