The Story of O

He got kicked out of an exclusive prep school in Dallas. He didn’t even graduate from UT. His first movie was a commercial disaster. (And that nose!) So why is everyone in Hollywood trying to be buddy-buddy with Owen Wilson?

June 2003By Comments

“Mooooonshine,” said Owen Wilson, sounding typically awed and random. “Isn’t it too bad that something with such a great name has to be illegal? ‘Moonshine.’ It’s beautiful. I’ve never even had any, but I’ve always wanted to try it. How could you not? It’s called ‘moonshine.’”

The Oscar-nominated screenwriter and big-popcorn movie star was driving down Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, and the talk in the car was going a lot like it does in his films. Whether his lines are ones that he works on for months or just thinks up that morning on the set, they zig and zag softly around topics that appear to have no ready connection other than the fact that they popped into his head and right out his mouth. Following Owen through a conversation is like replaying the last five thoughts that entered your own mind, only he does it out loud.

The discussion had started with, of all things, a quote from Samuel Beckett. From there he moved through his dad, Ireland, God, Planet of the Apes, and moonshine. Owen was on a roll. He bounced to hard drugs to Axl Rose to James Garner to James Brown, then he lightly touched down with a bittersweet anecdote about perception and love that he’d lifted from another master of letters. The punch line to his rambling? Owen had never actually read the anecdote or anything by its author. But he sure did think it was cool.

And that was it: the perfect opening scene for a magazine profile of Owen Wilson. Here was Owen behind the wheel, floating in innocent oblivion, throwing out observations that would sound sarcastic coming from anyone else, looking a whole lot like Owen on-screen. Whether he’s the supremely blond male model Hansel in Zoolander or the obnoxious young western novelist Eli Cash in The Royal Tenenbaums, his characters seem wholly unaware that the rest of the world runs at a different pace and in a different direction, and Owen plays them so naturally that it’s hard not to assume that he’s just being himself. This was the proof. Owen is as Owen does.

But a problem arose. When we talked on the phone a week later, he said that the bittersweet anecdote, the best part of our conversation, couldn’t show up in the article. Not even the author’s name. He said it was a key point in a script he’d been reading and that to use it would ruin the film. “So if you wouldn’t mind,” he said, as polite as you please, “I think we have to leave that out.” A couple of days later I e-mailed him to gauge his resolve. He wouldn’t budge. “I can’t say any stronger how off-limits that thing is,” he wrote. “But call me if you want to come up with something else. We’re both funny guys. Shouldn’t be too hard.”

Come up with something else? It didn’t exactly bear the hallmark of great literary journalism, but it was a curious notion, and not just because he was calling me funny. Owen Wilson was offering to co-author a scene for this story. I e-mailed him back saying I would give it a go. With Owen on board, it might not be hard at all.

AT A TIME WHEN THERE are enough successful big-screen families to justify a separate map to sibling stars’ homes—Baldwins, Culkins, Gyllenhaals, and so on—the moviemaking Wilson brothers, Owen, 34, Luke, 31, and Andrew, 38, are the most fun to watch, in large part because they’re so often found together. Owen has created roles for Andrew and Luke in all three of the movies—Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums—that he’s penned with his best friend and collaborator, Wes Anderson. Luke still lives in Owen’s house in a quiet neighborhood in Santa Monica, even though he bought a house of his own more than a year ago. And not long after you read this, they should all be in Austin shooting The Wendell Baker Story, a film written by Luke, who will co-star with Owen and co-direct with Andrew.

But even though each of the brothers has a movie of his own coming out later this year, Owen is the Wilson to watch right now. In addition to his screenwriting success, he’s become Hollywood’s leading buddy, a strange hybrid of straight man and goofy sidekick to the likes of Jackie Chan, Eddie Murphy, and Ben Stiller. He’s got a string of upcoming movie projects that will keep him working for the next few years. And last March, when the three Wilsons sat with their parents at the Texas Film Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Austin, it was Owen who was the recipient of the rising-star award. Neither of his brothers seems jealous. “I thought my picture was going to be in an insert on the cover of Texas Monthly,” joked Luke when I called him in mid-April to talk about his older brother. “But I guess I understand. I want to get to the bottom of that guy as much as you do.”

