The Accidental Movie Star

Of the three Dallas brothers who made the indie hit Bottle Rocket, Luke Wilson never really wanted to be an actor. So, with three movies coming out this season, why is he the one teetering on the brink of stardom?

Luke Wilson hates valet parkin*;, which is bad for me, because I’m waiting for him approximately 17 mi les and one mountain range from the nearest actual parking space. Luke may live in L.A., but he’s still got enough Dallas in him to resist forking over his keys to a tow-headed weenie in an ice cream-colored jumpsuit. I order a drink and kill some time at the Great Gatsby-style terrace bistro of the Chateau Marmont hotel, perched on a steep hillside overlooking Sunset Boulevard, and eventually ask a waiter if he’s seen Luke Wilson.

“Who’s Luke Wilson?” he asks. The waiter looks like an actor himself.

“Luke Wilson,” I repeat. “He’s an actor. Very good-looking. Late 20s.”

“There are so many of them,” he says archly, turning away.

A few minutes later, Luke ambles onto the cafe’s lawn in casual dress, looking less like an actor than the waiter, confessing that he hasn’t changed clothes from the night before. There is no agent with him. He doesn’t have a publicist or a manager. He’s a movie star, but one from another age. His angular jaw line is like the young Montgomery Clift, his affable nature the young Jimmy Stewart, and he has a little Nicolas Cage around the eyes. He has a relaxed athleticism that’s reminiscent of Paul Newman-when people talk about him, they always mention his “casual sex appeal”-but what makes him striking is that he’s not any of these guys.

He’s Everyman, but with a little more class. He’s WASPy enough to play tennis at the country club or be a lacrosse star at some tony Eastern college. But you get the impression he could hold his own with the stock boys at The Container Store, which, in fact, is where he was working when he made his first movie. He hates auditions, especially on days he’d rather be golfing. He’s known to every casting director in town, yet he doesn’t really talk the Hollywood talk. “I have a few good friends out here, but I don’t like the traffic and 1 don’t like the constant talk of movies,” says Luke. “It dulls the magic of it for me.”

Luke has almost effortlessly become one of the Beautiful People, a bold-face name in the tabloids, and if you play “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” with him. he wins instantly-he’s made not one. but two, movies with Bacon. He’s one of those guys who may actually be just exactly what he appears to be. And now he’s on the verge of…well, of everything.

“He’s one movie away from being a major, major star,” says Nick Styne, his agent at the high-powered Beverly Hills agency ICM. Styne, the son of Broadway songwriter Jules Styne. is as Old Hollywood as they come. Styne saw Luke’s film debut in 1996 in the amusing Dallas indie film Bottle Rocket and pursued him aggressively until Luke broke down and agreed to sign with 1CM. leaving another unhappy agent in the dust. “He just oozes integrity.” says Styne. “You just don’t see this classic leading-man quality very much.”

And yet. on this day when we meet at the Chateau Marmont. Luke eases into his chair like he’s just come from the Go-Kart track. (It is possible. The track is one of his favorite haunts.) Yet the Marmont, which he chose for our meeting, is. in fact, the most Hollywood of all Hollywood hotels, the place where Howard Hughes once lived, where Desi Arnaz brought his mistresses, where Montgomery Gift had a tempestuous affair with Elizabeth Taylor. The Marmont looks like a haunted castle in the Pyrenees, and it’s hip because it stands out from the glass and neon of the rest of Sunset Strip. Luke likes the Marmont, and why not? It’s the kind of place you go when Hollywood still seems like the most exciting place in the world.

In fact, he stops on the way to our table to greet David Blaine, the magician who became famous last year for burying himself in a glass coffin for seven days. “Have you met that guy?” Luke says as he sits down. There’s a wonder in his voice, a can-you-believe-all-these-interesting-guys-are-walking-around-here kind of freshness. He orders a little lunch. We talk a little golf. And I ask him if he feels like a movie star yet.

“Sometimes people will say ’You’re the guy in Home Fries,’ but that’snotoften,”he says. “I’m just focusing on the present, trying to do my best, because I wasn’t one of those guys who always knew he wanted to be an actor. I was an athlete in school. I was never a drama person. I looked into journalism and photography, but when I was growing up. considering acting as a profession was to me only a little more realistic than playing in the NFL. You dream about it, like. ’Well, maybe I can’t he a quarterback, but I could he the punter! ’ So I thought about it, but it was in that way. You know. ’Mayhe I could work on the fringes of things….’”

