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Owen Wilson: “You just go with it”


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Owen Wilson
Short Profile

Name: Owen Cunningham Wilson
DOB: 18 November 1968
Place of birth: Dallas, Texas, United States
Occupation: Actor, screenwriter

Mr. Wilson, did you grow up making your friends laugh?

Growing up, I wasn’t a stand-up comedian or anything; I was an English Major in college! It’s kind of funny that I’ve been in so many comedies — some of it is out of your control, of course, people want to hire you. A lot of it probably has to do with my friendship with Ben Stiller, him and I being in so many movies together.

You’ve acted in over a dozen films together.

The first film he cast me in was The Cable Guy. When he saw Bottle Rocket, around that time, he wrote the nicest letter to me saying how much he loved the movie — and that meant a great deal because no one had gone to see Bottle Rocket — saying that he hoped we might work together on something, some day... That sure came to pass!

“I think that we’re still sort of laughing at the same things.”

How has your friendship developed over the years?

Actually, I don’t know that it has! It’s a little bit like these characters that we play, I don’t know that it’s really developed. There isn’t a big arc... I think from really when Ben and I first became friends, walking around in New York… I think that we’re still sort of laughing at the same things. Our dynamic is pretty similar. I don’t know if that is nice… Or sad.

At least that must make it easier to make the kind of movies you’re making together.

Well, when you are on set, Ben always is open, always encouraging new ideas. Ben doesn’t have a background as a stand-up comedian either; his energy is not this person who will sit around telling jokes, waiting for April Fool’s Day. The stuff that we tend to laugh at is the kind of failures and shortcomings that we see in each other and ourselves. Wes is the same way.

You worked with Wes Anderson on seven of his eight feature films, but you haven’t written a script with him since The Royal Tenenbaums…

I love that movie. I think my favorite scene in that movie is when Gene Hackman and Danny Glover come into the kitchen… Gene Hackman is kind of sitting there and they kind of have some contretemps. And Gene says, “Are you tryin’ to steal my woman? …You heard me, Coltrane.” Danny goes, “Did you just call me Coltrane?” Then Gene’s like, “No, but if I did, you couldn’t do anything about it.” (Laughs) Just so it doesn’t seem arrogant that I’m quoting this line, Wes wrote that. I’m really appreciating it as a fan.

Gene Hackman and Danny Glover's infamous 'You tryin' to steal my woman?' scene from Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson's The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).

Could you imagine reigniting your writing partnership with Wes Anderson?

Yes! I think The Grand Budapest Hotel might be my favorite of Wes’ movies; I really loved it. I thought that was so great, it would be fun to write something with Wes again, but you know, I have fun just going to dinner with him. But if I were to write something today, it would be something more personal to me.

What makes a good screenplay?

I don’t really know… When I read the script for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t understand the movie either! I was excited when Paul asked me to be a part of it, just because I’ve always admired his work. But when I watched the movie, of course there are some beautiful scenes; scenes between Joaquin and Katherine, the scene with the Neil Young song… So beautiful! But I couldn’t tell you what the movie was about. Sometimes I wouldn’t even be quite sure, like, are these dream sequences? What’s happening?

That must have been difficult to film.

I was surprised by how… It wasn’t that things were unorganized, but it seemed open to whatever might have been inspiring to Paul that day. For example, if we were to shoot the scene right now of you and me talking, he could start shooting it and then say I wonder if it might be good to do this scene on the roof? Then the next thing you know, we would be on the roof! It seemed sort of improvisational, the way he was doing it, the way he was changing things on the fly. I was also surprised by him. It’s just that he’s not like a serious auteur. I mean, he is an auteur, I was just surprised at how funny he is — or rather, at how much fun I had just joking around with him. After watching There Will Be Blood, I wasn’t expecting that at all.

“That was sort of the best part of Midnight in Paris. You don’t have a problem at all believing that that is Hemingway. You just go with it.”

Does it happen often that films surprise you?

You know, that was what was funny about Midnight in Paris. I remember reading the script and it seemed so different from other Woody Allen movies — or from what I associate with Woody Allen, you know, time travel, those type of fantastical qualities… I guess Purple Rose of Cairo has that as well. But I was like, “I don’t know how you are going to do this, who are you going to get to play these iconic characters?” But that was sort of the best part of the movie, you have great people playing those characters, those great figures of history, and you don’t have a problem at all believing that that is Hemingway. You just go with it. So, all that stuff that I was worried about ended up being very successful.

Which great figures of history would you meet if you had the chance?

I would love to meet Elvis or Mark Twain. I’d love to meet Winston Churchill, or F. Scott Fitzgerald. It would be fun to meet Picasso too.

At least you had the chance to meet David Bowie on the set of Zoolander; he would be on the top of my list.

The David Bowie… I think Ben and I were surprised that he even agreed to do the movie! He was such a cool, lovely guy the day that we worked together. When I got the sad news of his death earlier this year, of course I thought a lot about that day. Wes has used a lot of Bowie’s music in his films, too, especially in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I was listening to some of those songs, watching some of them on YouTube, and someone also played me an a cappella version of David Bowie singing with Freddie Mercury. That was incredible. Freddie Mercury’s voice is amazing. Bowie is great but in that one video, Mercury really stands out. It’s amazing how much life he puts into it.