2 Sep 2007: Profile: Whether as writer or actor, the fast-living member of Hollywood’s Frat Pack Owen Wilson has produced hit after hit. Then his brother found him unconscious and a need to ‘heal in private’ meant that life was suddenly not so funny.
Any piece written about Owen Wilson which is more than a week old will tell you the same thing: the jocular actor and talented scriptwriter is so chilled out and laidback that he occasionally conducts interviews while lying down.
- 1st Films
- Production year: 2004
The public demeanour of this 38-year-old is not so different from his most successful parts. From Zoolander to Wedding Crashers and You, Me and Dupree, Wilson has gravitated towards the role of eternal slacker. He’s the good-time guy who may one day get round to settling down and starting a family but who, for now, is known as ‘the Butterscotch Stallion’ by American tabloids for his girl-chasing antics.
Last Sunday, everything changed. News, whether based on fact or gossip, now travels faster than light. Hours after Wilson was admitted to a local hospital, unsubstantiated stories started to circulate about the actor attempting suicide by slashing his wrists and overdosing on pills. On Monday, he released a statement via his publicist: ‘I respectfully ask that the media allow me to receive care and heal in private during this difficult time.’ By Thursday, his attorney insisted that his client had not taken an overdose but was taking anti-depressants.
We may never know the full truth of what really happened, but the bare bones are this: at around midday, Santa Monica police responded to a 911 call at Wilson’s home. (The Santa Monica City Attorney’s office has since announced it will not be releasing the specific details of the call, allegedly made by his younger brother, Luke, in case it deterred other celebrities from seeking help in the future.) Initially taken to a local hospital, Wilson was then transferred to Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles. The preferred destination for ailing celebrities, it excels at giving little or nothing away to the press.
Stories abounding on celebrity websites and in tabloids such as the National Enquirer suggest that Wilson was found unconscious by Luke. Elsewhere, it’s been suggested that he attempted suicide after falling out with a close friend or perhaps because he was suffering from a broken heart. He has often talked of his lack of ‘focus’ in relationships and, after meeting actress Kate Hudson on the set of You, Me and Dupree in 2006, the couple split up this year. That she has been recently photographed with her new boyfriend simply fuelled speculation.
Funny guys being dark and prone to depression has the status of cliche. Still, it was shocking to read about Wilson. With his wonky nose (broken while playing football in high school), cheeky grin and carefree manner, this superstar actor was not an obvious potential casualty of modern celebrity.
‘Acting just doesn’t seem that scary to me,’ he has said. ‘People can get insecure when they become actors, because there isn’t necessarily any correlation between hard work and a payoff. I can’t make people like me, nobody can make the audience like them. It’s just a feel that you get and you just do it.’
Attempted suicide or not, the use of simple words such as ‘receive care’, ‘heal in private’ and ‘difficult time’ clearly indicate that all is not well.
Perhaps Wilson felt under pressure to be funny, to be ‘on’ all the time. He could probably never go to a bar or a dinner party without everyone expecting him to perform – funny guys aren’t allowed nights off. Even those who worked with him thought he was having the time of his life.
I asked Steve Coogan about working with Wilson on Night at the Museum in Canada, and he joked about being invisible when they hung out together: ‘Everyone kept asking, “Are you his friend? What’s he like?” I kept saying, “I’m an actor too.” And they’d say, “Are you? Wow. What’s Owen like?” They’d literally be pushing me out of the way.’
Coogan went on: ‘Owen is a more understated version of his onscreen persona. Very witty, smart. He’s smart about the choices he makes comically and he can improvise. He’s shrewder than his laidback image suggests. But he’s funny and very good company. I tell you what he doesn’t have: he’s not riddled with male angst, which is a bit dull these days. Men talk too much. But Owen’s from Texas and I don’t think they lie awake at night talking about how difficult it is to be a man.’
Last week, Coogan was forced to instruct his solicitors to deny hysterical allegations by Courtney Love that his friendship with Wilson may have fuelled the latter’s use of drugs.
There was nothing remarkable about Wilson’s childhood, though it would be easy to try and analyse everything he has said in light of what may have happened last Sunday. He was the middle of three brothers, which he often talks about: ‘There’s a whole syndrome about being a middle child, I guess because you don’t have a really established role in the family. It’s like when the attention should be focused on you, but all of a sudden it’s diverted.’
His father, it seems, was on the tough side; Owen has described him as a ‘tricky person – major mood swings’.
