The only thing in Hollywood more interesting than Owen Wilson's career may be Owen Wilson's nose. It's a wonder to behold: a twisting, swollen ski slope; a special effect that seems to expand and change angles with the light. He broke it first in ninth grade, then again playing football at the University of Texas. Has he considered having it fixed? "I get bombarded with those questions," he says. "I must look like a freak, but if I were to change it I would get so much grief from my brothers."
He has suffered for the nose, but not because of it. Five years ago, Wilson, 33, became known as one of the most original young writers in movies. The film was Bottle Rocket, a sharp-as-a-tack crime comedy he co-wrote with director Wes Anderson. Their low-budget breakthrough, starring Wilson and his two brothers, Luke, 30, and Andrew, 37, earned some devoted fans and critics, but it didn't set any fires at the box office. Since then, however, Owen has established his unique profile with supporting roles in big popcorn hits like 1998's Armageddon and last year's double-header Meet the Parents and Shanghai Noon.
With a high-pitched drawl that makes him seem at once sleepy, surprised and seductive, he is becoming a most unlikely movie star, doing his part for the growing Wilson dynasty. Andrew is an aspiring director, and Luke has gone on to appear in Charlie's Angels and Legally Blonde. "We're extremely competitive," says Owen, "but not with business. I'm always excited when I see them doing stuff because it's so amazing that we're even working in movies."
Now the overachieving middle brother is getting his first shot at a showy leading role in Behind Enemy Lines, a rah-rah war movie co-starring Gene Hackman which opens in Australia this week. Wilson again appears with Hackman in the upcoming The Royal Tenenbaums. The whip-smart comedy about a family of geniuses, the third collaboration between Anderson and Wilson, co-stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller and brother Luke as Hackman's dysfunctional brood.
Hackman describes Wilson as "a good young actor with original looks." It's an understatement, but true enough. Born and bred in the affluent environs of north Dallas, Wilson was a rambunctious kid (he was expelled from school in 10th grade for cheating in geometry) who found redemption in his sly sense of humor and knack for writing quirky dialogue. Majoring in English at the University of Texas, he discovered a kindred spirit in Anderson, his senior-year roommate. In 1992, they wrote Bottle Rocket as a short film. After it played at the Sundance Film Festival, producer-director James L. Brooks (As Good as It Gets) helped them turn it into a feature.
Despite his talent for writing, Wilson, who's shooting I Spy with Eddie Murphy, says, "it's more fun to go act than to hole up for a couple of months and try to write something. That's a lot scarier." But the writer in Wilson never stays dormant for long. Before shooting Behind Enemy Lines, Wilson transformed his character on the page from a swaggering pilot to a misguided navigator who has to outwit some Serbian bad guys after being shot down. "It kinda helped me make it more believable for myself," says Wilson. "I don't see myself being a straight-out action hero."
First-time feature director John Moore and the studio initially questioned Wilson's ability to carry the film, but Hackman-a fan since seeing him in Shanghai Noon-lobbied on Wilson's behalf. "I thought he could bring something unconventional to our scenes working off each other," says Hackman, who plays a tough-love naval commander.
While shooting Wilson's close-ups, Moore asked Hackman to scream his lines loudly at the younger actor. "It was to get a reaction from me," says Wilson, "but I almost started to smile because I was like, 'Wow, that's the voice Hackman uses when he gets mad that I've heard so much.' So it didn't get the intended effect." In the end, though, Wilson acquits himself nicely, making good use of his ability to wink at the audience without appearing self-conscious. "You have got to be s_____ing me!" he hollers after an elaborate, aborted rescue attempt. It's a cry of agony, but with Wilson's expertly put-upon delivery, it's also funny. In that moment he admits the movie's implausibility and captures the heart of the audience. Forget the nose, if you can. He's got legs.