Owen Wilson: action hero — a descriptive one wouldn’t necessarily apply to the cerebral laconic comedic-actor. It may not even be a title the actor himself completely feels comfortable with. In speaking with Wilson about his newest film No Escape, he was quick to note that it wasn’t the chance to play hero that attracted him but the familial drama that lured him into the picture. In the film, the actor stars as Jack Dwyer, who along with his wife (Lake Bell) and two daughters, moves to an unnamed Southeastern Asian country. Their move, unfortunately, coincides with a coup in the country aimed at outside Westerners. Trapped in a hotel, the fraught family must work together to survive the ordeal and make it to the US Embassy intact.
Wilson makes for a fine dramatic lead, ably selling a disillusioned father who feels he isn’t quite good enough for his own family. But I’d be lying if I said there isn’t a certain thrill to watching Wilson jump off rooftops and punch people in the face. Perhaps that’s the key to Wilson’s performance in No Escape – his reluctance to give into the tropes of the action genre, to play each scene not as hero but as father.
COLLIDER: Is there a particular action hero performance you looked to [emulate]?
OWEN WILSON: I guess the thing that attracted me to the script was that it didn’t feel too action-y. I [wasn’t] all of a sudden going to jump into a fighter jet or pick up a grenade launcher and expertly use it. It felt grounded in believability. The biggest thing was being a parent and the feeling that when put in a situation to protect your kids, [the parent] is capable of anything.
Do you tend to draw from your own personal experiences when you’re approaching these intense scenes?
WILSON: Yeah — I’ve never had to throw my kids across a rooftop; but you do have to be aware of them navigating the stairs when they’re little, watching them when you’re walking on the sidewalk and heading across the street without looking. There seems to be, and I remember it now more clearly, my parents taking us to get stitches and us falling out of a tree or having BB gun wars. [With] taking care of your kids, comes anxiety and tension because kids can’t see the dangers that parents can.
I haven’t seen you in many action movies. I think back to Behind Enemy Lines as really the only other action movie I’ve seen you in. How do you feel your approach to these action scenes has changed since then?
WILSON: When I met with Drew and John Dowdle initially about the movie, I’ve obviously worked on more comedies over the years, but what they believed is that I could possibly help the story in the beginning. You get lulled into a thing of ‘okay, there’s this kid joking around, this feels very familiar’, and then all of a sudden you pull the rug out from under my character and the audience.
Was there a particular moment in the script that made you have to do this movie?
WILSON: It was, I think in reading it, because usually you can be reading a script and within the first ten pages, you can tell if it’s a struggle to get through; but with this, it was the opposite. Within the first ten or fifteen pages, the riot breaks out and he’s running to grab his kid out of the pool and it just seemed like an exciting story for me.
You do get beat up constantly in this movie. How do you track the performance where you go ‘oh, in this scene I’m this hurt vs. I’m not that hurt in this scene’?
WILSON: I’m not good at tracking that. I just have to rely on the director and continuity person and script supervisor, because you’re not filming in order… You can’t always be at DEFCON 5 and super worked up. It was letting the director calibrate that.
How much did your character, Jack, change from the script to what you inevitably brought on set?
WILSON: I don’t think the script changed that much from what I read to what we filmed. I would say that maybe sometimes a line here or there, making something more comfortable for me to say. What was written ended up being what was shot for the most part.
Did you have a favorite scene to shoot?
WILSON: I liked doing the scenes early on with the family. They would just let the camera roll with the kids, and it really just felt real to me. It felt like a family and the kids seemed very natural, the way Lake [Bell] and I were with each other. If it felt real and believable, it was going to be all the better for what was coming.
How much of those scenes are improvised versus what’s in the script?
WILSON: Those scenes were pretty unstructured and improvised as they were just trying to establish the family, but it felt real to me because we had that.
Having acted with so many great directors, what do you feel is that key to an actor-director relationship?
WILSON: I guess it’s trust, and the trust comes from when you asked earlier ‘how do you monitor yourself?’ In this scene, you got to be doing this, so you have to rely on the director. To be able to rely on them you have to trust that when they’re saying ‘that isn’t good, this is better, do this’. You have to believe in their taste.
What is the most rewarding acting-directing experience you’ve had?
WILSON: I guess with Wes [Anderson], the way Wes is on the set, you have real confidence in his ideas, and also a feeling with the crew because it’s people he’s worked with over and over. His manner on the set is very gentle and supportive. I find that a common characteristic with the best directors I’ve worked with is they’re very supportive. I definitely felt that on Midnight in Paris or with Paul Thomas Anderson or with these guys, you feel they believe in you.
I have to ask about Zoolander 2. What is it like returning to that character almost fifteen years after the fact?
WILSON: It’s funny because the movie didn’t do that well but I guess over the years it’s developed a cult following. When we first announced the movie at the Paris fashion show, we didn’t know what the reaction would be but it seemed to be like a rock concert. I think that got us excited to then go and film the movie in Rome.
What can you say about where Hansel is in Zoolander 2?
WILSON: Well it’s not like it’s The Sixth Sense but they’re trying not to have us talk too much about it. But the movie picks up fourteen years later and Hansel at this point is not modeling the way that he used to be. I think the script’s really funny and hopefully the movie will turn out as good.
No Escape is now in theaters.