Movie audiences love to laugh at Owen Wilson — as the excitement about the “Zoolander” sequel in which he’ll once again play obnoxious supermodel Hansel can attest.
The droll, laid-back Wilson is also known for the comedies he’s made with his former University of Texas roommate Wes Anderson — including earning an Oscar nomination for co-writing with Anderson the screenplay for “The Royal Tenenbaums” — and with Ben Stiller on more than a dozen projects, including the “Zoolander” films.
But Wilson’s new film “No Escape,” which opens Wednesday, is no laughing matter. In the thriller, Wilson plays Jack Dwyer, an American businessman who has taken a job with a company in a Southeast Asian country. Soon after his wife, Annie (Lake Bell), and their young two daughters settle into a room at a local hotel in the country, they find themselves caught in the middle of a political uprising.
As the rebels begin a vicious, bloody killing spree, the quartet — with the help of a mysterious Englishman (Pierce Brosnan) — attempt to escape to nearby Vietnam.
“No Escape” marks the first dramatic action film the boyish 46-year-old Wilson has made since 2001’s “Behind Enemy Lines.” Wilson was offered some action roles after that film, but he turned them down.
“It wasn’t a feeling I don’t want to do any more action,” Wilson noted in a recent interview in West Hollywood, where he was briefly joined by his adorably rambunctious 18-month-old son, Finn. But Wilson, who also has a 4 1/2-year-old son named Robert Ford, recalled receiving offers for roles for which he couldn’t envision himself as the character.
That wasn’t the case with “No Escape,” which seemed more grounded in everyday reality to him.
“When I read the script, it just seemed like an exciting story to me,” he said. “The big part of why it seemed liked a good story is the family element. Where I might have a hard time imagining myself playing in an action movie where I am doing almost superhero-type stuff, I could imagine myself playing a father who loves his family and because of that love will do anything to help.”
His father, Robert, was his inspiration for his role.
“We never went to Southeast Asia and found ourselves in the middle of a revolution,” he said. “But it can be stressful for parents taking kids to the state fair and one of them getting lost. That can panic a parent. My dad didn’t have any hobbies other than us. I felt I could kind of draw on that for a character like this because it’s not hard to imagine what my dad would do.”
Sadly, “No Escape” has a tragic timeliness. It’s being released less than two weeks after the deadly bombing in the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, Thailand, that killed 20 and injured 120, many of them foreigners. Dealing with terror and political upheaval has become more commonplace for Western travelers and business workers similar to the events depicted in the film.
“No Escape’s” director, John Erick Dowdle, who wrote the script with his brother Drew, wanted an actor to play Jack who felt like he was “one of our friends in the scenario versus someone you’ve seen do this type of thing over and over and you are expecting them to do it. With Owen, there is a moment where you go, ‘I don’t know how he gets out of this.’
“It was really important to have that kind of feeling. When casting, we said whoever we find for this we felt needed to fit two criteria — first, does it seem like they would be a wonderful father and second, would it be shocking to see him kill someone.”
Drew Dowdle said Wilson was attached for nearly three years to the film while the brothers obtained funding. “We had one instance that we were a day away from going to Thailand and the next day [the funding] imploded,” he said. “We said, we hope you stick it out and stay with us. He didn’t bat an eye. He said, ‘You find the money, and I’m there.’ It took us six months to rebuild [the funding].”
“There was a little underdog aspect to get the movie made,” said Wilson, with a grin. “As a middle brother, I usually tend to side with the underdogs more. So I think when we finally got there and got a chance to do it, that made it satisfying.""
The film, which is being released by Weinstein Co., was shot in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand in late 2013.
“I think we found a lot of camaraderie in Thailand,” said Wilson’s co-star Bell, best known for her film “In a World....” I think being in that environment and also playing out circumstances that were pretty foreign to us focused us to lean into each other. Owen really set the tone for the type of commitment that all four of us injected into our performances.”
Because he’s never taken acting lessons, Wilson worried about his emotional scenes with the two young actresses who play his daughters.
“It was a little like ‘Marley & Me,’ ” he said, referring to his hit movie about a couple’s close relationship to their dog. “In ‘Marley & Me’ when at the end I am suppose to get very upset, I thought, ‘I hope I can do it.’ And then they bring in the old dog they cast just for this day. This dog walks in and you have a hard time not getting emotional when you see him.
“That is what it felt like doing these scenes with these little girls. You see their little faces looking up. They are acting, but they are trying hard and there is something moving about their effort.”