Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Owen Wilson has been headlining movies for years now, like the hit comedy Wedding Crashers with Vince Vaughn and Peter Bogdanovich’s recent return to the big screen, She’s Funny That Way. But before his name was above the title, Wilson spent many years in smaller roles, several with frequent collaborator Wes Anderson, and more than a dozen films with co-star Ben Stiller. While doing press for No Escape, his first return to the action genre in 14 years, Wilson took a few moments to talk to The A.V. Club about some lesser-known roles on his IMDB page.
The A.V. Club: No Escape is your first drama since 2001’s Behind Enemy Lines. What brought you back to the action genre?
Owen Wilson: There wasn’t anybody attached yet, and I thought it was an exciting story and could see myself playing the character. And they thought I could play the part.
AVC: You’re a parent now, and in the movie, you’re in about the most devastating situation a parent can think of, trying to get your family out of a war-torn country.
OW: I guess that was what made it relatable to me. Being a parent and imagining you would just do anything if your children were threatened. But then also, that’s sort of what made the story feel like it could be a thrilling story: the complications of not just getting yourself out of trouble, but how do you get having to band together and get your children out.
AVC: After Gene Hackman saved you from being Behind Enemy Lines, you two were back together in Royal Tenenbaums.
OW: Yeah, we worked together on Behind Enemy Lines just before that. Gene Hackman is just one of those actors that—he’s just never less than really good. You can’t find a performance that doesn’t seem good.
I remember filming in New York and filming at the Tenenbaums’ house up in Harlem. And then my mother getting there taking photographs during the course of shooting and just a great cast, seeing Gene Hackman and Gwyneth [Paltrow] and Bill Murray and Ben Stiller and working with my brother.
AVC: In Anaconda, you get attacked by the giant snake. It even wraps around your neck.
OW: I do. I get eaten by the anaconda.
AVC: That’s right, your face is in the anaconda!
OW: I’ve never seen that movie all the way through. I’ve seen that scene where you can almost see my face through the snake’s belly.
AVC: Did they have to do a mask of your face or something for that?
OW: I don’t know how they did it. The magic of movie making.
I do remember with that movie that we went to Brazil and filmed on the Amazon and we were there for four weeks. Then we came back and filmed in Los Angeles at the Arboretum. Almost none of the stuff that we filmed on the actual Amazon is in that movie. It’s mostly [Laughs.] just here in Los Angeles at the Arboretum.
AVC: That’s such a disillusionment about Anaconda.
OW: Right. [Laughs.]
OW: When I was just working on Zoolander , Ben was remembering me doing that scene. I remember, that was the only movie that I auditioned for that I got the part. And I didn’t know—obviously couldn’t know at the time—that would be the first of I don’t know how many movies that Ben and I worked on together.
I would say I had more fun on the scene with Leslie Mann where I’m sort of the obnoxious date. I’d say that was more fun to film that than the other scene [in the bathroom fighting Jim Carrey’s character]. There’s not much improvising to do, when you’re just getting beaten up by Jim Carrey. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t that much fun to do. But I think having maybe not having trained as an actor—but having a background as a writer—that is one thing that I’ve felt I can easily contribute, in coming up with some lines that could be good.
AVC: Speaking of your writing, Rushmore is such an amazing movie. Was there a temptation, while you were working on it, to put yourself in as a bigger part to be more a part of the movie? Or did you just want to stay behind the scenes, and only appear in the picture as the teacher’s dead husband?
OW: No, seeing how great the movie turned out, I would have liked to have been in it, but there wasn’t really anybody for me to play! I identified with Max’s spirit, that’s for sure. But Luke [Wilson] was really good also. Of course Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman.
AVC: Probably the oddest role you’ve ever played is the serial killer in Minus Man.
OW: Yeah, I know. That was with Hampton Fancher who wrote Blade Runner. I had a good time working with Hampton. I got along great with him. But it’s an odd movie.
AVC: You have such a likable screen persona and everyone talks about that in that movie. That you’re hiding this completely sinister side. That must have been interesting to play.
OW: It was, maybe that’s why Hampton asked me or something.
OW: That was kind of the first chance I got to after Bottle Rocket, to kind of play a big role in a movie. And getting to do that with Jackie [Chan] and playing a cowboy. We did a lot of work on that script and yeah, I really enjoyed both those movies.
AVC: And you’ve said that you and Jackie Chan got to be friends?
OW: Certainly while we were filming. And there’s talk of doing another Shanghai. Shanghai Dawn.
AVC: You mentioned Bottle Rocket, which has such an enormous cult following. Do people still come up to you screaming, “Dignan”?
OW: Yeah. People ask me, “What’s your favorite movie?” And I always say Bottle Rocket almost like as a reflex, just because it was the first movie and it was Wes and my brothers and got us all started. I also like Life Aquatic [With Steve Zissou] and Darjeeling [Limited] too.
