“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