According to Owen Wilson, there are two types of actors. "There are people who can just sort of act natural or find things within themselves that they can play," Wilson explains in his Texas drawl. "And then there are actors. Those are the kind that can really transform themselves, like Johnny Depp and Dustin Hoffman. Those are what I think of as 'real' actors, who can undergo a real change." By those standards, does Wilson consider himself a "real" actor? "Okay, not like 'real' actor in the way I just defined it," he says. "But I think I'm good at sometimes making stuff sound at least believable."
Not only believable. Wilson has perfected the dry delivery of punch lines from obvious to obtuse, earning himself a huge following in a wide range of films. Whether inhabiting the vaguely off-center world of college buddy Wes Anderson's films, broad comedies such as Meet the Parents, or even action flicks that include Behind Enemy Lines, Wilson fits comfortably into any genre. But his onscreen persona is generally the same: a lovable rogue, inherently likeable and completely laid-back. One suspects that his casual onscreen demeanor isn't far off from his own, which is why Wilson's stardom feels like such a happy accident—something he stumbled into and decided to stick around and enjoy. It's not that he comes off as lazy or coasting by on his charms. He just seems so effortless and carefree on- and offscreen, refusing to conform to Hollywood standards of what a star should be. Look, he didn't even bother to fix the nose.
Wilson's boyish charisma is on ample display in his new film, Wedding Crashers, in which he and Vince Vaughn play lifelong bachelors who infiltrate nuptials looking for rowdy festivities and lusty women. The casting is ingenious, and what could have been just another crude comedy shows surprising cleverness and heart, thanks to a solid script by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher. When Wilson's John falls for a sweet and funny bridesmaid (played by a luminous Rachel McAdams), the callow youth grows up and pursues her, heart and soul. Vaughn takes on the more outrageous, zany character, while John is a slightly more adult turn for Wilson, playing his first bona fide romantic lead. Aside from being breezy and cool, the part requires Wilson to show an earnest, endearing side. In short, he seems to be playing the Luke Wilson role.
Wilson laughs upon hearing this comparison to his younger brother (Old School, Legally Blonde), and he doesn't disagree. "It kind of is a more mature character for me," he concedes. There was a time when Wilson considered undertaking Vaughn's role. "If I had been left to my own devices, I probably would have played the other part, just because I think of the other character as having more funny emotions to play, which is what I usually gravitate toward," he says. "My character had more of the straight romance to play. But I really liked where we went with my character."
Wilson had a lot of say in where the character went, because director David Dobkin encouraged improvisation from all the actors. It doesn't hurt that Wilson is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter—he's collaborated on three films with Anderson—which means his ideas probably carry weight around a set. Asked if producers sometimes feel they're getting a two-for-one deal when they hire him, Wilson is diplomatic. "I think I've been lucky in that, every movie I've worked on, the directors have really welcomed my ideas," he says. "I know on Wedding Crashers I did a lot of work with the writers and the director on the script. I was always throwing out ideas and stuff." And not just for his character. One of the best visual gags in the film is an almost-nude portrait of Vaughn done by an admirer. "Originally, the painting was supposed to be like an abstract kind of crazy painting," Wilson recalls. "And I thought it would be funny if it were of Vince in the Tempting of Adam." We wonder aloud what this says about Wilson's own psyche, and he pauses. "Huh," he says before laughing. "I don't want to know."
Light and Loose
Humor is an indefinable and subjective quality. Still, Wilson's broad appeal comes as somewhat of a surprise, given that much of his humor is frequently free of, well, jokes. It's often just in his wry, dry delivery that the laughs come. What other actor could pull off a performance as supermodel Hansel in Zoolander, delivering lines such as, "Listen to your friend Billy Zane, he's a cool dude," or extolling the virtues of hanging with spider monkeys without once winking to the audience? Wilson's gift for comedy ensures he could probably earn laughs just by reading the phone book. But then, things are never as easy as they seem, so perhaps Wilson puts a lot of effort into being funny? "No, I don't know that I really work at it," he replies. "I guess I work at it in terms of setting up situations that I think are funny or coming up with funny lines."
Wilson can recall the moment he became aware that others found him funny. "I remember being in Spanish class in college and having to get up and make some presentation, and people were laughing, and I wasn't really doing anything," he says, still sounding a bit confused. "I wasn't trying to be funny. I was trying to just pass the class. But I don't know, I guess there was something a little odd about my delivery."
In person, Wilson seems as easygoing and unruffled as one would expect from his performances onscreen. Yet with so much success, surely he's somewhat calculated about his career? "I probably haven't put a lot of thought into, 'Okay, I don't want to get typecast, and now I want to try to do this type of role….' I really just kind of do what's come up," he says. "Everybody's probably more complicated than they might initially appear. But, yeah, I haven't had a real agenda in terms of my career. I try to do good stuff, and I do the best I can. I think it helps, actually, to take things sort of lightly and wear them sort of loosely."
That attitude has helped Wilson charm his way through roles in which the character might have questionable ethics. In films such as Wedding Crashers, Starsky & Hutch, and Shanghai Noon, Wilson has played lovable cads. He might love you and leave you, but you could never stay angry with him. In Meet the Parents he was the all-too-perfect ex-boyfriend who was far too cheesy to hate. And in the upcoming The Wendell Baker Story, written by his brother Luke and directed by Luke and eldest brother Andrew, Wilson plays a deliciously villainous nursing home manager. These characters are far from heroes, yet Wilson finds a way to make audiences embrace them. "There's a human element you recognize, which I think is really important for an actor to find," he says. "Even in Schindler's List, I think that's what made Ralph Fiennes' performance so great. He's literally playing a monster, yet you see some human stuff in there—jealousy, insecurity—and somehow that makes it even more real. Ultimately it's more terrifying because you see what can happen to a real person."