Start at a household with no television. When their dad, Bob Wilson, took over as manager of the Dallas PBS affiliate in 1969, a year after Owen was born, he and his wife, Laura (a renowned photographer who took the pictures on these pages and the cover), decided the Wilsons would be television-free. “I really loved TV as a kid,” said Owen, “but we’d have to go over to a friend’s house to watch it. We’d watch the afternoon movie on Channel 11, where we’d see Planet of the Apes Week one week and Clint Eastwood Week the next.”

Despite the differences in their ages, the Wilson kids spent the time they might have been parked in front of the television actually engaging one another, playing sports, hanging out with the same friends, and making their own entertainment. “They did short plays as the Farquhar Players,” remembered Bob (the name coming from the street they lived on in Dallas). “I was generally the brunt of the action. They’d set up three stools, and one of the boys would play me driving the other two out to East Texas or somewhere, trying to whack the two in the back seat. It was nice to have them act it out rather than rebel.”

Owen did manage to find his fair share of trouble. Never a student of academic distinction, he was expelled from the exclusive Dallas boys’ school St. Mark’s during his sophomore year when he and some friends got ahold of the answers to a geometry exam. According to Owen, a C to D student, he wouldn’t have been caught if he hadn’t started answering the extra-credit questions correctly. But that’s not why he got the boot. “They wanted the name of a guy who cheated along with me,” he said, “but I talked to my dad about it, and we didn’t feel that was right. There’s kind of a shabby nobility in that.” Owen finished high school at the New Mexico Military Institute, in Roswell, a spot of his own choosing, surprisingly enough. He considers it a good move. At NMMI, he concentrated on his passion for writing, edited the school’s literary magazine, and more important, met the kid who would introduce him to Wes Anderson.

Owen’s fabled first encounter with Wes took place in a University of Texas playwriting class in 1990, Owen’s junior year. “Wes walked in wearing L. L. Bean duck boots and short pants,” Owen has said, “which I thought was kind of obnoxious.” But it wasn’t until that summer, when Owen’s NMMI friend introduced them, that they started to talk. They discovered a shared love of movies, which made Wes the perfect stand-in for the other Wilson boys, who, for one of the few times in Owen’s life, weren’t in the same town. By the next semester, the two were sharing a house just west of the campus.

“UT had a great movie thing,” said Owen, “showing them every night in Hogg Auditorium or that Texas Union place, and we’d walk over and there’d never be anybody there. Wes actually worked up in the projection booth for a little bit.” Wes was fascinated by the technical aspects of filmmaking, which never held Owen’s attention, and soon they were creating short films to air on Austin’s public access channel. “I was a big movie fan,” said Owen, “but I didn’t see how you could really work in movies. That seemed sort of impossible. The subject I was okay at was English, so I could see trying to write short stories or maybe even books. The most practical thing seemed to be in advertising, writing copy.”

In 1991 Owen left UT a couple classes shy of his English degree—he says he needed a break—and moved into a small apartment with his brothers on Throckmorton Street in Dallas. Soon Wes moved in, and he and Owen continued work on Bottle Rocket a screenplay they’d started in Austin about a group of young guys with a hopelessly unrealistic dream to rob banks. They showed some film they’d shot to Texas filmmaker L. M. Kit Carson, an acquaintace of Bob Wilson’s, and with his encouragement, and about $7,000 he was able to round up, produced what Owen describes now as a “thirteen-minute, black and white, guerilla-style” short. They took it to the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, where it became the movie to see, even though it wasn’t in the festival competition. Then James L. Brooks, a true Hollywood don who created The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi and developed The Simpsons, saw the short and was sufficiently impressed to secure a feature-film deal with Sony Entertainment allowing Wes to direct and the Wilsons to star.

Bottle Rocket, shot in Dallas, was finished in 1994. At first look it is a strange film, a caper flick with characters who spend their time talking about their life of crime rather than getting on with it; they don’t even seem clear on what a life of crime is. In the movie’s final scene, the group’s ringleader, Dignan, played by a handcuffed Owen, gives his comrades a no-worries smile and a two-handed wave from inside a prison yard, as if the fact that he got caught means he’s finally arrived. Test audiences didn’t make it that far into the movie; they left in droves, and early. When it was released, reviews were mixed, and it died at the box office. Owen started talking about getting into advertising or the military.

