PERHAPS there's no voice in Hollywood that suggests a smirk as well as Owen Wilson's nasal, Texas drawl. Indeed, as a kid, it was one of those tics that used to get him in trouble at school, or rather add to the trouble he was already in at school. "A teacher would say, 'You think it was funny? No? Why are you smirking?' " he says with a laugh. "Even my parents. I wouldn't think I would be smirking. Obviously, I wouldn't want to make them mad."
Still, the ironic insouciance seemingly embedded into the DNA of his timbre has worked well for the shaggy-haired 37-year-old, who has employed the voice as a gleeful counterpoint to an array of Wilson-esque characters, including a sweet hangdog slacker ("You, Me and Dupree"), an inveterate lady's man ("Wedding Crashers") and a hot shot author-poseur ("The Royal Tenenbaums"). The hint of Texas makes his characters appear permanently laid back.
"I guess it hasn't hurt me," says the actor, as he drives through L.A., apparently taking wrong turns as he wends his way to Paramount, where he's working on "Drillbit Taylor," about two kids who hire a cut-rate bodyguard to fend off the local schoolyard bully. He's upfront about the fact that, unlike some comic actors, he's not really great with accents, imitations or funny voices. This said, "I think people will sometimes imitate me and make me sound like a hick," he says.
In "Cars," this summer's entry from the Pixar animation powerhouse, Wilson's distinctive tones animate the exuberant and cocky sports car Lightning McQueen, as he makes his journey from the rough-and-tumble world of Piston Cup racing to the sleepy backwater of Radiator Springs, and from selfishness to finally understanding the value of friendship and generosity.
Pixar has a long history of ingenious voice casting, where a performer's idiosyncratic inflections turn their animated counterparts into true cinematic alter egos.
Tom Hanks lent "Toy Story's" cowboy Woody his good-natured sense of outrage, while Albert Brooks imbued "Finding Nemo's" Marlin with his distinctive flavor of perpetual nudgenik worry.
From Wilson's perspective, his casting as Lightning McQueen was purely serendipitous. He and his dad happened to sit by Pixar guru and "Cars" director John Lasseter at the 2002 Oscars, the year Wilson was nominated for co-writing "The Royal Tenenbaums," and Pixar's "Monsters, Inc." was nominated for a slew of awards. "He was talking. He has five boys, and they had liked the movie I had done with Jackie Chan, 'Shanghai Noon.' He was saying he had an idea for an animated movie," recalls Wilson. Lasseter gauged the actor's interest, and a couple of months later, he asked Wilson to work on the movie.
"That was a long time ago," Wilson says. "They take forever to do." On "Cars," he spent a couple of years, recording dialogue every few months, first at Disney stages in L.A., and later at Pixar's Northern California headquarters.
This said, he was a little cautious, given that it's a lot easier to dump an actor from an animated movie than a live-action one. He'd been cast as a llama herder opposite David Spade in Disney's "Kingdom of the Sun," but then had his part excised when the film morphed into "The Emperor's New Groove."
While Wilson is well-known for his ability to improvise, to riff like a jazz musician but with words, on "Cars," with its elaborate production schedule and the need to synch voice and picture, he says, he stuck more or less to the script. But Lasseter has said they were still able to pull some little gems out of Wilson's crowded mind. He once asked Wilson the sound he had for thunder as a kid, and the actor began screaming "Kachow! Kachow! Kachow!" The phrase became the rookie race car's joyous catchphrase.
Wilson sounds like he'd be up for another tour in the world of computer animation. Voice recording, he says, is a lot more relaxing than on-screen acting. "You don't have to worry about the way you look, going in and doing hair and makeup and having everybody looking at you and judging you in wardrobe. You can roll out of bed, clear your throat and go to work."