In Meet the Parents Wilson was allowed to take artistic license. "My character as written was supposed to be a lot more out-and-out jerk," he recalls. "But I think it's sometimes better to play a character who's a jerk, who doesn't realize he's a jerk. He's sort of more insufferable; it's that idea of the tyranny of the pleasant personality." Wilson points to a scene in Wendell Baker in which his character makes an announcement to the elderly residents, sincerely complimenting them on living through another day. "I think that's my sense of humor, when characters aren't winking at the audience," he observes. "I find the funniest stuff is when a guy says outrageously insulting things, and the guy is trying to connect or be heartfelt. He thinks of that as a real compliment; he doesn't even see that [it] could possibly be offensive."
Wilson never intended to become an actor, has no formal training, and has only had to audition twice—oddly enough, for two fairly disposable films on his résumé, Anaconda and The Cable Guy. He originally thought of following in his father's footsteps and entering the advertising world. "I thought I'd come up with little jingles and little ad campaigns," he says. That all changed when he met Wes Anderson while majoring in English at The University of Texas at Austin. Anderson once recalled how he met Wilson in a class, though they never spoke. "There were about nine people in the class, and they all sat around this long table. I sat in the corner, away from the table, and there was another person in that corner, who turned out to be Owen," Anderson said. "During the entire class, we never once had a conversation. I wrote a play in that class, and the next semester, it was produced, and I asked Owen to be in it." The two ended up sharing similar tastes in films and a sense of the absurd, and became roommates, at which point they co-wrote Anderson's directorial debut, Bottle Rocket.
It was Anderson's idea for Wilson and his brother Luke to star in the low-budget film, and, as Wilson puts it, "After that, people just started giving me acting offers." Few of his early roles hinted at the breadth of his talent: He was usually killed off (The Haunting, Anaconda, and Armageddon). But there were bright spots. He was chilling as an emotionless killer in The Minus Man, a little-seen gem that proved his mettle as a dramatic actor. And though The Cable Guy was savaged, it introduced him to frequent collaborator Ben Stiller. "He actually wasn't sold on me after my audition," says Wilson of their initial meeting. "I think it was [Cable Guy producer] Judd Apatow who talked him into it." Wilson insists there are no hard feelings, however. "I'm not a great auditioner," he says simply. "But I learned something when I was an associate producer on As Good as It Gets. I was in during a lot of the auditioning process for that movie, and what I realized, because a lot of great actors came in to read for the part that Greg Kinnear played, is that no one does that great in auditioning, for the most part. It's just such an unreal environment. It was kind of nice; it gave me more confidence."
Wilson soon became a standout comedic presence, thanks to scene-stealing roles in films such as Meet the Parents, Shanghai Noon, and his last writing collaboration with Anderson, The Royal Tenenbaums. But he still considers himself more of a writer at heart. "I have more of a writer's sensibility for stuff," he says. "Like with Wedding Crashers, I did a lot of work and enjoyed brainstorming. It was so much fun to work with Vince, because he was so open to hearing ideas." His busy filming schedule prevented him from co-writing Anderson's last film, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, and Wilson was surprised to find himself enjoying just being an actor on the set. He says, "When I was first getting ready to read the script [co-written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach], I thought I would really miss hearing myself in it or would have a lot of ideas for them. But I read it and I thought they had done a great job."
Right for the Role
Wilson considers two factors when deciding on roles. "It's the people involved and the script," he says. "A lot of times I've gone to do a movie where I didn't totally believe in the script, but I believed in the people that I was going to work with." And how does that turn out? "Actually, pretty good," he says. "Pretty good."
Asked what has been his hardest role, Wilson cites the action thriller Behind Enemy Lines, in which he played a pilot stranded in enemy territory. "It was hard in the sense that I didn't have somebody to play off of in a lot of scenes, and I didn't know if it was working. So much of it depended on the director being able to fit stuff together and make it exciting." If the role seemed an odd fit for the usually lighthearted comic, his choice to sign on was largely motivated by his co-star. "I think that was a case of being drawn to wanting to work with Gene Hackman," he says. "Of course I kind of discovered that we wouldn't really be onscreen together after I got to Slovakia. I didn't realize quite how it was going to be, that I would be talking into a radio."
One might assume that because of his natural humor and creativity, directors working with Wilson might have to constantly rein him in. "I don't think I have to be reined in that much because I'm not a real broad person," he says. "If anything, they're usually trying to get me to kind of extend myself and take it a level higher." Asked what he finds most difficult about acting, Wilson says, "I think the hardest thing is, there's probably a lot of insecurity for an actor because there really isn't necessarily a translation between hard work and success. You can work and prepare as hard as you can for a role, but ultimately it's just sort of how you're perceived by people. And that's a little bit out of your control and it's a little bit of a vulnerable, insecure position to be in, because you just don't know what you're sending out there."
Wilson is being completely sincere, but, like that Spanish class so long ago, there's something a little funny in his delivery. The guy can't help it. BSW