It was his older, brasher brother Owen who launched the two of them into the movies. Owen befriended Wes Anderson while both were students at UT. Together the two misfits wrote a long rambling screenplay for what eventually hecame Bottle Rocket. Owen naturally called on both of his brothers to help-big brother Andrew. because he was in the advertising business and had sound and camera equipment; little brother Luke because they needed all the actors they could get who would work for free.

“We just wanted to do a Brothers McMullen-type thing.” says Luke. The movie turned out to he one of those strange “indie film” phenomena-not a box-office success (returning only about 10 percent of its $5 million budget) but one that got “noticed.” So many Hollywood insiders saw it that Owen and Anderson received that crucial ingredient for young guys on the make: “heat.” As a team, they would go on to massive critical success with Rushmore in 1998.

Though Luke has made a dozen movies since then-including the internationally successful Blue Streak-he’s still known in Hollywood mostly for Bottle Rocket and another lesser known film, last summer’s My Dog Skip. In this sentimental family picture based on Willie Morris’ memoir about growing up in Mississippi, Luke plays the local baseball hero who goes off to World War II but returns in disgrace, having fled in fear at the first sign of combat. He’s supposed to turn all sullen and alcoholic in the second half of the movie, thereby destroying the child protagonist’s idyllic view of him. But he comes off as such a damned nice guy that we never quite buy it.

Still, it’s the kind of old-fashioned movie that actual members of the Academy want to see. So Luke’s whole career is based on two movies that very few people saw, yet everyone talks about.

Yet it’s no more improbable than the Wilson brothers’ original scheme to break into the movies, a scheme that was hatched sometime in 1991, when they had moved back into the North Dallas house on Strait Lane where they grew up. It was an arts-oriented home, with father Boh the president of KERA-TV Channel 13 for a decade in the ’60s and ’70s, and mom Laura a respected photographer who worked with Richard Avedon.

After leaving KERA, Bob started an advertising company and, in 1991, ran into L.M. “Kit” Carson, the noted Paris, Texas screenwriter and producer, at a cocktail party. Bob was bemoaning the scheme his sons had to make a motion picture.

“Bob said. ’Please talk to my kids and tell them not to do this,’1’ Carson remembers. The Wilson brothers all knew Carson from childhood, as he had worked on a documentary for Channel 13 and had written for D Magazine.

“We looked up to Kit.” says Luke. Their father, on the other hand, didn’t have the same credibility. Raising three sons had taken a toll on his patience, recalls Luke, and “he had a notoriously short fuse. The first acting that Owen and I did was to sit around and imitate people, and my best impression was my father. I could do this imitation of him blowing up, and it was dead on. His favorite thing to say was ’Never in my wildest imagination did 1 think I’d have sons like these.’”

Owen put the line in the script for Rushmore. “Those bratty sons of Bill Murray are based on us!” says Luke. “When we went to the premiere, we all watched my father to see what his reaction would he to that line.” (In Rushmore, Luke has a small role as the boyfriend of the sexy teacher that Max Fischer, played by Jason Schwartzman, has a crush on.)

Dad’s strategy in 1991 was to invite Kit and Cynthia Carson to dinner at the Wilsons* Preston Hollow home and hope [hat his sons would see how impossible it was to make a movie. “So during the dinner,” recalls Carson, “Luke keeps showing me things out of his box of movie memorabilia. He had an Easy Rider poster. I remember. He had a lot of scripts. After it was over I told Bob. ’I can’t talk these kids out of this.”’ So with their parents’ support, they decided to do it. Carson told them he’d help.

Their first stop was the famous Sundance Film Festival in Utah. In January 1992, the two older brothers. Owen and Andrew, crashed in Carson’s condo and tried to sneak into screenings. “They would wait until a movie was ending, and as all the people came out of the theater, they would walk in backward,” Carson says. “It looked like they were leaving but they were actually going in. They had perfected this.”

In May, Owen and Wes showed up at Carson’s house with about 14 minutes of 16-miHimeter film. Though the scenes were fragmented. Carson was impressed.

“I recognized right away they were speaking a new film language,” Carson says. “It was just very current and it felt so absolutely accurate. So I said ’Great! Is there a script?’” They came back with 97 pages that amounted to an extended first act. Carson explained thai a script had to have a beginning, middle, and end, and encouraged them to first make a short film, with a completed feature script ready to go.

