Luke Wilson: How it feels to be America's boyfriend

The one-time indie darling talks about turning into "that guy who plays the husband" -- and his new "porn movie"

Published August 4, 2010 11:01AM (EDT)

Luke Wilson
Luke Wilson

Luke Wilson's presence in American film is as constant and reliable as it is unlikely.  The 39-year-old Dallas native can be seen on-screen this week in "Middle Men," a drama by filmmaker George Gallo (screenwriter of "Midnight Run") about the creation of the Internet porn industry, centered on a fictional character named Jack Harris (based on the movie's producer Christopher Mallick).

Wilson made his feature film debut starring in Wes Anderson's first feature, "Bottle Rocket," acting alongside his older brothers Owen Wilson, the movie's co-writer, and Andrew Wilson, a co-producer.  He had no aspirations to be an actor (and no training, either). Yet he, his brothers and Anderson somehow managed to make a short film version of "Bottle Rocket" that caught the attention of TV and movie producer James L. Brooks ("Terms of Endearment"), who shepherded the movie through the studio pipeline with its original cast and filmmakers, birthing several careers in the process. Since then, Wilson has carved out a niche playing what might be called "the Luke Wilson Role," a category that alternates between supportive boyfriends or husbands in female-driven star vehicles and well-meaning, often slightly bewildered second leads that don't get the girl (this used to be called "the Ralph Bellamy part").

But there are other sides to his talent. Wilson has a world-class goofball deadpan,  displayed in the Mike Judge film "Idiocracy" and in the Will Ferrell comedies "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" and "Blades of Glory."  He also has a dark intensity, memorably showcased in Anderson's "The Royal Tenenbaums," in the western "3:10 to Yuma" (in which he savagely tortured Russell Crowe), in the independent film "Henry Poole Is Here" (in which he played a depressed hermit whose neighbors see the face of Jesus in a stain on his wall), and now in "Middle Men," a comedy-drama about the intersection of technology, sex and capitalism.

Salon spoke with Wilson about Method acting, typecasting, his brother Owen's recovery from a 2007 suicide attempt, his reunion with "Bottle Rocket" costar James Caan, and his continuing amazement that a guy like him could have come this far.

This is embarrassing to admit, but even though I wrote a pretty long story about you guys back in the day, it occurs to me now that when I was reporting that piece, it never once occurred to me to ask what sort of formal training you had as an actor.

I really appreciate your not asking that back then! [Laughs]

We were all about the same age and living in the same town, so I guess I thought of you as a guy I sort of knew, rather than as an actor who was supposed to have certain qualifications. But in retrospect it seems improbable to me that a film as odd as "Bottle Rocket" could get made with a studio budget and James Caan in a major role, and have the stars be these guys nobody had heard of and that weren’t even professional actors.

No kidding! You know, I still think about that. I still kid around with Andrew and Owen about it. I mean, it’s unreal. You just see so many good projects out here that just never really come together. It’s a real testament to James L. Brooks that he saw something in the script, wanted to make it this way, and stuck with it. Columbia Pictures told him, "We like this movie, and we want to make it with you producing. But could we please, please, please, please, please do it with other actors? Actors people have actually heard of? Anybody besides these Dallas guys?" He said, "There’s no use making this movie if we don’t make it with these guys.”

But as far as training, no -- I just watched movies and read books about actors I liked. I never had any formal training.

Polly Platt, who was another one of the producers on "Bottle Rocket" and who co-produced a lot of great American movies, including "The Last Picture Show," said that your screen presence had a quality that reminded her of a young Montgomery Clift. At the time I thought, "Really? Huh." Then you were in "The Royal Tenenbaums," playing this profoundly depressed, closed-off guy, and I thought, "OK, I get it now." There is a touch of mystery that comes across when you're playing these melancholy, wounded characters. But because you're good at being the laid-back comedy guy, you don’t often get asked to do that.

When somebody like Polly Platt compares you to somebody like Montgomery Clift, you don’t even know what to say. Unless you’re a fool, I think you just say "Thank you" and move along.

I mention it because there’s a perception of you as America’s Boyfriend, you know?

Yeah! [Laughs]

And then I see you in a movie where you’re not smiling all the time and being supportive and charming, a movie where there are darker undercurrents, and it’s a whole different ball game.

I just always wanted to stay busy. I have never, for better or worse, thought about a "career path" or anything like that. I always loved guys like Warren Oates, guys who did a lot of small parts plus leading roles where they could get them, guys who did a wide range of parts not because they had any conscious plan for their career, but because they liked to work. I tend to choose movies based on looking at who’s involved with the production and saying, "Oh, hey, that’s somebody I’d like to work with," whether it’s a director, another actor, a cinematographer, a props guy. The only goal I’ve ever had for myself professionally was for [the original Dallas contingent] to find some way to keep making our own movies, whether it was me acting for Wes in his films, or me writing my own script.

I didn’t even think about the whole boyfriend thing until I’d been working in movies a few years and started doing press. Reporters would be like, "You play a lot of boyfriends!" And I’d think, "Oh, boy." Nobody wants to be pigeonholed. I’d hear that and think, "What am I gonna do?" It’s not as if I’m Sean Penn and I can be picking and choosing what sorts of roles I want to play based on how I want to be perceived. I’m a working actor. I just want to stay busy.

Were a lot of "Midnight Run" (which was written by George Gallo) lines exchanged on the set of "Middle Men."

