Owen Wilson interview: Wonder, art in movies

Owen Wilson chats to us about Wonder, art, writing and more...

Wonder. It started life as an extraordinary book from R J Palacio, and it’s now been turned into a hugely impressive film as well. Already a hit in the US, the movie stars Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. And on the UK press tour for the movie, Wilson spared us some time to talk about the film…

[As I enter, I notice that Wilson is reading a book about Van Gogh. I make a comment about this just as I’m setting my Dictaphone to record]

Yeah, I just picked it up off the nightstand. But I’ve been there, to the museum in Amsterdam. Do you have a favourite Van Gogh painting?

Not particularly, Van Gogh. I’m more of a Dali fan.

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Very trippy.

Have you been to any of the galleries in London while you’ve been here?

I went to go see the Basquiat show, over at the Barbican.

There was a good documentary on Basquiat recently.

My friend, [art dealer] Tony Shafrazi, I think he was one of the first gallery owners to show Basquiat, I think he’s all over that documentary.

I understand you’re a fan of art.

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I just did something in Los Angeles, a Q & A, not a Q & A, sort of where I talk with Peter Brant – speaking of Basquiat, he’s a big Basquiat collector – I’m interested in it, for sure.

Just dipping in toward your career, do you think your interest in culture informs the way you perform, and the way your career has gone, to some extent?

I don’t necessarily see a connection. My interest in art – at least beginning to collect paintings – was more a function of my friendship with Tony Shafrazi. No, that’s not actually – also my mother, my parents, actually the first piece I ever got, my mom photographed Donald Judd in Martha Texas, and I always loved those photographs. I’d never seen his work and those installations, and I’ve still never been to Martha, but that always stuck in my mind. So that was the first thing I got was a Donald Judd piece that Tony Shafrazi helped me get. But then, as it relates to my work in, like, Anaconda, no I don’t see the connection so much. But I’m sure it’s there.

Obviously there are movies like Anaconda, but…

I would think, yeah. The Grand Budapest, I kind of have a little cameo in that Boy With Apple painting that ends up being important to the story. I would see it more in Wes’ career.

True, but you were a big driver in Wes’ career. You wrote the films with him.

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Yeah, but there wasn’t any art in – maybe I’m taking it too literally – I’m trying to think if there was any art in the… yeah, there was, in the Tenenbaums, where I’m having my drug, psychosis breakdown, where Luke and Gene Hackman show up for the intervention, there’s some paintings behind me that Wes put there that are very kind of – I like those paintings, they’re disturbing and cool. So maybe.

I know you’ve said previously that you don’t consider the work of an actor to be art, as opposed to creation…

That’s something you always feel – hear Marlon Brando, distancing himself from how great he is as an actor. It seems like – I was just reading that [Lawrence] Grobel book, Conversations With Brando, and so he keeps talking about acting not being art. I would say that my acting isn’t art, but I’d say his acting in quite a few movies. And of course a movie is art. So can dance be, also. I don’t know, it becomes a little bit of a semantics thing, but I don’t make that distinction that paintings and literature is art, and this isn’t art. I tend to think anything creative, that can make other people feel something, I’ll call that art also.

You referenced Brando there. You’re working with a young cast, and without stroking your ego more than you’re comfortable with, to them, I presume they see you as you might see someone like Brando. Perhaps not to that level, but still…

Not to that level, but they might see me as an older person, who’s been around for a long time. In the case of Jacob, obviously those movies – we’re talking about over twenty years ago, Bottle Rocket and stuff – Maybe it is a little bit, I remember working with Bruce Willis in Armageddon, or De Niro in Meet The Parents, where in the scene, you’re of course trying to do the scene, but I’m also looking at their face and I’m recognising it. I’m recognising expressions, and it’s like, ‘I remember that. I know that expression’, because you’ve grown up seeing their work. So maybe Jacob had that same sort of thing: ‘My God, that’s the exact expression he made in The Big Bounce‘. Or, ‘Wait, there’s The Haunting‘. Or, probably, he just said, ‘Wow’.

From a very technical point of view, Jacob’s in quite a lot of make up during that film, and I know you have quite limited hours you can shoot with kids anyway, was that more restricted because of the makeup?

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For sure. I’ve been talking with Julia, confirming that was her experience also. I don’t know if you’ve spoken with the director, but he’s just a very gentle, thoughtful person, and I was saying, I never saw him break, I never saw him in a bad mood or get really impatient. I never saw him be less than anything than just how I described him. And what makes that very unusual is the pressure on a director, especially when it’s not a huge budget, trying to make the day. And when you have kids, because you only get them for a certain amount of time, you have to figure, “We’ll have Jacob for this part, and then we’ll need to bring in his double for…” there’s just a lot of logistics that he has to juggle in his mind, and it was – yeah, he was able to do it, and be unflagging in his kind equanimity.

You’re playing a father to a ten year old and a fifteen year old in the film, your kids are much younger, aren’t they?

My kids are six and – well getting on to be seven – and four. So I can’t imagine them as teenagers. My seven year old Facetimed me the other day. Just the idea that eventually, it’s already happening, even though he doesn’t know how to write he can send little emoticons, it’s going to be funny to seem them both grow up.

Do you miss writing, by the way?

I do. Well, it’s more when people ask me that question, I say I do, but if I really missed it, I’d do it. But it’s a little bit more – compare it to that feeling of school, having a term paper that you keep putting off starting, then if you get in the flow it feels great – but I have been talking with a friend about some ideas and stuff. But year, even on a movie like this, I would certainly – if I had an idea for a scene or something, I would pass it on to the director. Maybe because I did begin as a writer, I’ve always found that directors are open to hearing new ideas, whether or not they use them, I’ve always felt encouraged to bring them. In fact, the couple of times that I haven’t felt that way has been a challenging work experience.

It’s funny, Julia was talking about the shoes that she felt her character would wear, and I was like, ‘God, it never even occurred to me to think about the shoes. I’ve got to start doing more of that preparation.’, but then I was thinking, y’know, to be kind to myself, I do preparation in other ways. I’m always trying to think of the scene, and coming up with maybe a new line or something that might make the scene better. That’s the way I approach it as an actor, probably, using that writing muscle, which is the way I began.

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