“I had never even heard of a short.” Luke says. “It sounded kind of half-assed to me. We wanted to make a real movie, But he said that’s what we had to do, so we made the 13-minute short.”

Throughout the year. Owen and Wes revised the script, going through seven drafts and taking Carson’s notes. “I would tell them what (hey needed.” says Carson, “and they would solve the problem in fresh inventive ways.”

But when they showed up at Sundance in January 1993-with the short film completed, the poster done, the script ready to be shot by Hollywood-nothing happened. Everyone saw the short, but no one was interested in it. The same executives who would later praise Owen and Wes as geniuses were totally unimpressed. “And to make it worse,” recalls Luke, “we were such nobodies at Sundance that we couldn’t even get into screenings.” More walking in backward.

Then, after they had gone home to Texas. the impossible happened.

“I had sent it to my friend Barbara Boyle,” says- Carson. “She was skirting: her own production company.” Boyle, who later made Phenomenon, called and said, “You caught lightning in a bottle.”

Overnight the project went from nothing to a hot item on the Hollywood grapevine. Boyle literally forced director James L. Brooks to stop his work in the editing room long enough to watch the Bottle Rocket tape, Thirteen minutes later. Brooks said ’This is a go deal,”

They saw what Carson liked about Wes. Owen, and Luke: how different they were from other Gen-X filmmakers. “The children of the Yuppies grew up seeing everyone full of shit, so most GenX movies are opaque,” Carson says. “[With them] there’s a shield of naivete. These are true fragments of this generation’s imagination. They have a lock on a character everyone knows-a scammer, a schemer-yet there’s something touching about him.”

The schemer in Bottle Rocket was. of course, Owen, not Luke. Owen, as the would-be master criminal whose oddball dreams are both charming and a little frightening, has pretty much been playing the same character ever since.

Luke, as the more balanced, more internalized brother, is harder to define, yet he’s the one who makes the girl next door swoon, There’s a softness about his eyes, a vulnerability that Owen doesn’t have, and many in Hollywood think that’s exactly what makes Luke potential star material, whereas Owen will probably have a different career path, one that follows the Dennis Hopper and Joe Pesci sort of arc.

Yet it’s Owen who’s more aggressive about his career. He does have a manager and a publicist. Il took more than a dozen phone calls to his various handlers to get a message back that he was uninterested in talking to D Magazine. Says Carson drily: “Owen has apparently chosen a celebrity lifestyle.”

The brothers come by their Bottle Rocket characters honestly. Owen, two years older, was the more outgoing one, but always in trouble. Luke was shy and aimless, but always liked by adults for his earnestness and desire to succeed. Owen was a waiter at S&D Oyster Company. Luke was a clerk at The Container Store. Owen was a perpetual cut-up. Luke was an avid athlete, playing wide receiver on the St. Mark’s football team-which finished 8-2 his senior year-and excelling in track. (He still holds the St. Mark’s records in the 1600 and 3200 meter relays. ) Owen, on the other hand, got expelled from St. Mark’s in the 10th grade when he and some cohorts stole the answers to a geometry exam. The headmaster told Owen that it would go easier on him if he revealed the names of all the people who used the stolen answers, but Owen took the fall himself. As a result, he was expelled and, ai his own request, enrolled in the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell.

Luke, in the 8th grade at the time, was devastated, and the whole family was thrown into crisis. “For me,” says Luke, “it was kind of like being a spouse when your partner is dead. People were looking at me funny after that.” Andrew never graduated from St. Mark’s. either, he transferred to Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. And though Luke was one credit short, the headmaster helped him get into college anyway. He attended Occidental College in L.A. for a while, then TCU. then SMU,

“I was floundering.”’ Luke admits now. “I was an English major. did a little drama, but I didn’t know what I wanted. I was a shy person. 1 never joined a fraternity or anything.”

At the time that Brooks got interested in their short him. Luke was living with Owen and Wes in a “hellhole” on Throckmorton Street in Dallas. Brooks flew to Dallas to meet them and to see where they lived. “It was all trashed out.” says Luke. “He just walked in, looked around, and then walked out.”

At the first script reading, held in a suite at the Stoneleigh Hotel, the would-be filmmakers were “nervous as hell” and took forever to gel through it. “When we finished, there was just silence,” Luke says. “There was no euphoria. It was like all the air had been let out of the room.”