AVC: After Bottle Rocket, is that when you started getting cast or started going on auditions more?
OW: No, that’s when I stopped going on auditions! And not that I had gone on that many, but after Bottle Rocket came out, I started to get offered acting roles. And I think Michael Bay put me in Armageddon and people started to give me acting work.
AVC: In Armageddon you’re a driller who becomes an astronaut. On a Michael Bay set, which just has to be insane.
OW: Just a second. [Pause.] I was laughing just hearing you describe it, because it sounds kind of preposterous.
AVC: You were the best drillers in the world!
OW: Right, becoming captains of a spaceship to blow up an asteroid. But it was a fun cast, all around. So, getting to know Bruce Willis, Billy Bob [Thornton], and Ben [Affleck], and Steve Buscemi and all these great guys.
AVC: That’s another one that you die in, too, right?
OW: Yeah. Sure do.
AVC: You had a bad track record for awhile.
OW: I die in The Haunting and Armageddon and Anaconda and yeah. [Laughs.]
AVC: All good causes, though.
OW: Yes. All good causes.
AVC: Forgive me for mentioning: For years, my son would not go to pre-K until he watched Lightning McQueen’s first race, so I might have seen it 300 times.
OW: [Laughs.] What is it about little kids, they haven’t seen a movie once until they’ve seen it 50 times? They love the repetition!
AVC: That was your first voice-over; what was that experience like?
OW: That was kind of right after Shanghai Noon. John Lasseter had watched that movie with his kids and they’d enjoyed it. Then we met each other at the Academy Awards and he was telling me about this idea he had for what became Cars. And that he wanted me to play the character.
AVC: Sometimes voice-over actors in the same animated movie don’t even get to meet each other. Did you get to meet Paul Newman at all?
OW: I did meet him. We did a voice-over session together in New York and then we went out to dinner. And then when the movie did the premiere at one of the Nascar tracks and we did some press there. He came down for that, so yeah. I mean, that’s pretty amazing. He always looked great, too. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did it make you interested in being a racecar driver yourself, like Paul Newman?
OW: No. Never been a big gearhead. My brothers and I would go out to this go-cart track out past LAX. I was just flipping through Los Angeles magazine the other day and they were saying one of the best things about Los Angeles is that they have that go-cart track, so I’m happy to hear that’s still going.
AVC: Now when you’re cast in the lead of a Woody Allen movie, you’re kind of the “Woody Allen” part, and everyone has their own take on it. When you played that part in Midnight In Paris, did you feel any pressure doing that yourself?
OW: I didn’t feel any pressure because I know that I’m not good at doing imitations or changing my voice, so I always knew it was going to have my own sort of cadence. And Woody certainly never was encouraging me to try to… give me line readings or anything to steer my performance in a certain way. So I felt pretty comfortable and supported by him. In fact, he didn’t give me a lot of direction on the movie. It was just do a couple takes and then move on.
AVC: Probably a lot of people’s fantasy would be to hang out with Hemingway and Fitzgerald in 1920s Paris, so it was really fun to see that depicted on film.
OW: I know. I just kind of felt that also. I also felt loving that city that when I was doing the movie, thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if the movie turns out well?” Because then I’ll always sort of feel welcomed here. As opposed to if it bombed. And when it came out and it was well-received, it’s been nice to return to Paris and always run into people when you’re there that say how much they appreciated the movie.
Night At The Museum (2006); Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian (2009); Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb (2014)—“Jedediah”
AVC: When you film Jedediah for the Night At The Museum movies, you’re probably off on some green screen somewhere?
OW: We filmed those in Vancouver and they’re always at the end of the movie. And all my scenes were always with Steve Coogan because he’s miniature also. So Ben usually wasn’t even there by the time we were filming our stuff. Because they had to do it all with green screen.
AVC: So you’re kind of isolated.
OW: Yeah, but isolated in a good way, because I love Coogan and doing stuff with him.
AVC: You guys play off each other really well.
OW: It’s so nice doing those at the end of the movie where everyone is in a good mood. And they kind of know the finish line is in sight and it always kind of felt like the pressure was off.
AVC: You mentioned Zoolander 2. How is that going?
OW: Good. We finished in Rome and now Ben’s editing and it’s going to come out I think for Valentine’s Day.
AVC: You’ve said that the walk-off in the first movie was a tough scene for you.
OW: It was tough for me in the sense that I’ve never been big on public speaking or doing something in front of a big audience. And so there was a ton of extras that they had in that audience. I’ve also never been a big dancer, especially in public. So to go out and have to do both those things standing in front of a lot of people was a little bit nerve-wracking.
AVC: Is there a movie that you have worked on that you wish got more attention? Something that might have gotten lost in the shuffle?
OW: I really loved Life Aquatic and Darjeeling. But even those movies that didn’t necessarily do that well, they find people who do really embrace them.