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The same as he ever was

But is that a good or bad thing for regular-guy Luke Wilson?

June 29, 2003|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

Luke Wilson wasn't exactly his first choice for the male lead in his new film "Alex & Emma," director Rob Reiner concedes. In fact, he wasn't even on the radar screen until Kate Hudson, the actor's co-star in the film, put in a pitch for her pal.

"I thought of the character as a Jewish neurotic guy, the way I approach everything," Reiner says. "But I decided it could be interesting to take a laid-back Texan and make him as neurotic as possible. My dad [Carl] filtered Jewish neurosis through a goyish personality with Dick Van Dyke and came up with a hybrid that worked."

That revelation comes as no surprise to the actor, who knew he was under the microscope. "I could feel Rob looking at me," Wilson says over breakfast recently. " 'Strange guy,' I'm sure he thought, imitating my accent ('Roooob!').

"But you don't have to know me very well to see I'm less laid-back than I seem. I chew toothpicks ... I got 'em right here. I take the second or third newspaper in a stack -- if there's only the last one, I may not read it. Owen likes to say that one minute you're swimming with me in the ocean, and the next, you look up and I'm driving away."

The "Owen" in question is Owen Wilson, Luke's older brother, with whom he's still confused. For the uninitiated: Owen, star of such movies as "Behind Enemy Lines" and "Shanghai Noon," is blond with a broken nose. Luke, brown-haired and square-jawed, is more conventionally handsome, if less well known. The two have paired up in a trio of quirky Wes Anderson movies -- "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" -- that let Luke show his colors. But in mainstream fare, he's been relegated to comedy: Martin Lawrence's sidekick in "Blue Streak" and an aging frat boy, with Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn, in "Old School." Or earnest, sometimes bland sorts in a host of "boyfriend" roles propping up an A-list of leading woman. One critic noted that he's solid but irreverent, "Clark Kent and Han Solo rolled into one."

This summer is a busy one for the actor, who'll be surfacing in four films. In addition to "Alex & Emma," in which he plays a writer struggling to pay off a $100,000 gambling debt, he's reprising his role as Cameron Diaz's significant other in the just-released "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle." On Wednesday, he'll again be seen as Reese Witherspoon's legal mentor-romantic interest in "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde." And he's also playing the right-hand man to a rebounding rock legend (played by Bob Dylan) in "Masked and Anonymous," due out on July 24.

McG, director of both "Charlie's Angels" installments, points to Wilson's breeding and his self-deprecating style to explain the actor's appeal. "Some guys are all hat and no cattle -- but not Luke," he observes. Even in his endless reaction shots, the actor holds his own.

"Luke is the ultimate Texas gentleman -- the antidote to your notion of a pretentious leading man," McG said. "He'd never allow a lady to enter an elevator after him, which is part of his charm. He reminds me of a Cary Grant or a Gregory Peck, guys who speak softly and carry a big stick. I needed an actor who could stand with Cameron in a two-shot and not be overwhelmed by her cinematic presence. Luke's character must be in the service of hers, but he makes a meal out of an appetizer."

Close-knit Texas family

Wilson grew up in Dallas, where his father managed the local public television station and later wrote ad copy and political books; his mom is a photographer. Having his picture taken regularly made Wilson comfortable with the camera: It wasn't about smiling for a photo, he recalls, but about being himself. He was one of three brothers -- Andrew, the oldest, is a documentary filmmaker and actor. They all remain best friends.

"In the family, I was the drummer, playing behind everyone, following those guys around," he says. "Even my mother calls me 'Owen' or 'Andrew' and I don't bother to correct her. There's a funny picture she took of my brothers and five of their friends. I was off to the side and thrilled to be there -- unobtrusive but part of things.

"It bothers me when people ask if Owen and I are competitive," he says with a touch of annoyance, tired of that refrain. "It's not like 'my rentals are higher, but you're beating me at the box office.' We're not the Sunshine Boys, but we love each other. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if it weren't for him."

Wilson was on the verge of dropping out from his third college ("I call that period 'the Lost Years' ") when Owen and his University of Texas buddy Anderson threw him a rope -- Hollywood-style. How about making a movie? They had co-written a script called "Bottle Rocket," the story of two Texans turning to an unlikely life of crime. He'd play one -- a former mental patient who finds love with a motel maid.

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