Owen Wilson on How He Started Acting, Trying “To Be Real” On-Screen and Choosing His Roles

Owen Wilson

“It’s not enough just to be real; you have to try to make it interesting or entertaining” – Owen Wilson on Acting

To actors, it might seem unfair: Owen Wilson (and his younger brother Luke) didn’t have any formal training as actors. For Owen Wilson’s part, he ended up acting when he co-wrote a movie with his college roommate, who was an aspiring director by the name of Wes Anderson, which both Wilsons (plus their older brother Andrew) later acted in. That film, Bottle Rocket, launched the careers of Owen and Luke Wilson as well as Anderson. Since then, Owen Wilson has worked steadily in comedic roles, and he was even nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for The Royal Tenebaums with Anderson. Speaking with Interview magazine, Wilson talks about how Bottle Rocket led to an acting career and why most of his films tend to be comedies.

Wilson admits that he ended up in acting entirely by coincidence. He recalls, “I think it was something that I just sort of fell into by luck. My roommate in college in Austin, Texas, was Wes Anderson. Wes always wanted to be a director. I was an English major in college, and he got us to work on a screenplay together. And then, in working on the screenplay, he wanted my brother, Luke, and me to act in this thing. We did a short film that was kind of a first act of what became Bottle Rocket. It was something I didn’t know I would continue to do, because it’s a little bit out of your hands—it just depends on how people react to you or if people want to hire you. Maybe that’s why there’s an insecurity sometimes in acting, because it’s not like there’s a correlation between hard work and how people receive you. But after Bottle Rocket, I started getting acting work. People started offering me roles in movies. It wasn’t something that I thought about as a kid growing up in Texas. Actually, maybe I would have thought of it as a possibility, but it seemed so crazily far-fetched to think that you could work in movies that I really didn’t ever quite imagine it. It was just lucky.”

The interviewer points out that Wilson has a tendency to take on roles in darker comedies — however, Wilson responds by noting that it’s often what he’s offered, not what he’s chosen. He says, “Well, it isn’t so much that I choose the roles—I mean, I guess there’s a little bit of a selection process—but it’s more just what people offer you. So it’s a lot about the way they see you. The movies I’ve done with Wes have a much different quality than some of the more broad comedies. But what is interesting is how many sequels I’ve done. I’ve worked with Ben a million times now, and this is yet another sequel we’re doing. I guess we’re lucky to be in some movies that people wanted to see again.”

Still, just because Wilson didn’t go to a drama school and that he mostly does broad comedies doesn’t mean he doesn’t think like an actor when approaching a role. He actually credits his background as an English student for that. He explains, “I try to find a way to make it comfortable or interesting or funny to me. I remember working with Jackie Chan on Shanghai Noon [2000], and when we were working on the script, I thought that my character thought about being an outlaw the way a kid today would think about being a rock star, as a way to impress girls. So it was just kind of a funny idea, but once we had that idea, it changed the character and made it something that was funnier to me to play. But maybe because I began as a writer, I have a good ear for dialogue, and maybe being an English major—and that I also read a lot as a kid—if I hear somebody say something that I think is funny, or I find a situation or story, I’ll try to work that into the movie.”

Because of that, Wilson says it’s not enough for an actor to be “real,” because “real” can be boring. While Wilson sees pieces of himself in every character, he pushes to figure out how to make that character more entertaining. He says, “I remember hearing a good story about Jack Nicholson working with Stanley Kubrick on The Shining [1980]. Nicholson was saying that, as an actor, you always want to try to make things real. And believable. When he was working with Kubrick, he finished a take and said, ‘I feel like that was real.’ And Kubrick said, ‘Yes, it’s real, but it’s not interesting.’ It’s not enough just to be real; you have to try to make it interesting or entertaining.”

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