The young Wilson cheated at geometry at school, was kicked out and had therapy. ‘I liked it, but I wasn’t totally honest,’ he has said of the sessions on the couch. Following a spell at military school to try and appease his parents – ‘I was very, very lazy and my parents expected me to get good grades, which created problems’ – he won a place to read English at the University of Texas but dropped out.
It was here, however, that he met the future writer and director Wes Anderson. ‘We were doing a playwriting class together, this thing where everybody sat around a table and discussed plays,’ Anderson said later. ‘And I always sat in one corner, not really at the table, and Owen always sat in the other corner, not really at the table, and we never spoke the whole semester.’
They later bumped into each other, became great friends and went on to write several screenplays together. In Bottle Rocket in 1994, Owen made his acting debut alongside Luke; critically derided at the time, it is now hailed as something of a masterpiece, not least because Martin Scorsese judged it one of the 10 best movies of the Nineties. In 1998, the pair co-wrote Rushmore and, in 2001, were nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay for The Royal Tenenbaums
With no formal training – he’s one of those actors who fell into acting by accident – Wilson quickly found his place in the Hollywood elite. Part of Hollywood’s so-called ‘Frat Pack’, the group of young comic writers and actors that includes Luke, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Jack Black and Ben Stiller, Wilson seemed able to do little wrong. He has now made eight films with Stiller, including Zoolander, a brilliant pastiche of the fashion world that has become a cult classic.
Visitors to his Santa Monica home note books by Winston Churchill, George Orwell and Arthur Miller alongside the inevitable playthings, motorised skateboards, table football, ping-pong table – all the signs that may indicate a goodtime guy who likes to have fun but hey, who also reads serious books.
By last year, he was earning a reported $15m for You, Me and Dupree. But doubt has been cast about what will happen next. He works in a glamorous but ultimately tough business that puts financial gain ahead of individual welfare. DreamWorks Pictures is sticking to ‘no comment’ when asked about the future of Wilson’s role in Tropic Thunder, a comedy being directed in Hawaii by Stiller (and co-starring Coogan).
Yet some of his employers are at least behaving in a humane manner. When asked by Hollywood trade paper Variety if Wilson’s forthcoming role opposite Jennifer Aniston in Marley & Me would be recast, a 20th Century-Fox spokesperson said: ‘It’s a totally inappropriate question at this time when all our thoughts and concerns are with his [Wilson’s] health and wellbeing.’
This week, The Darjeeling Limited, an adventure comedy directed by Anderson, in which Wilson stars alongside Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman has its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Cinematographer Robert D Yeoman has said: ‘He [Wilson] always seemed happy to me… when I heard the news, I was totally shocked and, quite honestly, saddened.’
Very few, it seemed, saw Wilson’s vulnerability, despite his occasional protestations that he was very good at playing a role. In 2003, he said: ‘I’m not really laid- back, in the sense that I’m a worrier… I’m not a real outgoing person. It takes a while to get to know someone. I guess the laidback thing comes from the way I talk. People always say I talk slow.’
Perhaps the closest we can come to understanding Owen Wilson, the private man, is from his rumination on happiness in 2005: ‘It comes and goes. If somebody told me, like, five years ago, I’d have this, this and this, I’d have said, “I’d be the happiest person in the world.” Then you get to that place, and you’re like, there’s always another place you’re trying to get to.’
The Wilson lowdown
Born18 November 1968 in Dallas, Texas. Father Robert ran a local TV station and recently edited a book and TV series about American Presidents called Character Above All. Mother Laura was a photographer who worked with Richard Avedon. Education included military school. Owen is the middle of three brothers: older brother Andrew and younger brother Luke are also in the film business.
Best of times Earning an Oscar nomination as co-writer of the 2001 The Royal Tenenbaums. Wedding Crashers, in which Owen co-stars with Vince Vaughn, grossing $285m on its release in 2005.
Worst of times Feeling so pummelled by audience response to test screenings of his 1996 film debut, Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, that he almost joined the military.
What he says ‘I don’t like caring about what other people think – but I do.’
‘As a kid, I wanted to be in a band, like Led Zeppelin or Guns N’ Roses. Like Dire Straits say: “Money for nothing and your chicks for free”.’
What others say ‘Owen is great because you get all the imaginative, addictive stuff that the great comics bring, but without the angst… maybe there’s angst but, if so, he’s disguised it well.’ Shawn Levy, director of Night at the Museum.