One of the comedic icons of Hollywood, Owen Wilson began his film career collaborating with his college roommate Wes Anderson on a short-turned-feature Bottle Rocket in 1996. Although the film bombed in the box office, it was critically praised, winning Wilson notice, both for his keen scripting and his relaxed, assured screen presence.
Unfortunately, due to his twice-broken nose that marred his good looks, the blond actor faced resistance to casting him in lead roles, but thanks to his enviable timing, mastery of dialogue and his ability to mine throwaway lines for comedic gold that he demonstrated in playing small roles, he gradually climbed the Hollywood ladder, starring in a number of the most successful stand-out comedies of the 21st century including Shanghai Knights, Wedding Crashers, Cars, You, Me and Dupree and The Royal Tenenbaums, which garnered him an Oscar nomination for Screenwriting.
“It’s a natural thing for me to look and see what’s funny about something but not necessarily like slapstick, but just kind of human moments that can be funny, awkwardness or insecurity,” Wilson tells me when I met him at the Renaissance Hotel in Hollywood.
Laid back and easy going, the native Texan exudes a child-like innocence and a carefree demeanour, which is incongruous with the fact that he has suffered mental depression and even reportedly attempted suicide in 2007 after his break up with actress Kate Hudson.
Wilson attributes his charming on-and off-screen persona to his upbringing in Dallas. “Growing up in Dallas, there is maybe a way that you speak and politeness that contribute to it, but I think that if I was from New York or Boston my voice would have a different sound to it, maybe more abrasive,” he laughs.
Wilson has recently reprised voicing the role of the race car Lightning McQueen in the pixar-animation, Cars 2, in which he gets entangled in an international espionage adventure when he heads oversees with his friend, tow truck Mater, in order to compete in the first-ever World Grand Prix to determine the world’s fastest car.
Wilson does not conceive the story of Cars 2 as merely about international racing and adventure. “This is a story of the friendship between Mater and Lightning McQueen that is very funny but there is a sweetness to it,” he says.
Invoking his friendship with director Wes Anderson, Wilson thinks that friendship is one of the great things about life that helped him a lot both in his professional and personal life.
“We met in college and he’s still one of my best friends. That friendship means so much not just with creativity but also as somebody that you can call and somebody that supports you.”
Also a friend of the environment, the Santa Monica resident drives a hybrid car, a Prius, which he has had for 6 years. “It’s just a very easy car to get around in. You can go to the beach. You don’t have to worry about it or about dog jumping in, muddy and stuff…” he quips.
The other motivating factor to having a Prius was to get free metered parking in Santa Monica, but recently his parking tickets have been piling up, because he is still unaware that the city has rescinded those parking privileges to Hybrid cars.
“What am I doing with Prius then if I am not getting any perks anymore,” he cried. “Might as well go to a Humvee,” he moaned, laughing.
In Woody Allen‘s upcoming movie, Midnight in Paris, Wilson goes on a nostalgic journey into the past as he plays Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter who aspires to be a novelist. While on a holiday in Paris, Gil journeys into the early twentieth century where he gets to meet his literary and art legends such as Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald Patrick, Picasso, Bunuel and others.
Inhabiting Gil’s character, Wilson had his own personal nostalgic journey to his past. “I can go back to Dallas and drive by where I went to school and I look out and I think ‘Oh, that was incredible back then,’ and you can do that a lot with your life.”
“I think the word nostalgia means something like a wound. I think that’s a common syndrome that you think that happiness is never really right now. It was always just back there.”
Wilson leapt at the opportunity to work with Allen when he received his script, but he was surprised by the legendary director’s methods, who is notoriously known for his hands-off directing.
“Woody didn’t really give a lot of direction. We had never spoken on phone and we didn’t meet until the camera test 3 days before the shooting and he asked me how my flight was and I said it was good,” he laughs.
And in the first couple of weeks of shooting, Allen and Wilson hardly talked to each other. “He was always polite and wasn’t attached to anything. He said, ‘If there’s something that I just want it to sound natural and if you want to change something then that’s fine. Just make it believable.'”
Wilson also dismisses the notion that Allen had rewritten his part in order to suit his personality. “He rewrote the part for me but all I can see is that he changed it so the guy was from Pasadena,” he quips.
This has been my first close encounter with Wilson and frankly, judging from the character he usually plays, I was expecting a wilder guy, but I found him slightly subdued and mallow. Probably he has been tamed by the recent arrival of his first son or perhaps by the inherited stress of stardom.
“There’s a lot of things that you don’t anticipate when you’re sort of starting out that would go along with becoming recognizable,” he muses.
Nonetheless, the 43-year-old actor, who grew up in a house, where creativity was encouraged from an early age, considers himself lucky to be able to make a living doing something creative.
“I feel most alive when I am trying to come up with something on Cars or Midnight in Paris, when there’s a scene that doesn’t seem to be quite working and I start brain-storming trying to come up with ideas for it,” he enthuses.
Whatever brain-storming Wilson invests in his work, he is so natural and affable his performance invariably seems effortless. And in spite of the reported misfires in his personal life, audience still flocks to see him on screen. In fact, he is so popular, his movies have made over 2 billion dollars in the box office. But I’ve got the feeling that Wilson, like Gil in Midnight in Paris, wants something else in his life!