an interview with Owen Wilson
“Where’s my food? There was some hot food here just a minute ago.” Owen Wilson has barely entered the Berlin hotel room before he’s embarked on what looks like a full-on celebrity strop, sending his PA into a tizzy. Don’t they know he’s Hollywood’s flavour of the month, having posted back-to-back box office hits at either end of the intellectual spectrum. If toplining knuckleheaded flagwaver Behind Enemy Lines wasn’t enough, he then went on to co-write and co-star in the delirious ensemble that is The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s superb follow-up to Rushmore. Their screenplay has landed Wilson and Anderson with their first Academy Award nomination, and the actor is already down as an Oscar-night presenter.
A former boyfriend of Sheryl Crow, Wilson looks like a hunk of old-style cowboy glamour alongside his bespectacled, bookish, Manhattan-based director, though Anderson is as much a son of Texas as Wilson (quite literally, Texas being Mrs Anderson’s first name) – the pair met on a Texas University playwriting course in 1987. Wilson, however, is a Lone Star guy straight from central casting, all blond hair and easygoing charm in his dot-patterned, open-necked white shirt: a 33-year-old, less excitable version of Dennis Hopper, his fascinating ‘triple-broken’ nose the result of a high-school gridiron mishap.
His eyes, however, are more campfire-red than baby-blue – he’s only just landed in Berlin (where Tenenbaums is in competition at the festival) after a very arduous trans-Atlantic flight that’s left him with a ‘strep throat,’ his voice therefore even slower and quieter than norm – even when fuming about his missing “entrees”, Wilson’s 33rpm dustbowl drawl stops him from straying too far into Jennifer Lopez territory.
And, calming down as he settles on a well-padded sofa, Wilson’s clearly still acclimatising to his first 24 hours as an Oscar nominee. “I’ve gotten used to it,” he says at sounding shellshocked and not at all used to it. “I think it’s really exciting, there’s a nice symmetry. Wes and I meeting in a writing class, and now all these years later we’re going to the Oscars together because of something we’ve written.”
“But everything happens so gradually,” he marvels, “it’s only looking back I go ‘wow, we were on the verge of failure back there. Bottle Rocket almost didn’t get made, and you think, Jeez, what would have happened to us?” Anderson’s directorial debut, was a deranged heist caper, dominated by Wilson’s unusually hyperactive turn as the insanely over-ambitious wannabe-crim Dignan – younger brother Luke co-starred as his more practical-minded accomplice.
Despite bombing in the US (it’s still never been released in the UK), Bottle Rocket proved an effective calling-card for the Texas trio, paving the way for 1998’s unclassifiable high-school comedy/romance Rushmore. Tenenbaums, however, is the first time the ticket-buying public have shared the critics’ enthusiasm for ‘Wes-world.’
The film zooms through 30 years of an over-achieving Manhattan clan headed by shyster lawyer Royal (Hackman) and his archaeologist wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), who raise a ‘family of geniuses’ in a stylised, almost fairytale New York: tennis champ Richie (Luke Wilson), financial whizz Chas (Stiller) and playwright Margot (Paltrow). But at the height of the children’s success, Royal walks out – resurfacing 20 years later, supposedly at death’s door, supposedly desperate to have a family again. The kids – now depressed, neurotic adults – aren’t so keen.
Wilson is Eli Cash, their next-door neighbour and regular houseguest (mantra: “I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum”), who dresses in cowboy duds and writes Cormac McCarthy knock-off’ novels of the Wild West. According to Wilson, “Eli’s got the insecurity of somebody who doesn’t really feel that they’re successful, and just pretends to be, so he’s on drugs and stuff.”
Adrift in his mescaline haze, Eli is the latest manifestation of Wilson’s established screen persona – in Variety‘s phrase, a ‘mild and hazy surfer dude.’ The fact that Wilson almost always writes his own dialogue probably helps. It certainly does the movies no harm, as in the otherwise execrable The Haunting, in which his character embarks on a pricelessly left-field rumination about “the Teletubbies – those things freak me out also. They sing, so they’re actually kind-of scarier, if you think about it.” The Cable Guy, Anaconda and Armageddon provided further ‘victim’ roles that got his distinctive features noticed around Hollywood – he stole both Meet The Parents and Zoolander out from under Stiller, his Cable director and Tenenbaums co-star.
Wilson’s ‘stoner insouciance’, meanwhile, proved such a perfect foil for the hyper-kinetic Jackie Chan on spoof Western Shanghai Noon that the pair are saddling up for a sequel, Shanghai Knights. These Hollywood projects may be lucrative – he reportedly nabbed $2m for Zoolander and $3m for Behind Enemy Lines – but they also gobble up his time: “with Tenenbaums I was in Los Angeles, and Wes was in New York, so it was just me trying to contribute where I could.”
Shockingly, Wilson didn’t even write his own dialogue: “Eli Cash’s lines were mostly written by Wes. But there’s a lot of overlapping between us, which is probably why we have this friendship. There’s scenes Wes wrote, but when I look at them it feels like I wrote them, it’s just exactly what I would have done.”
Nevertheless, the actors’s comments suggest Tenenbaums is basically an ‘Wes’ script with a few ‘Owen’ touches: “it’s that world Wes creates that makes it stand out,” he says, and when I ask about their next project – their ‘top secret adventure film set in Mexico and Europe’ – he says “I think Wes has an idea for that.”
Anderson’s approach is almost obsessively methodical, Wilson retreats behind a more ‘gee-shucks’ approach when quizzed on what the films are about: “I’ll hear someone have an analysis of the movie that never occurred to me, and then I’ll use it for my next interview: I’ll say, ‘Well, what we were trying to do was.'”
It’s a far cry from Dignan, whose Heseltine-style 50-year life plan was one of Bottle Rocket‘s comic highlights. Spooling back to that Texas U, could Wilson possibly have sketched out even a 15-year plan culminating in Hollywood stardom and an Oscar nomination? “Well,” he laughs, “it would have been part of Wes’s plan, I think. but Wes thinks bigger than I do. Thankfully.”
8th January, 2002
(seen on video, Jan-6-02)
by Neil Young
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