For a few days they thought they’d blown it. Then Brooks called. He wanted Owen and Wes to come to L.A. and work on the script with him.

At that time Brooks had leverage at Sony Pictures; the studio was about to release his Jerry Maguire. But Mark Canton, the chief executive, was skeptical about Bottle Rocket. He told Brooks he’d agree to it, but he’d rather have Ethan Hawke and Keanu Reeves than two unknown brothers from Dallas, Brooks convinced Canton thai there was no reason to make it unless the original guys were in it.

In the summer of 1995, everyone assembled at the Stoneleigh to begin pre-production. Unfortunately, Kit Carson was soon removed as the film’s producer, after a battle for control over the sympathies and loyalty of Wes Anderson, the young first-time director. Nevertheless, Luke remembers the experience as one of the best of his life. “I had the feeling it was gonna he the first and last movie I ever made,” he says, “but it was still a good feeling. I hadn’t had a feeling like that since being involved in athletics.”

The result-shot in Dallas. Hillshoro, and Carl’s Corner-was a quirky comedy that, like its namesake, flares brilliantly, makes you go “Wow,” yet doesn’t quite satisfy. The characters are brilliant, particularly Owen as the wannabe criminal with a 50-year plan, a fitness regimen, white tape on his nose, and an orange jumpsuit. Luke plays Owen’s brother, recently released from a mental health facility after treatment for “exhaustion.” He goes along with Owen’s hysterical criminal schemes but is really more interested in a charming Paraguayan maid at the motel where they hide out.

Robert Musgrave, a Dallas friend of the Wilsons, plays the morose slacker “Bob.” brought into the gang because he’s the only guy they know who owns a car. Older brother Andrew plays the fearsome older brother of Bob, “Futureman.” who likes to beat Bob up for infractions like leaving a single leaf in the pool. And James Caan is the sinister “Mr. Henry.” a small-time crook that Owen reveres and wants to impress.

When the movie was finished, it was released on the same weekend in 30 cities, exactly the wrong release strategy for such a small film. Il should have been “platformed,” city by city, gaining critical momentum and word of mouth. Instead, the film came and went in a week, a sign that Columbia had likely written it off from the begin-ning. “Columbia was just not fond of it.” says Luke. Fortunately, critics were, and more important, agents and casting directors loved it.

Suddenly Luke, Owen, and Wes were all hot. “The odds of this happening,” says Carson incredulously, “is like an asteroid crashing through the universe and hitting you on your big toe.”

But like many guys who star! getting invited to Hollywood parties they didn’t know existed the year before, Luke wasn’t sure what to do next. “My first agent-someone I got through Owen and Wes-sent me on auditions. I wasn’t good al it. I’m so glad I didn’t gel any of the crap I tried out for.”

He moved into a house with Wes and Owen in WASPy Hancock Park, an L.A. neighborhood not unlike Preston Hollow. The three of them used the house as a combination crash pad/office/meeting place and were accused by their girlfriends of using the house as “an elaborate ploy to avoid commitment,” Owen was dating rocker Sheryl Crow for a while. And somewhere along the way. Luke fell into a relationship with Drew Barry more.

They met on the set of the movie Home Fries, yet another quirky independent comedy filmed in Texas. Once again, Luke portrayed the good brother, but this time his psycho sibling is Jake Busey, son and spitting image of Gary. Though the movie is ridiculous, Luke and Drew are so obviously in love that their scenes together are charming.

Luke turns sheepish if you ask him about Drew. “You know, I had seen her in the movies for so long that it was hard to believe that she was younger than me.” He says they’ve remained close for four years. “She says it was love at firsi sight.”

“And you?” I ask. Luke stammers: “Well, uh. you know, it would be kind of difficult for me to get married right now.”

It’s almost as though Luke-brand new to Hollywood, a hot young actor with a buzz around him. ready to explore his life as a single guy-ends up with the most desirable girl in town on his very first date. Who wouldn’t be confused? After an on-again. off-again relationship, which Luke’s friends put down to his inability to commit, Drew had had enough. She recently announced her engagement to comedian Tom Green.

By the time he made Home Fries, Luke had ditched his original agent and signed with Nick Styne. who immediately told him to slop working so much. Luke was just famous enough to avoid the awful audition process, but that was causing him to accept every role that came along. “And work,” says Styne, “can be a dangerous thing in this business.”

