Blazing a Trail
In Armageddon, Owen Wilson plays a member of a team assembled to detonate a thermonuclear weapon in order to stop an asteroid from hitting the Earth. Right now it seems like it might take a thermonuclear weapon to stop Wilson's own ascendant star. The late-20s actor and writer exploded into view in 1996 with Bottle Rocket, the big-screen production of a film he wrote with his college roommate, and he's been on top of the world ever since.
Armageddon, this summer's second blockbuster about a asteroid threatening to destroy humanity, features such huge industry names as star Bruce Willis and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, but also some hot new talent like director Michael Bay and actors Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler. "It's kind of like a Miramax cast in a huge blockbuster-type movie," says Wilson, who became interested in the part of Oscar Choi when Bruckheimer and Bay told him some of the other people who were going to be involved. "I had known Billy Bob Thornton and really liked him, and Steve Buscemi - it just seemed like a good group of guys. Bruce Willis is sort of my favorite."
The film, like all of Wilson's projects, was a learning experience - his first role in a multimillion dollar effects-laden film, though he described his experience on the shoot as "in a lot of ways like a small independent movie." The 29-year-old actor, who comes across as introspective and down to earth, calls himself ""a discerning fan of action movies" and was surprised at the spectacular finished film considering how low-key his part seemed.
"I saw it a week ago - it's pretty amazing, because when you're making it you don't have an awareness of the overall movie, especially some of the special effects - to see Paris get decimated is amazing," he notes, recalling the deceptive simplicity of the filmmaking while he was working on it. "This is a huge hundred million dollar movie, but the introduction of my character - I'm supposed to be riding a horse, so they just put me on a barrel in the middle of the Disney parking lot and angled the camera so they get the sky behind me. They get a fan blowing my hair, and that's me riding a horse!"
Security about the plot has been tight, but the story apparently concerns a group of oil prospectors who specialize in deep drilling that NASA recruits to send to the comet, drill into its core, and plant a nuclear weapon, thus splitting the huge rock and making it miss the Earth. The drillers are a group of roughnecks who are used to drinking and smoking, not training as astronauts, so some complications ensue when the group is sent in shuttles to a space station and then to the target. In addition to Wilson, Willis, Affleck, Thornton, Buscemi, and Tyler, the cast includes Will Patton, Peter Stormare, and Jessica Steen.
"Michael Bay had liked Bottle Rocket, which is why he thought of me," reports Wilson, who has no formal acting training, though he appeared in Anaconda and The Cable Guy. Bottle Rocket, which Wilson wrote with Wes Anderson, was originally released in 1994; directed by Anderson, it starred Wilson's brothers Andrew and Luke. None of them expected it to be much more than a calling card.
"I was an English major, Wes was in philosophy, we both saw a ton of movies," Wilson recalls. "We decided we wanted to try to write a script together that we could film, maybe like 16-millimeter guerilla-style black and white." The movie follows a directionless young man, just out of a mental hospital, as he and two pals plot a crime spree and hit the road. Luke Wilson played Anthony, the main character; Owen Wilson played Dignan, one of the pals. "We finished the script and made a short of the first act. That went to Sundance."
There, the film it made enough of an impression to come to the attention of Academy Award-winning producer James L. Brooks, who read the script and told Wilson and Anderson that he wanted to make it into a bigger-budget studio movie. "I would never have presumed that this would go anywhere - this was just for fun, we were just getting out of college," says the young writer. "I don't know what we expected to happen, but it was pretty great when Jim Brooks responded to it - you couldn't pick a better person to be your champion." The film was expanded, with James Caan performing a pivotal role, and won an MTV Movie Award for best new filmmaker for Anderson.
As a result of the collaboration with Brooks, Wilson became an associate producer on As Good As It Gets, a film which won Academy Awards for stars Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. "Jim and I got to be friends, and he's sort of like a mentor I guess. When he was starting that movie, I read the script and said how much I loved it, and he said I could be associate producer on it. He was going through casting and doing all that stuff - I didn't have any real responsibility, but I was there when they were putting it together." Wilson doesn't think anyone expected that film to be such a success either, "because it was kind of tough subject matter - you wouldn't expect that to be a huge hit like it was."
