Owen Wilson on ‘No Escape,’ Karaoke, and His Love of Rambo
His first four words are perhaps the most unnecessary introduction in the history of human civilization:
“Hi, it’s Owen Wilson.”
Well, of course it is. There’s no mistaking that drawl, one of the most distinctive in Hollywood history, even over the phone. Wilson’s called me today to discuss No Escape, his new action thriller. He plays Jack Dwyer, an American engineer who relocates his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two young daughters to Southeast Asia for a new job. Hours after they arrive, a coup violently overthrows the local government, and turn Jack’s new home into a war zone. An ordinary guy trapped in life-of-death circumstances, Jack scrambles to keep his family safe, even (in one very memorable scene) tossing his kids from one rooftop to the next to escape an angry mob.
A father himself, Wilson told me about shooting that intense scene (and where it ranks amongst the craziest things he’s done in movies) and even offered a little fatherly advice to yours truly, whose first child is due in December. (His tip: Wait to definitively pick a name until you meet the baby. “Those first couple days,” he said, “you’ll feel if it’s right.”) In between, we also discussed working with Pierce Brosnan (who co-stars in the film as a kind of dark twist on his James Bond persona), his potential involvement in Cars 3, and the action movie he loved as a teenager: the original First Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone.
So first of all, my wife is pregnant with our first child. So I just want to thank you for giving me nightmares for the rest of my life. Thank you very much.
[laughs] You’re welcome.
Did the film speak to you on that level? To your own fears as a parent?
Well I think that was one of the things that, when I first read the script, it got me excited thinking “God, this could be a good story.” It’s sort of one thing to imagine yourself in a situation like that, but then having your family there, I thought that’s what raised the stakes. And then I know from — you’ll see when your children are born — you feel this kind of love, this emotion that you’ve never felt before. So imagining something threatening that, and suddenly you’re capable of anything, or would do anything [to protect it].
Right. I appreciated that while this is an action movie, your character isn’t necessarily an action hero. And I liked the fact, too, that your character is constantly sweating. Not enough action heroes sweat. They just stay so cool amidst all the craziness.
I think we have to give Thailand an assist on that.
Because it really is — even though we were supposedly there during their winter — it’s just a humid place. That’s just the way it is in Southeast Asia. But I do think that in first meeting with [filmmakers John Erick and Drew Dowdle] about playing the character, that’s what helped me click into it. I could imagine my dad in this situation would have been doing the same stuff. It didn’t seem like all of a sudden I’m picking up a grenade launcher or expertly using a jet.
You mentioned how having a kid makes you feel capable of doing anything to keep them safe. I feel like maybe the scene where your character is tossing children from one rooftop to another might qualify in that realm. I enjoyed that scene and I’m curious what it was like shooting it — and also where you think that ranks in the list of surreal things you’ve done onscreen. You’ve done some pretty crazy stuff.
Yeah, I think that’s gonna replace playing with Marley in Marley & Me. I think that’s gonna jump in front of that as a more memorable scene.
But the actual doing of the scene, it was sort of important that the physics of it somewhat make sense and can be believable. And I remember asking the director, and he was assuring me, “No, no, no, I was in the pool with my son Henry and I was shot-putting him into the pool.” And I do remember as a kid, your dad would do that. He’d always get tired before you’d get tired of getting launched in the pool.
But yeah, it’s one thing to get launched into a pool and then another to do it from a 15-story building across to another one. When Lake and I, who plays my wife, are debating the pros and cons, it was simplified in my mind, just because it was the only option. With that, I think we kind of did a good job; you’ve got no choice. So that makes things easier.
Right. I also really enjoyed the scenes between you and Pierce Brosnan. I want to know about shooting with him, but I also need to know: Was his line “Perhaps I should change into my sweatpants” in the script or did Pierce improvise that? That’s a fantastic moment.
I think that might have been in the script. It’s exciting for everyone when Pierce comes on set because it’s James Bond! And playing this character, that was rough around the edges ... it’s one of those things you didn’t know you wanted it until you saw it. Seeing James Bond do karaoke and behaving in that way. It was great when he signed on to do the movie.
But it’s funny; I live here in Malibu, and since the movie I’ve seen him a couple times up at the coffee shop. And you know when you go to the coffee shop early in the morning and you’re just kind of dragging? I see Pierce there, and the guy always looks like James Bond! He just looks cool.
You brought up Pierce’s karaoke scene, and I love doing karaoke, so I have to ask: Do you ever do karaoke, and if so, what’s your go-to song?
There’s a big karaoke night every Wednesday night at this place in Malibu, and in fact we were just there. And the actual guy from that band Empire of the Sun was there with Pete Farrelly, so we were all doing his song, “Walking on a Dream.”
We just happened to be nearby at dinner, and I wandered into this place and began doing karaoke. But how often do you get to do karaoke with the real person there singing? We sounded very professional.
You’ve worked with so many great directors; Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, obviously, Woody Allen, and on and on. Is there anyone left that you’re dying to work with?
I love the Coen brothers. I’ve always loved their movies. I guess that would be the one.
It seems like you would be a perfect fit in their world.
Yeah. They’re great.
You’ve written and produced movies; do you have interest in directing something yourself someday?
I think at some point I would maybe take a shot at it. Maybe something that I wrote. I would give it a try.
Just last weekend at the big D23 Disney convention, they unveiled the first poster for Cars 3. I know it’s a ways off at this point, but is it too early to say whether or not you’ll be involved with it?
I haven’t seen the script, but I remember talking with John Lasseter where he said they were working on a story. So, yeah, it seems like it’s happening.
This is your first one in a while, but you’ve made a few action movies and action comedies over your career. Do you have any favorite action films yourself?
I loved First Blood. I’m thinking about movies I saw — there’s like a handful of movies that I saw in my life two days in a row. And First Blood was one of those.
Two days in a row meaning you saw it and then went back the next day?
Yeah, and then went back and saw it again. I remember Reservoir Dogs was another.
What was it about First Blood that captured your imagination?
It just seemed like a great idea. And also I was probably the perfect age. I was probably like 14 or something. I still remember the beginning of that movie, where [Rambo’s] walking through town and the sheriff picks him up and “Hey we don’t want any trouble here. Let me give you a ride to the edge of town” and he’s goes “Well I wasn’t doing anything” and he goes “I know, but let me just give you a ride, drop you off here on the outskirts and you can be your way.” They get to the end, he drops him off, and the sheriff starts driving back and he looks in the mirror, and there’s Rambo, now turned, and he’s walking back into the town. And it’s a simple beginning, but it’s got a Western-type feel. And then the thing of him jumping off a cliff and falling through those trees and stuff was a great stunt.
Well you come kind of close to that last one in No Escape.
Yeah, yeah. Maybe that was somewhat inspired by or an homage to First Blood.
You don’t get to wear a headband though.
No. [laughs] I did get to sweat a lot.