While the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles is an unlikely haunt for a Hollywood star, Owen Wilson is not your average A-lister. “There’s something that inhibits me from just talking about a painting on camera,” he said. “Even started to say ‘brushstrokes,’ and I was like, Don’t say brushstrokes.“
At 54, Wilson continues to carve out a very varied movie career, as a romantic lead (“Marry Me”), in action movies (“Behind Enemy Lines”), and his signature, comedies (“Midnight in Paris,” “Wedding Crashers,” “Zoolander”). His latest is “Paint,” an offbeat comedy where Wilson plays a painter hosting a TV show at a PBS station in Vermont.
All the work and the success remain a surprise to him. “I definitely considered myself lucky,” he said. “Making a living doing something creative, that seems incredible.”
Incredible, but not improbable for a kid raised around the arts in Dallas. His mother is a photographer. His father, like Wilson’s latest character, has a PBS connection, running the first PBS station in the States to air a show featuring a certain British comedy troupe. “They were the first station to carry Monty Python,” Wilson said. “Years later, I met Terry Gilliam, and he said, ‘We’re incredibly grateful. Your dad gave us a big break.'”
Wilson never thought about acting in school. School, in fact, was a bit of a challenge – his high school expelled him. “I got kicked out for cheating in Geometry,” he said. “I was the only kid that was caught that was kind of called in.” Wilson could’ve saved himself if he’d been willing to identify the other kids involved. “I didn’t name names,” he said.
So, off he went, at 16, to the New Mexico Military Institute. “I did pretty well. I got good grades. And like all these things, it ends up being a better story.”
He ended up in college at the University of Texas, where a friend from military school introduced him to another student. He said, “Without that thing happening, then, you know, Wes and I probably don’t become friends.”
“Wes” is writer-director Wes Anderson, who became Wilson’s roommate at Texas, and his lifelong friend. They’ve made eight movies together, including “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Not long after college, they co-wrote their first feature, “Bottle Rocket,” with Anderson directing and Wilson playing the lead.
Robert Musgrave, Owen Wilson and Luke Wilson in “Bottle Rocket”:
“I did ‘Bottle Rocket,’ and people started hiring me. And it was like … You know, it took a little bit, a few movies before I could sort of accept or say, ‘I guess this is what I do. I’m an actor.'”
As an actor, Wilson, with his unique boyish good looks and those blonde locks, soon morphed into a scene stealer prone to ad lib.
Owen Wilson is entirely comfortable discussing his characters. Talking about himself is a different story. That guardedness is understandable. In 2007 came a widely-reported story that Wilson had attempted suicide. He doesn’t discuss it publicly, but he has said that his family played a big role in his recovery. His older brother, Andrew, moved in with him for a bit after he left the hospital. He’s still clearly a big influence. “That’s a great feeling, when you’ve got some backup,” he said. “And my older brother has continued always to be kind of, you know, somebody who’s helped me a lot.”
The Wilson brothers – Andrew, Owen and Luke, also a successful actor – are still close. “It’s like that Paul Simon song, ‘I’m with my boys, my troops – ‘Late in the Evening,'” Owen said.
At the Hammer Museum, Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz asked Wilson, “What draws you to places like this?”
“There is something about going into a museum that is just a little mediative, that’s like going to a church or a cathedral; you kind of feel good afterwards,” he replied.
The museum brings him peace of mind … and perhaps a little inspiration for his latest film.
Observing a Rembrandt, Wilson said, “This reminds me of that app where it matches you to an old classic. It’s never very flattering. And I’ll be like, Really? That’s the likeness for me?”
Mankiewicz said, “The hair. Carl!”
“Yeah, that’s Carl Nargle!”
Carl Nargle is Wilson’s character in “Paint,” clearly inspired by Bob Ross, who hosted a PBS painting show for 11 years, starting in 1983. His slow, soothing voice and permed hair have remained ubiquitous on the internet.
Mankiewicz asked, “Did you watch Bob Ross?”
“Yeah. but I can’t quite do an imitation.”
Wilson didn’t get Ross’s voice down, but he got Ross’s essence. And he made the character funny, which is what Owen Wilson has been doing since he was a kid.
To watch a trailer for “Paint,” click on the video player below:
When asked if he considers himself a good actor, Wilson demurred: “I don’t think that I’m, you know, good. I do think there’s some, yeah, I think there’s some parts that I think I can play well.”
Mankiewicz said, “Yeah, well, I got news for you: You’re a good actor.”
“Thanks!” he laughed.
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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Steven Tyler.