I got to know Owen Wilson a couple of years ago, when he was renting the second floor of a palazzo on the Piazza Farnese, in Rome. He stayed for six months while shooting the 2004 film “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” directed by his friend Wes Anderson. I was living in Rome with my family then, and, as often happens with expatriates, one meets people one wouldn’t ordinarily know at home. Through an emissary, Wilson invited me to one of his parties. We talked about books, sports, music, and magazines — everything, it seemed, except movies.
After that, I’d meet O. (as one comes to know Owen) in a pub called the Abbey Theatre — an Irish-themed joint near the Piazza Navona that shows NFL football games. Being from Dallas, Wilson is a Cowboys fan. “Hey, I will see you at the Ab-bay,” he’d drawl, and he would see me, too — before I spotted him, usually. He had learned from being famous to get his looks in early, before other people noticed him. In the face of rapidly growing celebrity — this was around the time “Starsky & Hutch” came out, but before “Wedding Crashers” — he seemed to be aggressively committed to remaining himself. The reason that he was so determined to be himself, I imagined, was that he always seems to be playing himself on-screen. If he stopped being Owen Wilson in real life, he wouldn’t know how to be Owen Wilson in movies.
Like the characters he plays, Wilson projects an air of toasted insouciance, but it takes about two minutes to see he’s actually anything but a slacker. He’s well informed, sharp-eyed, and careful. He orders his hamburgers well done, and I never saw him drink anything except Coke or water, and then usually tap water. “I’ll have taaaiiip watah,” he’d say, in that voice, after the waitress offered him, with a flourish, acqua con oppure senza gazzz. He didn’t learn Italian; he just spoke to the natives in pidgin Spanish — Hola, amigo! — and the Italians seemed amused, because that’s exactly what an Owen Wilson character would do. After spending an evening with O., I’d find myself drawing out my vowels — exploring, like a tongue probing a sore tooth, the previously untested ironic possibilities in diphthongs.
“Are you trying to sound Southern?” my wife would ask.
But it wasn’t a Southern accent exactly, or even a regional one. Later, when I asked Wilson why he talked that way, he told me he had needed a lot of speech therapy as a child, because no one could understand him. That intonation and inflection were what he had come up with.
Another Walter MittyWhile we were in Rome, Wilson was negotiating to play Walter Mitty in a film based on Thurber’s short story, which seemed like the perfect part for him, because to me Wilson was Walter Mitty. His good fortune was so farcically unlikely, and its benefits so vast — almost anything he wanted, he could have, usually for free — that the only way to understand it was as a daydream. Except O. — it seemed then — wasn’t going to have to wake up.
Last June, Wilson was staying at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York while Anderson was editing his new film, “The Darjeeling Limited,” which stars Wilson and is due out Sept. 28. As I was waiting for Wilson in the lobby of the hotel, I heard that voice, slightly hoarse and low: “Hey, buddy.” He was wearing jeans, a blue T-shirt, and black sneakers. He did not seem to have lost his determination to remain Owen Wilson. On the night after we met, as I later read in the New York Post, he rode a mountain bike up to Scores West Side, a strip club in Chelsea, checked it at the club, spent a couple of hours getting lap dances (I wondered if he likes strip clubs because it’s the only place where people aren’t staring at him), and left his bike at the club while he went to some other nightspots.
We found a quiet place to talk. It was a small room with a big-screen TV, muted, tuned to CNN. Wilson sat with his back to the screen, on which, by a weird coincidence, almost as soon as we began talking about being a celebrity, the whole Paris Hilton re-arrest scene started going down in real time — the overhead helicopter shots of the photographers running after the car. In front of that image was Owen Wilson’s head, saying he thinks his fame is still manageable, that there’s still another level of celebrity that he hasn’t reached, when you have to take precautions.
“You mean that level,” I said, and we watched pictures of Paris’s tearful face in the patrol car. Wilson said he felt bad for her. But I got the sense then that if his career were to take him to that level, he wouldn’t regret it.
Wilson’s BlackBerry chirped. It was Anderson.
“Hey, Wes ... OK, can you text it to me, or is it easier to tell me?... Yeah, yeah, OK ... Second Street, just east of Bowery ... I’ll go.”
After hanging up, Wilson asked if I wanted to go downtown to see some drawings by Hugo Guinness, a British artist whose work can be seen on the walls of the house on Archer Avenue in Anderson’s 2001 movie, “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
Outside the hotel, Wilson was not even out from under the awning when the first woman stopped him. “Oh, I love you,” she said. “I just love you.” She gave him a hug and said, “You’re great. Thank you for your work.”
“Thank you for your work?” I exclaimed as we walked toward Gramercy Park. “You call that work?”
“What about my work?” Wilson looked at me to see if I was joking. I guess I was joking.
All the way down Third Avenue, this scene was enacted again and again by men and women of all ages. Wilson was unfailingly polite, even gallant, while I walked around in circles cursing softly.
By the time we reached the East Village, it felt as though half the city were O.’s buddies. And as for me, it was like old times again, back in the Abbey in Rome. It occurred to me that one constant in all of Wilson’s films, with or without Anderson, is that he’s somebody’s buddy. Having found his vocation in a friendship, he has made friendship — at least the feeling of it — the constant in his career.
Months later, when I read the unfathomable news that Wilson had been hospitalized after a drug-related suicide attempt, I was sorry I’d said that about his work. He had made it seem easy to be O. But now I wondered if I knew him at all. Maybe I was just another person projecting buddydom on him. I had never noticed any signs of hard drug abuse — and certainly never pictured him strung out among the film industry’s notorious users. I hated to admit it: We weren’t the friends I thought we were.
Coming of age in Texas and then being plunged straight into a life where everyone on the street is your friend must be deeply disorienting. I had been thinking about how neatly O.’s vocation had sprung from his youth with Wes, but now I saw that the meaning of friendship is easily blurred at this exaggerated level — and that if that anchor gets loose, maybe everything else goes too. I also felt for Anderson, who must have had to endure a lot. It’s easy to speculate that the cinematic crash-and-burns that O.’s characters are put through in Anderson’s films can be seen as a reflection of O.’s off-screen life. Though there are plenty of revelations coming out about his problems, I keep looking for my own clues.
A few instances have been badgering me. Just before our first interview, O. called to say that “food poisoning” had caused him to postpone this magazine’s photo shoot, so he had to cancel on me as well. And now, after reading that he had gone to church in Santa Monica the night before he lost control, I wish I’d paid more attention to a stray comment he made in the East Village. Passing a looming church, that evening last June, he asked if it was Catholic. Joking, I said, “You want to go to confession?’ He said, not joking, “Well, maybe a little prayer.”
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