But the passage of time was kind. When Bottle Rocket was released on video, it developed a strong cult following. It became a favorite movie for high school and college guys to get together and watch with a case of beer, just as Night Shift and Spinal Tap had been when the Wilsons were growing up. Hollywood took note and gave Owen and Wes a second chance. Their 1998 follow-up, the flawless prep-school daydream Rushmore, made even fewer concessions to the audience than Bottle Rocket but received universal critical praise and established Wes as a director. In the meantime, Owen began making a name for himself as an actor, finding ways to steal entire films with small parts. Some of the roles were in movies that were begging to be stolen, like 1997’s J-Lo-meets-Ice-Cube-meets-great-big-snake debacle, Anaconda, and 1998’s Bruce-Willis-meets-asteroid-so-asteroid-doesn’t-meet-earth schlockbuster, Armageddon, but others were films expected to stand on their own, like Jim Carrey’s The Cable Guy, in 1996, and Ben Stiller’s Meet the Parents four years later.

By 2001, when he was handpicked by Gene Hackman to be rescued from Kosovo in the military action film Behind Enemy Lines, Owen was at the top of the marquee. At Christmas of that year, Owen and Wes’ Salinger-like family soap opera, The Royal Tenenbaums, came out, and critics who had dismissed Owen’s hilarious but light sidekick turns in Shanghai Noon and Zoolander had to pay their respects when the Tenenbaums script received an Academy award nomination. Now, he has put his writing on hold while he picks his roles as he pleases, like last year’s I Spy, with Eddie Murphy, and this year’s Shanghai follow-up, with Jackie Chan. John Moore, who directed Wilson in Behind Enemy Lines, summed up Owen’s progress: “He can get movies made. I’ve been in meetings and heard people say, ‘Well, if we get Owen, we’re set.’ And they’ll pay him ten million dollars for it. That’s the judge of it these days.”

Owen measures things differently. For him, the critical reexamination that accompanied Bottle Rocket’s cult popularity—Martin Scorsese, among others, called it one of the ten best movies of the nineties—is all the achievement he needs: “It’s always gratifying when people come up and recognize me from a movie, but the one that means the most is Bottle Rocket. It was the first one, it’s me and my brothers, my friend Wes directed it, and we wrote it together.”

A WEEK AFTER VISITING OWEN in Los Angeles, he and I began exchanging e-mails, trying to come up with this article’s opening scene. It wasn’t so easy after all. He’d just started filming Starsky and Hutch with Ben Stiller and had plenty of other things to think about, like starring in an $80 million movie. I was in my office, sifting through photocopies of literary criticism. We agreed to begin with his thoughts on moonshine, but to get to the punch line, we had to find another writer and anecdote. Owen was full of ideas. “What about Finnegans Wake?” he wrote from his trailer on the set. “We talked about that. We had a long conversation about how much we liked Joyce or really just the idea of Joyce, since I haven’t read that either.”

This view of Owen at work was more than I’d hoped for. If there is any real mystery to Owen, it’s in the way he writes with Wes. Brooks, who followed the two through Bottle Rocket, couldn’t explain it, nor could Owen’s brothers, nor even Bob Wilson, who has turned rooms in his office and home over to the two when they are working on scripts. Conventional wisdom puts Wes at a keyboard, getting down the detail and much of the story, with Owen on the other side of the room, feet up on a table, throwing out lines. But Owen was vague when the subject came up. “We both kind of respond to certain characters and try to spin a story around a character or relationship,” he said. “And, yeah, I don’t know how to type, so Wes is at the keyboard.”

Our e-mails were turning into that kind of collaboration, except that the characters were us, and I’m not Wes Anderson. I’d spend half an hour typing out a laundry list of suggestions, and as soon as it was gone, I’d get a one-line response from Owen, who was watching out for the big picture and the punch lines. “Explain what we get with that other story,” he wrote, righting our course. “I like the idea of talking excitedly about a book for a long time, and at the end we realize that both of us haven’t read it.” When we stalled, he’d throw out encouragement: “Let’s take this as a challenge. I, for one, think we can come up with something great. But you know me, I’m a bluesky artist.”

“‘Bluesky’?” I replied.

“It’s ‘blue sky,’” wrote Owen, “like Pollyanna. I think I left out a space.”