Oh, definitely. "Midnight Run” is one of those movies like "Goodfellas." Once you’ve seen it, you can’t not quote it.

What I got a kick out of, though, is that when you work with George Gallo, you can see bits of all the major characters from "Midnight Run" in his personality. The De Niro character, the Charles Grodin character, even the Dennis Farina character and the John Ashton character -- you can see them all in George. He seems like a tough guy sometimes, but other times he seems really sensitive. And just like the Grodin character, he doesn’t fly. He takes the train everywhere.

I didn’t know that.

It’s fuckin’ neurotic! But the main thing I liked was being directed by the same person who wrote the script to the movie. You never have one of those moments that you have on a film where the director didn’t write the script, and you get a piece of direction and think, "Well, OK, if you say so, but something about this doesn’t quite jibe with the sense I got from reading the script." When you get notes on your performance from a writer-director, you always know it’s coming straight from the horse’s head.

Considering that you never even studied to be an actor, it seems improbable that you’ve been such a steady presence in American movies for 15 years now.

Yeah! Tell me about it! A friend of mine said, "Luke, did you know you’ve been in 48 movies?"

Is that an exaggeration, or is it a real figure?

I think it’s right around there, yeah. When I heard that, I was like, "Shoot! I’m gaining on Harry Dean Stanton."

Owen always had a touch of your incredulity as well. I remember him talking about going out to Hollywood for the first time and finding the experience rather surreal.

I first came out here to go to Occidental College. I had the same experience as a lot of people, standing on Sunset Boulevard and wondering why my presence there didn’t seem like a big deal. As if I expected a welcoming committee to go, "Hey, look! He’s here! That guy who loves movies!" It’s like getting to Manhattan and realizing the town is going to keep moving with or without you.

Owen went through a rough patch a few years ago. How is he doing now? Is he stabilized, settled in?

He’s doing great. It was a tough time for everybody. He’s feeling very well. He’s on his third movie in a row. He seems very worn out but happy. He did a Farrelly brothers movie. That was fun for him because we’re friends with those guys and he really wanted to work with them. Then he did a movie with Jack Black and Steve Martin. When he was working on that, I got a message from him: "Luke! I’m listening to Steve Martin play the banjo!"

It’s not totally unthinkable to see Luke Wilson in a dramatic part, but it is the exception to the rule. How did your involvement in "Middle Men" come about?

George Gallo, the co-writer and director, somehow thought I would do a good job at it. I feel lucky that he thought of me. I like to think I’ve done a lot of different kinds of roles, but obviously I have done quite a lot of comedies. As a moviegoer I like all kinds of movies, though, so whenever I get a chance to do something that’s different from the majority of what I do, I’m thankful.

It’s funny to think of 1995 as "period."

I know! [Laughs]

What did you learn about Internet pornography in the mid-'90s that you didn’t know going into the movie?

You may think 1995 was yesterday, and that’s how it feels to me. But then you remember that the Facebook guys were probably in seventh grade back then. And now they’re billionaires! Their business is the same kind of business as the Internet stuff that we show in this film. We’re just further along now. Internet porn was something that started out small and quickly gained steam, to the point where it just kind of took over the porn industry and took over the Internet, and now it’s a part of life. You even see guys like David Letterman on TV making casual jokes about Internet porn. Pornography is still not socially accepted, obviously, but it’s not under wraps as it was in the '50s.

I’m not computer literate at all, and I’ve dragged my heels about it. I had a lot to learn about this subject matter. I was never one of the kinds of actors that’s known for getting cast as a character based on a real person, then going out and doing a lot of research. I always wanted to do one of those kinds of films where you have to do a lot of reading, meet the guy your character is based on, go to a city and learn about whatever the subject matter is.

Your costar Giovanni Ribisi is quite intense in this. Is he one of those kinds of actors that want to be addressed by the first name of his character when he's on the set?

Giovanni is one of the few guys my own age that I really look up to -- which is not to say that other actors my own age don’t have things to teach me, but that I’m of a certain generation. And that means that naturally I grew up idolizing the guys who were one or two generations ahead of me -- older guys, the actors from the '70s and '80s. Giovanni was in the business way before I was. He is intense. He's not intense like Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood," from what I’ve read about that, but he is definitely one of those guys you can learn from, not just in terms of his creativity but also his work habits. He’s super-focused. He doesn’t stay in character all the time, but you can tell that he’s always working, that he’s constantly thinking about the character and never phoning it in.

Speaking of older actors you admire, you got to work with James Caan again in the movie. Caan played a charming but somewhat sinister mentor figure in "Bottle Rocket." I remember you had trouble wrapping your mind around the idea that you were about to make your feature film debut opposite Sonny Corleone from "The Godfather."

Oh, absolutely. James Caan was the first movie star I’d ever met, much less worked with. He was an important person to me and my brothers and Wes. "Bottle Rocket" was the first movie for all of us. As you know, back then, [Caan] was having some career changes, I think.

"Bottle Rocket" was his first film after going through rehab for some serious drug problems. It was a delicate situation.

Here we were, so pumped up to be working with him, but think about how it must have seemed from his perspective. Here’s this guy who’s worked with Francis Coppola and Michael Mann, and suddenly he’s in Dallas working with these guys that look weird and sound weird. He was feeling a little differently about the whole thing than we were. But he warmed up to us. He was really kind and generous, and he’d take time with us and teach us what he knew. I stayed in touch with him over the years, but we’d never had the chance to work with him again. To be around him again was really fun.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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