Owen Wilson, a golden retriever among actors, admits that he based his slacker dude in
You, Me and Dupree
on Blue, the chocolate Labrador of his boyhood.
"Dupree had the personality of a dog. You love him in spite of himself," the actor riffs on the phone from Los Angeles. The straw-haired goofball has gone from playing like a Lab to playing opposite one in Marley & Me, opening Christmas Day.
Wilson stars (with Jennifer Aniston) as journalist John Grogan, author of the bittersweet bestseller chronicling what he learned from his mischievous pooch. The Oscar-nominated screenwriter and accidental actor brings to it more than a few life lessons learned from Garcia, his Australian cattle dog.
"The main thing my dog taught me to value is to be in the moment," says Wilson, 40, traces of Texas twang lingering in his voice.
"Owen speaks slowly, but his mind is quick," says Marley director David Frankel, who ranks Wilson as "a great improviser," up there with Meryl Streep.
"And when you're working with dogs, you have to throw away the script," says Frankel, praising Wilson's rapport with his canine costars, which included being on the receiving end of a tongue bath.
Wilson gives good phone, wielding a handset as a pro might a ping-pong paddle. His words have bounce, spin and loop. This is, after all, the voice of Lightning McQueen in Cars, the guy who improvised Lightning's trademark "Ka-chow!" This is the human embodiment of "Chipichawa" - a nonsense word he ad-libbed on-screen in Shanghai Noon to crack up costar Jackie Chan. This is the guy who talks the Jabberwocky, and walks it, too.
This is the writer and actor whose character Dignan in Bottle Rocket warned, "Be sensitive to the fact that other people are not comfortable talking about emotional disturbances. Um, I'm fine with that, but - other people."
And he is fine with that, to a point. Having pulled himself out of the despair that led to an alleged suicide attempt in August 2007, Wilson does not expound upon what it took to get out of his personal dark space, but neither does he avoid the question.
"They tell you that you have to do it yourself. And you do. But it's also family and friends that help you get your mind straight," he says. "And movies, movies, movies."
His family sustainers are his parents and brothers Andrew and Luke, both actors. His No. 1 friend is filmmaker Wes Anderson, with whom he cowrote the scripts to Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, the last earning them an Oscar bid.
Movies? Wilson, like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, is of the Clerks generation, filmmakers who learned film history while working the rental counter at a video emporium (in Wilson's case, a Dallas Blockbuster).
While clerking, he was drawn more to films of the deep-dish rather than custard-pie sort. "I really liked Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring - that girl," Emmanuelle Béart, "was re-al-l-l-l-y beautiful."
"Also, Drugstore Cowboy; sex, lies and videotape; Reservoir Dogs; and Dominick and Eugene," he says, citing the under-known 1988 movie about a man (Ray Liotta) caring for his developmentally disabled brother (Tom Hulce).
"I always like stories about brothers," says the middle Wilson sib, who would make his debut cowriting and costarring in Bottle Rocket, which existed first as a 1993 short he cooked up with University of Texas bud Anderson (they met in a playwriting class). Anderson directed the deadpan vignette of aimless friends (Owen and brother Luke) shambling into a life of crime.
Well-received at Sundance, "Bottle Rocket" launched the careers of the Wilson brothers and Anderson. It appealed to writer/director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News), who encouraged Wes and Owen to expand the absurdist short to feature length.
"My dad always would talk to me about the importance of finding a mentor, and for Wes and me it was Jim Brooks," Wilson said.
It's no exaggeration to say that for cinephiles in their 30s, Bottle Rocket (newly available on DVD from Criterion) holds the cachet that Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets has for their parents. Not coincidentally, both are stories of dead-end kids at the crossroads of risky and legitimate business.
Brooks invited Owen Wilson to be an associate producer on As Good as It Gets (1997). "Mostly, I was an observer," Wilson says. "It was a chance to see how professionals really worked. Occasionally I'd audition an actor or something." Others remember him as a font of fun.
"Owen is a great laugher," Brooks wrote in the introduction to the Anderson/Wilson screenplay of Rushmore. "I never in my life met anyone who laughed more often and still seemed genuinely surprised every time he did." Wilson impressed Frankel not only for his way with a laugh, but also with the warmth of it. "So much contemporary comedy comes from a place of meanness; Owen's comes from a place of sweetness."
While Wilson and Anderson worked on the screenplay for Rushmore (1998), the droll dramedy about a prep schooler's crush on his teacher, the actor/writer scored some small but memorable roles.
In the Ben Stiller-directed The Cable Guy, Wilson was the rude friend needling a waiter: "What's the story with our chicken, man? Eggs had a chance to hatch yet?" He and Stiller would work together on many more films, most memorably Zoolander and Meet the Parents, and most profitably Night at the Museum.
In The Cable Guy, his mainstream debut, he seemed like the millennial Groucho Marx, a guy who gave an anarchic tweak to his dialogue, slipping out of character in order to observe that character.
"I think maybe going outside character was to compensate for not having any background in acting," Wilson reflects. "Being outside made it more funny, more real. In Shanghai Express, working with Jackie, it occurred to me that though I was a cowboy in the Old West, I could worry about sun damage. That's just the way my mind worked."
And work it does. Directors who cast Wilson get a twofer, an actor who writes and doctors his dialogue. The best pickup line in Wedding Crashers is his: "You know how they say we only use 10 percent of our brains? I think we only use 10 percent of our hearts."
"For me, acting and writing are alike in some ways. I always try to find a different way of saying something. It's nice to try different things, to feel that energy of saying something fresh," he observes. As Anderson once noted, "Owen is not concerned with how to play a scene, but with how he can improve it."
This may endear the actor to his directors, but it has been known to irritate co-stars, including brother Luke, who on Bottle Rocket snapped, "Why don't you just say the lines the way you wrote them?"
He got a taste of his own medicine on Marley - where it took 22 Labs in all to play the dog. Wilson couldn't say the lines as written because the canine costars proved as unpredictable as Luke found him. "Owen played off the dog," says animal trainer Mathilde DeCagny, wrangler of Clyde, who was cast as "Bad Marley," the one who eats couches and swallows necklaces.
So, Owen Wilson, was W.C. Fields right about never working with animals or children, those diabolical upstagers?
"Uh, I think he might have been right about children. Because when a baby's done with a scene, he's done. Dogs are better trained - they'll give you that extra take."