Finally, on Good Friday I e-mailed him a rough draft of a new opening scene. He mulled it over for a couple of days and on Easter Sunday sent his revisions. They were pure Owen, random musings you could imagine from almost any of his characters, and significantly funnier than his comments in the car. “I like this stuff,” he said when he called to read through it. “I kind of want to save some of it for a movie.” But he said to leave it in. Our new scene was complete.

THE STORY OF O IS not, contrary to a recent Details cover line, the story of a nose. Owen’s appeal has less to do with his oft-broken snoot (at least two times, confirmed) than with a demographic, specifically, guys between the ages of twenty and forty. Carson claims that Owen has “given a voice to his generation,” an exaggerated characterization if you’re looking to Owen’s oeuvre for a grand statement. But it’s dead-on when you consider that much of what he says sounds like it could come from any guy near his age. Owen is like a buddy from college, a guy’s guy, someone it was more fun to stand by the keg and comment on a party with than to actually join in. Although Owen now dates rock stars—a highly publicized romance with Sheryl Crow ended last year—he’s never lost that familiar quality. When guys see Jackie Chan try to coax Owen into some ridiculous Crouching Tiger acrobatics in Shanghai Knights and Owen throws up his hands and says, “What in our history makes you think I’m capable of something like that?” he might as well be sitting in the theater next to them.

At a cafe in front of Fred Segal’s high-toned shopping center in Santa Monica, Owen thought out loud about how he’s become everybody’s buddy. “Maybe it’s from growing up with my dad, who can be real funny but who can also be kind of moody, up and down. So I became good at getting along with tricky personalities. And growing up in Texas, it was important that we be polite. When I meet these guys like Eddie Murphy, Bruce Willis, and Jackie Chan, I’m always super respectful. Then I get to know them, and then I can start to kid around with them.” It’s an exercise he enjoys. Working with Murphy on I Spy fulfilled a childhood dream—if not box-office hopes—and he’s become close friends offscreen with Chan and Stiller.

What’s harder for Owen to understand is the way critics describe him, favoring words like “oddball,” “slacker,” and “quirky.” “I guess ‘quirky’ is a euphemism for something most people, like, aren’t going to like,” said Owen, between bites from a bowl of turkey chili. But when I asked him about a New York Times review that called him a “stoner’s version of James Garner,” his answer didn’t quite counter the charge. “That’s great, because I loved James Garner in The Rockford Files,” he said, without a trace of insincerity. “I loved the way they’d open each show with Rockford’s answering machine going off and him getting some cruddy message like, ‘Hey, Jim, just calling to let you know that that race down in Baja that we thought was this weekend—it turns out it’s next weekend. Hope you haven’t already left.’ I love that.”

In truth, Owen is well aware of how he’s perceived, and it informs everything he does on the screen. When he signed on to play a cocky top-gun pilot in Behind Enemy Lines, he pushed to have his character moved to the back seat, figuring his persona would play better as a put-upon navigator. It did. When he didn’t feel right portraying an accomplished intelligence agent walking Murphy through the world of espionage in I Spy, Owen created a second, rival spy in the script who would outshine his own and get all the best 007 gadgets. And instead of portraying a hard-guy gunfighter in the Shanghai movies, he converted the character into an inept, insecure, wannabe train robber who was really just in it for the girls. “We’ve worked these characters to be ones that I’m comfortable playing, that aren’t such badasses,” he said. “I’m more the kid in the back of the class making wisecracks.”

These are natural roles for Owen, all the more so because he tends to invent his own lines. Here is where his generation really hears itself, connecting with the pop-culture references Owen uses to fill out his dialogue. A favorite line from Shanghai Noon, “I may not know karate, but I know ka-razy. And I will use it” is from a James Brown song. His taunt to rival male model Stiller in Zoolander, “Who are you trying to get crazy with, ese? Don’t you know I’m loco?” was originally a point of high drama in 1992’s Chicano gangster flick American Me. And the line that may be his most quoted, “They’ll never catch me because I’m f—ing innocent,” from Bottle Rocket, is lifted from a Guns n’ Roses song. “Scorsese wrote in Esquire that that was one of his favorite lines, and it’s from ‘Out ta Get Me,’” he said. “Obviously it’s used very differently in the film from what Axl Rose did with it.”

