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.
Although the role initially seems right in Wilson’s wheelhouse as the ordinary guy in over his head, it also offers the actor an opportunity to exhibit a darker side, particularly as Harris’ personal life unravels. The film relies on Wilson holding the center to make the story believable and — more important — to make us care about this amiable screwup. Or as Ribisi puts it, “He’s the calm in the storm — the guy who sort of made sense of it all. In this movie, Luke is better than I have ever seen him.”
Wilson was unlike his brothers, who always knew they wanted to work in the movie business. Though he remembers being fascinated by films and reading about directors, he originally attended college as a track athlete. “By the time I got into acting, I hadn’t gotten around to figuring out what I wanted to do,” he says.
So it was Owen and Wes’ fault he became an actor? “Definitely,” Wilson says, without a trace of irony. “They were very driven and practical and just sort of told me I would be in their movie.”
The movie in question was the 1994 short “Bottle Rocket,” in which the brothers played would-be thieves trying to stage a burglary. Wilson didn’t think much of the project: “I can remember thinking, ‘What the hell’s a short film? Who watches them? How do you tell a story in 13 minutes?’ But even then, Owen and Wes had a real forward-thinking vision.”
Shooting the short marked the first time either Wilson appeared in front of a camera, and they were off to an inauspicious start. “We were shooting a scene behind a 7-Eleven, just me and Owen,” Wilson recalls. “Wes said ‘Action,’ and we both just stood there. We didn’t know what to do. It was the worst kind of feeling.”
Though the short got into Sundance and eventually led to the 1996 feature version of “Bottle Rocket,” which became a cult sensation on video, things were far from glamorous. “When we went to Sundance, we thought we made it,” Wilson recalls. “But nothing happened there. On top of that, we couldn’t get into any movies or parties. It was like going back to grade school; we felt like complete outsiders — which we were.”
The film found its way to James L. Brooks, who signed on as producer and brought the directors to Los Angeles and gave them offices at Columbia Pictures to develop the feature version. Wilson, who had dropped out of school, joined them in L.A. and spent his time “hanging around.” Several times, the film got the green light to shoot, only to have it canceled. “We’d celebrate and get so pumped up, and then they would tell us we were put on hold,” Wilson says. “We were like, ‘But we celebrated the green light already!’”
At one point, there was discussion of making the film with different, bankable actors. “I was actually the one who said, ‘That seems like a good idea!’” he recalls with a laugh. “I thought Wes could just put us in the next one. But to Jim Brooks’ credit, he said, ‘It makes no sense to do the movie unless you have these guys.’”
When the feature version of “Bottle Rocket” finally came out, it made less than $1 million in theaters, and Wilson didn’t work for another year and a half. He was down to his last $400 from shooting “Bottle Rocket” when he began to book roles. At first it was small parts like one day on “Scream 2” or little indies like “Best Men,” but a year later he was sharing top billing with Drew Barrymore in “Home Fries” and Martin Lawrence in “Blue Streak.”
Wilson notes he didn’t put any qualifiers on the size of role or type of film he was interested in. “From the beginning it was never about lead roles or important roles,” he maintains. “I just wanted good parts in any kind of movie. Some of my favorite roles were smaller parts that had a big impact, like Jack Nicholson in ‘Easy Rider.’”
Wilson also doesn’t spend any time worrying over the legacy of his projects. “My favorite actor is Warren Oates, and he’s not someone who spends a lot of time asking himself, ‘Should I do this movie? Shouldn’t I?’ It’s more like, ‘I’m free. I’ll do it.’
“I know it can be frowned up, and I respect both sides of the fence: people who do everything and people who are really choosy. I just feel, for me, my personality and how I’m happiest is when I’m on the job.”