“My problem is that I like to work,” says Luke. “If someone is doing a small film, I’ll say ’Sure. ’because, you know, that’s where I came from. The agency would rather I wail for the right thing.” The ultimate evidence that Luke had become an Indie King was his cameo in Scream 2. Anyone associated with this Wes Craven franchise is, by definition, hip and happening.

Last fall Luke was cast in a major big-budget film-he won’t say which one-but then backed out of it at Christmas. “I just agonized over it,” says Luke. “I went home for Christmas and talked it out with my dad and called Nick and said ’Ijust can’t do this film.’ And he said, ’Okay, but can I ask you why you wanted to do it before?’ And 1 said, ’Yeah. I’d never imagined that much money before in my life.* And Nick says, ’Okay, fine. I’ll get you out of it. But from now on, figure out what you really want to do.’”

Luke’s most successful movie so far was last year’s Blue Streak, in which he showed good comic timing as straight man to comedian Martin Lawrence. The whole movie is mostly an excuse for Lawrence’s comedy bits, ending with a 20-minute chase scene, and it all amounts to a feet-good formula film. Which happens to be exactly the kind of movie Wilson would like to be making.

“People always say to me ’You’re a big indie guy. aren’t you?” But I don’t wanna be!” Luke says. “The kind of movie I really like is Face/Off. Inspiring movies like Sweet and Lowdown. I’m proud of Blue Streak, because it was No. 1 at the box office and made $120 million.”

In reality, it’s big brother Owen who has gone after mainstream studio pictures. While Luke was making liny films like Bong Water, Owen was fast becoming the guy casting directors for big-budget movies called when they needed flashy, smarmy, or downright weird. in movies like Anaconda, The Haunting, Armageddon, and Shanghai Noon.

Owen seems to be going tor the hybrid career. Me has maintained close ties to Brooks, serving as associate producer on the director’s Academy Award-winning As Good As It Gets, and he’s currently writing Making Amends with Judd Apatow, a fellow “producer/writer/director/actor.” Somewhere along the way he broke up with Sheryl Crow because he was just so dang busy. It remains to be seen whether Owen’s acting career will “break out.” but if history is any indication, there’s nothing wrong with stealing scenes in lame movies. Burt Reynolds did it for years.

Then there’s big brother Andrew. Although he’s had a few roles himself, the 35-year-old actor didn’t get the same attention as his siblings, mainly because his role in Bottle Racket was so small. He can currently be seen driving a Lamborghini in a Sony commercial.

Now Luke is prepared to burst into the big-budget world himself. The next year or so will determine whether he can nab that one big role that makes him a bona fide star. He’s got a part in the big Charlie’s Angels movie. (It’s his third film with Drew, but this time he plays Cameron Diaz’s boyfriend.) Then Luke and Owen will be paired as brothers again on the remake of Oceans Eleven, which stars George Clooney. Brad Pitt, Dennis Franz, Julia Roberts. Michael Douglas, and, in a small role, Leonardo DiCaprio. Luke has already wrapped Soul Survivors, in which he plays a priest. The Third Wheel opposite Denise Richards, and Committed with Heather Graham. Committed has been released, and Soul Survivors and The Third Wheel are expected to be released this fall.

“Committed was a real emotional role.” Luke confesses. “It made me nervous. In an uncomfortable emotional situation, my instinct is to make a joke.”

It’s a curious thing for an actor to say. Most actors love to cry, to emote, to show anguish. But Luke didn’t come up through the Neighborhood Playhouse, or Yale, or the L.A. acting classes of Milton Kalselas, the famous Scientologist who has influenced so many stars. Luke’s training ground was the athletic fields of St. Mark’s. So it’s not too surprising that, when I ask him whether he intends to study with any of the lop acting teachers, he uses an analogy from sports.

“Do you know who Chuck Knoblauch is? The second baseman for the Yankees? Well, he decided to study videotapes of his throwing motion. He watched himself and started noting what he did right and what he did wrong. And he became so screwed in his mind from that that he couldn’t make the throw to first. You can watch him in slow motion and you’ll see it. There’s a moment of hesitation, where his arm goes offline. So I’m not going to do that. I see where I’m going and I just do it.”

And with that Luke headed for his car, which was parked God knows where in the Hollywood Hills. On the way out, 1 saw the same waiter and he smiled at me. He’d figured out who Luke Wilson is. Because there aren’t so many of them after all.

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