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Improv-able path to stardom


Owen Wilson may be the only Oscar-nominated screenwriter who's never owned a computer. He's not going to take the plunge now at the advanced age of 37 because he's afraid he'd get addicted to computer games.

"I'll look at these ads for these war games they have, and they look so cool." He elongates the word for effect. "I feel I could really lose myself."

It's hard to reconcile the various faces of Wilson: the competitive devotee of pingpong, foosball, bocce and head soccer (soccer played on a tennis court), the girl-chasing figure labeled "The Butterscotch Stallion" in the tabloids, with the guy who cries at The End of the Affair and reads the Graham Greene novel afterward. With director Wes Anderson, Wilson co-wrote two of the most amusing but poignant distillations of precocity of the last dozen years: Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, which was nominated for an Oscar.

Yet he's also a member of the comedy frat pack, a circle of 30-something guys that includes Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, whose broad antics have powered mainstream comedy for the last half-dozen years and whose most potent screen relationships appear to be with one another.

Like Woody Allen, Wilson is less an actor than a comic persona who acts. And the shtick does vary from a kind of mouthy, ironic parody of a Tom Cruise action figure (Armageddon) to a mouthy, ironic, arrested-adolescent party boy (Wedding Crashers) to a so-sincere-it's-ironic adolescent slacker (You, Me and Dupree, landing in theaters today).

Wilson developed the idea for You, Me and Dupree with writer Mike LeSieur and produced the Universal film while ad-libbing more than a few of its signature scenes.

"He's got an amazing ability to improv, because he has such a mind for storytelling," says Anthony Russo, a force on the cult TV show Arrested Development, who directed the film with his brother, Joe. "Owen keeps his improv right on target. Normally you can use about 10 percent of what somebody does, but with Owen, you can use 90 percent."

Wilson seems to treat the whole movie star phenomenon as a freak of nature. He never intended to star in Bottle Rocket, his screen debut, which he co-wrote with Anderson, but they couldn't get anybody else to take on the role of Dignan, the demented would-be burglar.

"I didn't study to be an actor. It always seems like a lucky thing," says Wilson. "I don't think of myself as really driven as an actor to try to stretch myself. I think I'm sort of limited. I can do some stuff and make it sound real."

Indeed, Wilson acknowledges being more "discerning" about the writing, which is partly why he hasn't written his own script start to finish since Anderson, his college roommate from the University of Texas, began writing without him.

"What keeps me from writing more is I'm very particular. If I don't feel something's good, I don't want it out there. I'm more discerning. I always feel with the writing I'm going to get to it." He grimaces and sighs. "I was also going to get to graduating college."

He always had problems in school -- not working up to his potential, as a raft of teachers pointed out. He wrote one of his first short stories in eighth grade -- about a real-life incident in which his brother Andrew shot a deer. It was so good that his teacher thought he had plagiarized it. In 10th grade, he got kicked out of the tony Dallas prep school St. Mark's for cheating on a math test and ended up transferring to a local high school for a semester, then getting sent to a military academy.

At least the trauma proved useful for the art. The deeply idiosyncratic protagonist of Rushmore flunks out of his tony prep school and winds up at the local high school.

Bottle Rocket -- and meeting Anderson in a University of Texas playwriting class -- were the pivotal events in his professional life. James L. Brooks, director of As Good As It Gets, financed the $5 million film about a loopy gang of aspiring burglars.

But the making of the film was a bloodbath, an ugly collision between a renegade indie sensibility and mainstream Hollywood moviemaking. The film got eviscerated by audiences, a process that Wilson says left him feeling so pummeled he even considered joining the military.

Anderson wrote his most recent film, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, with another partner, Noah Baumbach, which at first shocked Wilson, who still starred in the film. "I can hardly think of anyone that I have as much fun talking to as Wes. We're really on the same page," says Wilson.

Bottle Rocket might have failed financially, but it has turned into a cult favorite, drawing fans such as Martin Scorsese and Stiller. Since then, the actor appears to have made peace with mainstream Hollywood.

"He has that breed of effortless Texan cool that's incredibly winsome," says director Shawn Levy. "He's doing whatever he damn well pleases, whether it's going to a bar and chatting up a pretty girl or running along the sea wall in Vancouver [British Columbia] alone during the middle of the day. He seems to have refused to rejigger his lifestyle the way many famous people do."

Rachel Abramowitz writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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