"Middle" man Luke Wilson makes hard work look easy

Sun Aug 15, 2010 11:53pm EDT
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By Jenelle Riley

LOS ANGELES (Back Stage) - By his own account, Luke Wilson should never have become an actor.

Growing up in Dallas, he wasn't active in drama; he did one play in high school, and the writer-director yelled at him for not taking things seriously. He was "forced" into his breakthrough role in the short film "Bottle Rocket" by its writers: his brother Owen and director Wes Anderson.

And he has never, ever had a headshot. Wilson explains in his signature laid-back Southern drawl, "I was told many times, 'You need one, go get one!' And I could never bring myself to do it. I'd go into auditions, and I'd see a stack of a thousand of them, and I would tell myself, 'I may not get this job, but I know I'm not going to be in that stack.'"

While it would be easy to resent Wilson for his subsequent success, he remains an engaging screen presence: a likable Everyman who brings his low-key charm and easy affability to even the most nebulous of roles. It helped him stand out when he was cast as a series of nonthreatening boyfriends in the "Legally Blonde" and "Charlie's Angels" films and "My Super Ex-Girlfriend." And he has taken interesting risks along the way, dodging killers in the underrated thriller "Vacancy" and playing a disillusioned cynic who unwillingly houses a miracle in "Henry Poole Is Here."

He also leveraged his success to co-write and co-direct (with his other brother, Andrew) the offbeat comedy "The Wendell Baker Story," in which he also played the title role. And if anyone still wants to dismiss Wilson for never having taken a single acting class, his sublime turn as the suicidal tennis pro in love with his adopted sister in "The Royal Tenenbaums" should be enough to earn the actor at least some grudging respect.

Recently, audiences have seen Wilson mostly on the small screen, as the spokesperson for AT&T in a campaign he admits drew him some criticism. "I've had people say disparaging things to me about doing ads," he notes. "It would surprise you the kind of people who are negative and then the people I really respect -- from Dennis Quaid to Stephen Stills -- who say really good things about them."

But Wilson had another reason for wanting to do the commercials: They were directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris, whom Wilson is a fan of. "To get to work with him was unbelievable," Wilson enthuses. "And, I mean, who am I to say I'm not going to do an ad? Or say no to working with Errol Morris?" One other perk: "I did get four or five free iPhones," he says, "which I gave to friends."

Wilson has just returned to theaters with "Middle Men," a fictionalized retelling about the first entrepreneurs to put pornography on the Internet. Based on producer Christopher Malick's own experiences, the film begins in 1995 and stars Wilson as Jack Harris, an average guy who ends up in business with two unpredictable drug abusers (played by Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht) who become millionaires when they hit upon the idea to put adult content online. In addition to their own excesses, the three end up battling the Russian mafia and enduring an FBI investigation, while Harris tries to maintain his front of a normal family man.   Continued...