Bottle Rocket got Wilson the attention of a number of other people in the industry - like Ben Stiller and Judd Apatow, who got him involved with The Cable Guy, and Bill Murray, who's acting in the Wilson-Anderson project Rushmore, slated to open from Touchstone late this summer. "It's the story of a kid who falls in love with his teacher and enlists the help of this tycoon to win over the teacher, but the tycoon falls for the teacher, and it becomes sort of a funny love triangle," Wilson explains. "We got lucky that Disney gave us the money to make Rushmore."
Disney also signed Wilson to play the voice of Pancha in the upcoming animated feature Kingdom of the Sun, with music by Sting. "That's such a cool process because you go in and do ten sessions maybe over the course of a year, and then the animators spend the next two years drawing the character to fit your voice. The character doesn't look like me, but he has some of my gestures, and they said they gave him kind of a weirder nose."
Wilson's distinctive nose, which he broke playing wide receiver, has been a blessing: it makes his face memorable to people casting films. His current project, a science fiction movie called The Minus Man, is written and directed by Hampton Fancher, who wrote Blade Runner. "We're only a week into it, but it's been a great experience so far," says the actor who plays the title character, working alongside Janeane Garofalo, Brian Cox, and William H. Macy.
Wilson grew up in Dallas, and graduated from the University of Texas in Austin. He expected to follow his father into advertising, writing copy - he'd taken creative writing classes in school, but primarily considered himself "a big reader." Nor was he a high school thespian: "I was involved in high school drama in terms of I was kicked out of high school, and that created some drama - I went to military school in New Mexico," he jokes. His mother, a photographer, was supportive of his creative work. His brothers were also bitten by the bug making Bottle Rocket: Luke Wilson has been in Mississippi acting in a movie, and Andrew Wilson is in L.A. with Owen seeking roles.
The best known of the Wilsons is not in any rush to catch up on training. "If I had a role where I had to do an accent, maybe I would work with somebody, a voice coach," the actor demurs. "I think it would be great to take an acting class, because acting is fun - more fun than writing, the instant feedback. It's not sitting alone in a room trying to write something, because that's a long process - it can take a year to write something, a year of struggling and trying to keep your confidence up, not knowing if it's going to amount to anything. With acting it's right there, you're around people, it's more sociable. I'm able to do both, it's worked out nicely."
Wilson had no more experience writing scripts than he did acting when he and Anderson began work on Bottle Rocket. "I didn't read a how-to book, we just kind of started writing the screenplay - Wes had a format on the computer for how to do it, and we just wrote until we had something that we both liked. When we first gave it to Jim Brooks, it was way too long, it was like two hundred pages, so then we did a lot of work with Jim Brooks in sharpening it and giving it more of a three-act structure. That was a really great learning process - I think Rushmore's a better script than Bottle Rocket.
While his films are quirkily funny, the English major says his instinct in the video store is to avoid the comedy section. "I find stuff from dramas funny, that's kind of more the humor I'm attracted to. Even Raging Bull has scenes that are hilarious to me." In August, he and Anderson will begin work on their next idea: "I think it might be a Western, I try to keep a nice mix." Somewhere down the road, he can imagine trying to direct a film himself, but for now he's content writing and acting.
"My first priority is the stuff with Wes, but I've also had a lot of time to do other stuff," he points out, advising young filmmakers to marshal their resources and try to make their films themselves - write themselves, direct themselves. "Read a lot, see a lot of movies," Wilson suggests, pointing to his own success and that of his current co-star, Ben Affleck, who with his partner Matt Damon wrote the Academy Award-winning Good Will Hunting.
"I think people are realizing how hard it is to break into the movies, and that if you want to do something, you have to do it on your own - when you're an actor, your destiny's kind of in the hands of a lot of other people, but when you're writing, you have the chance to control an idea more," he says of the rise in under-30 talent on the production end. "I'm in a good place, kind of flying under the radar, getting to do different interesting things. It's not like a lot of pressure, with people watching like, 'Ooh, what's your next move going to be?'"
What would he like next move to be? "To continue to do stuff with Wes is the most important thing, the real work is the stuff that we write. Other stuff is fun - it's fun to be in a movie like Armageddon - but the most important thing to me is the projects that Wes and I do together."
And if Armageddon is a huge hit, and brings him to the forefront of the A-list? That might mean more money for other projects, and more big studio offers, but Wilson doesn't envision trying to become a movie star. "I wouldn't mind kind of doing what I've been able to do now...which is making a living doing something creative."
Destiny certainly seems to have been working along with his own talent to make certain of that.