Of his four movies released this year — “Hall Pass,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Cars 2” and “The Big Year” — Owen Wilson can’t say which was more fun to shoot, but he knows which one surprised him the most.
“My dad looked in the paper today and saw that ‘Midnight in Paris’ is still playing,” says Variety’s International Star of the Year. “When I signed up to do the movie, I never thought that it would play as well as it has. I thought, ‘How is all this time travel go to work? Who do you get to play people like Dali, Hemingway and Fitzgerald?’ ”
For many, the biggest surprise was seeing how effectively the 43-year-old Texas native — best known for comedies such as “Wedding Crashers,” “Zoolander,” “Shanghai Noon” and “You, Me and Dupree” — played the cinematic alter ego of writer-director Woody Allen, whose screen persona has defined the nebbishy, intellectual New York neurotic.
“I’m not good at doing voices or imitations so much,” says Wilson in his trademark halting drawl, “but there was something to the cadence that sounded familiar to my ear.”
Allen has said he rewrote the role of screenwriter Gil Pender for Wilson, but the actor surmises “the only thing they changed was that Gil was from Pasadena rather than the East Coast.”
Besides, “it wasn’t something where you had to nail every preposition exactly,” says Wilson, who has a reputation for improvising dialogue. “When we first met, his direction was, ‘Make it sound natural. If there’s anything that doesn’t feel quite right to say, put it however you think it should sound.’ ”
While Pender is an admitted Hollywood hack who longs to create a work of merit, Wilson established his literary bona fides early in his career, partnering with director Wes Anderson to co-write the critically acclaimed bittersweet comedies “Bottle Rocket” (1996), “Rushmore” (1998) and “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001), the latter of which earned the duo an Oscar nomination for original screenplay.
Wilson had ample intellectual stimuli growing up in Dallas with older brother Andrew and younger brother Luke. His mother, Laura, worked as an assistant to Richard Avedon for six years as the famed photographer traveled to 17 states shooting portraits for his landmark 1985 book “In the American West,” and the Wilson brothers accompanied her on shoots on summer vacations, during which Avedon snapped several portraits of the siblings that now hang in their parents’ home.
Wilson’s creative sensibilities were also influenced by his father, Robert, an ad exec who ran the local PBS station.
“He worked with these great creative people with great senses of humor and I remember being at dinner and just hearing dad’s friends talk and I think that was for me and my brothers a big influence on what was funny,” says Wilson.
When he and Anderson, a friend from his days at the U. of Texas at Austin, were trying to get “Bottle Rocket” off the ground, his father invited one of his PBS connections, screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, over to dinner to give them advice.
“Kit had the idea for us to try to go to Sundance and then eventually send it to (producer) Barbara Boyle, who sent it to (producers) Polly Platt and Jim Brooks,” says Wilson, and with their help Anderson got a greenlight from Columbia to shoot the film with Owen and Luke in the leads and Andrew in a supporting role.
In the ensuing 15 years, Wilson has acted in three dozen movies, but hasn’t written a script since “The Royal Tenenbaums.” “I do regret it,” Wilson admits, but says he might be ready to put pen to paper again.
“You might contribute a line or an idea for a scene (as an actor),” he says, “but it’s obviously not the same as starting from scratch with something that’s more personal or more exactly the way you might imagine it.”
Star-powered event | Variety International Star of the Year: Owen Wilson | Royal influence