Owen Wilson is rapidly emerging as one of Hollywood’s bright young stars. Also a screenwriter, Wilson first drew acclaim as co-writer of all three Wes Anderson films, including his latest, The Royal Tenenbaums.
Born and reared in Dallas, Wilson raised enough hell in high school to get expelled from one institution in tenth grade, but he managed to attend college at the University of Texas in Austin and graduate in 1991. Along with his degree, Wilson’s Austin years resulted in a budding partnership with aspiring filmmaker Wes Anderson.
Their first film together, a short about a bookstore heist called Bottle Rocket, played at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993, attracting the attention of producer Polly Platt and writer/director James L. Brooks. With Brooks’ support, Wilson and Anderson expanded the short into a feature and Bottle Rocket (1996). Though it made little impression at the box office, this distinctly offbeat comedy became something of a cult favourite. Wilson’s own inspired performance became his Hollywood calling card. That same year, Wilson also began a fertile association with actor/director Ben Stiller, appearing in one memorable scene as a smooth, ill-fated date in Stiller’s black comedy The Cable Guy (1996).
Alternating between supporting roles in Hollywood spectacles, collaborations with Anderson and Stiller, and smaller independent projects, Wilson worked steadily for the rest of the 1990s adding much needed humour in Anaconda (1997), Armageddon (1998), and The Haunting (1999). On a more artistically successful front, Wilson’s next script with Anderson resulted in the lauded coming-of-age film Rushmore (1998). As far as acting, Wilson’s scored as a serial killer in the indie thriller The Minus Man (1999).
By 2000, Wilson began to take centre stage in larger Hollywood projects as well. Though it was another Jackie Chan vehicle, Wilson’s hilarious co-starring turn in the Western Shanghai Noon (2000) nearly stole the movie. Wilson worked twice with pal Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents (2000), followed by Stiller’s supermodel farce Zoolander. Even as he flourished in broad Hollywood comedy, Wilson continued his partnership with Wes Anderson, co-writing with Anderson and co-starring (with his brother and Stiller among others) in the black comedy The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Branching out into serious roles, Wilson will also be with The Royal Tenenbaums patriarch Gene Hackman in the military drama Behind Enemy Lines (2001), in which he plays a pilot shot down in Bosnia and on the run from corrupt soldiers and a malevolent sniper.
The busy Wilson took time off to discuss both films with Paul Fischer.
Question: Can you begin by discussing how and why Hackman got you involved with Behind Enemy Lines and if that led to you hiring him for Royal Tenenbaums?
Answer: Gene liked me in Shanghai Noon and recommended me. For Behind Enemy Lines. I agreed to do it so they recommended me for THAT. We’d always wanted him for the Royal Tenenbaums and Wes finally persuaded him during Behind Enemy Lines.
Question: Were you then able to chip away at him?
Answer: Well, no. By the time I’d met him in Slovakia, he had already agreed that he would do the movie.
Question: Is Gene Hackman now your adopted father?
Answer: Ah, no. He’s not. It’s funny. The reason I really was excited about working on Behind Enemy Lines is because of him, but we didn’t have that much stuff together because he’s on the ship and I’m behind enemy lines. [laugher all around] And we talked by radio and stuff, so we didn’t do a lot of stuff together.
Question: You’re not really perceived as an action hero, yet you have done a few films in which that comes through. Was the attraction of Behind Enemy Lines the opportunity to reflect the action hero within?
Answer: No, not really. The attraction was more to work with Gene Hackman in that it so happened to be this, you know, genre of a movie. In fact, it was a sort of, a more difficult movie to do because I felt less in control than when doing a movie where you’re doing lots of scenes with actors and you kind of have a sense that it’s working or being funny. And in this it was just having to rely on the director, because you’d show up at work and, you know, get run through a land mine. You run do this and you don’t know how it’s all going to fit together because he’s got it all in his mind so it all comes down to whether or not he can make it exciting.
Question: How physically daunting was it to shoot this?
Answer: It was more like playing sports in high school. Kind of like gearing up every day; that was kind of the feeling that I had. Get your adrenaline flowing. That was the only thing I could relate it to because obviously I’ve never been in this type of combat situation. I could just relate to the kind of adrenaline you get playing sports and stuff.
Question: Where do these quirky films comes from that you and Wes work on?
Answer: We kind of do stuff that comes naturally to us. And the stuff that seems to come naturally is stuff that, I don’t know exactly how you would describe it, but I know the humor is not really clinical or mean-spirited. It seems to come more from enthusiasm or earnestness. I don’t know.
Question: Where does the humor actually come from?
Answer: The things that Wes and I find funny are, derived from characters we all knew and grew up with.
Question: What particular challenges did you face creating the multitude of characters in Tenenbaums?
Answer: Well, trying to write an ensemble movie, rather than focusing on one thing, and it ended up pretty much being Gene Hackman’s movie, I think. But early on we didn’t quite know how it was going to work out.
Question: As with Rushmore, you’re coming out at that Oscar time of year. While Rushmore was shut out of the Oscars, you think you have a better shot this time round?
Answer: Well, I saw the movie, I guess, a couple months ago and Bottle Rocket was really hard for me to see because it was so weird to see yourself and stuff. But this one I really loved. I don’t know how other people will react to it. I would hope that Gene Hackman will get some recognition.
Question: Going back to Behind Enemy Lines, the film’s date has been pushed forward for that. Is the time right to see a war film of this kind given recent events?
Answer: I would think so, yeah. I think that after September 11 there’s a sort of natural surge of patriotism that happened and pushed through a sort of collective tragedy where the whole country sort of comes together. I mean, you saw it particularly in New York in the few days after. Behind Enemy Lines is not a movie about corruption in the military or anything like that. I can’t believe that there hasn’t been a movie called Behind Enemy Lines; it’s such an obvious title.
Question: Are you still doing the sequel to Shanghai Noon?
Answer: Yeah, in February.
Question: Shooting in Ireland, right?
Answer: Well, it’s supposed to be England, you know, if we go back to Jack the Ripper time. I don’t know where, maybe Prague and London. I would like it to be Dublin, to be Ireland, because that’s where my ancestors are from and I think I get along good with Irish people. The director on Behind Enemy Lines was Irish.
Question: Are you and Wes writing something right now?
Answer: No, we’re not working on anything now. We have some ideas for like a western and then yeah, a story with the ocean as the backdrop.