Owen comes up with all of this, and though this kind of riffing may not be heavy lifting, if you’re in on the joke, it’s part of that otherness that makes up his appeal. Maybe that’s what the critics mean by “quirky.” Brooks, who gave the world could-be savants Georgette Baxter from Mary Tyler Moore and Jim Ignatowski from Taxi, favors more-flattering terms, although he ends up sounding like Owen himself when he talks about it. “It’s a very delicate thing to maintain the right distance between you and the world,” he said, “but Owen’s got a great perch. You could throw him in a Hemingway novel, you could put him in the twenties, you could put him in the forties; he would be a star in any era. There’s something nicely literary about that little remove. I don’t even know what I mean when I say that, but I’ve always thought it.”

So maybe Owen has a slacker’s remove but hardly a slacker’s workload; fans will see plenty of him in the coming year. Next in the theaters will be an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s The Big Bounce, opposite Morgan Freeman. It’s set in Hawaii, and Owen said it concerns “a crime and a con, and I play an antihero. You know you’ve almost made it when you get to play an antihero.” He’ll be shooting Starsky and Hutch through June, then he and brother Luke will make cameos as the Wright brothers in Jackie Chan’s remake of Around the World in 80 Days. Then it’s to work on The Wendell Baker Story with both Luke and Andrew. Throughout these projects, he and Wes will be sending ideas back and forth on a top-secret project known in Hollywood as Wes’s “oceanographer” script. Within the next couple years, he’d like to write a script of his own, but in the meantime, fans will have to content themselves watching Owen in other people’s projects, listening for those signature lines only he would make up.

AND FINALLY, THE OPENING SCENE: “Mooooonshine,” said Owen Wilson, sounding typically awed and random. “How great a word is ‘moonshine’? I don’t even know exactly what it is, and I’ve never seen it, but I know I want to drink it for the rest of my life. It’d probably be a good name for a dog. ‘Come here, Moonshine!’ Like an old Where the Red Fern Grows type of dog.”

The Oscar-nominated screenwriter and big-popcorn movie star was driving down Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, and the talk in the car was going a lot like it does in his films. The discussion had started with, of all things, a quote from Samuel Beckett after I’d asked Owen, who is known as well-read, about a large black and white photograph of Beckett hanging in his living room.

“He wrote one of my favorite lines,” said Owen as we got into the car. “‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better.’”

“What’s that from?”

“I’m not sure. I’ve never really read Beckett, but I like that line. And I really just like the photograph—all the lines on his face. You hope God looks like that.”

And from there he started rolling from his dad to Ireland to Planet of the Apes and finally to moonshine, where he ultimately got stuck.

Mooooonshine,” he said again, letting the word roll around in his head. “Just think, if it were legal, what a good adman could do with a word like ‘moonshine.’ How is ‘water’ or ‘milk’ going to compete with something called ‘moonshine’? Orange Crush could maybe give it a run for its money but not really. It’s like ‘aaaangel dust.’ I guess its real name is PCP, but that doesn’t sound so good. ‘Angel dust’ sounds kind of wonderful. What about ‘skunk bud’? That’s not really a beautiful name, but it sounds … intriguing. I wonder why things that are so bad for you have to have such great names.”

Owen paused, realizing he’d answered his own question. I tried to bring him back down to earth. “So that’s Beckett. What about Joyce?”

“What about him?”

“Didn’t Beckett work for Joyce? I think when Joyce was going blind, Beckett was his secretary. He’d read to him and take dictation.”

“You know,” said Owen, “there’s that story about Finnegans Wake, when Beckett is taking dictation for Joyce and there was this knock on the door. Joyce heard it, but Beckett didn’t, so when Joyce says, ‘Come in,’ Beckett writes it down. Then later, when they pick back up and Beckett reads back to Joyce from the place they’d left off, Joyce asks how ‘Come in’ got in there. And Beckett says, ‘You said it.’ And Joyce decides to leave it in. He decides it would be okay for coincidence to be a collaborator. Do you know that line in Finnegans Wake?”

“In Finnegans Wake? No.”

“Neither do I. But I sure like that story. Doesn’t that sound like a great way to write?”

To the guy taking dictation, it certainly does.

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