Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Luke Wilson has starred in multiple decade-defining comedies, whether or not he (and movie audiences) realized it at the time. Films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums have always been highly regarded, but projects like Idiocracy, The Family Stone, and even Enlightened have only benefitted from hindsight. Wilson considers himself lucky no matter what, considering what it took to get Bottle Rocket made. But while his first film faced some major studio interference, the Stargirl actor has established himself as a vital part of several repertories, including collaborations with his brother Owen Wilson, Wes Anderson, Adam McKay, major Saturday Night Live players, Reese Witherspoon, and Mike Judge. In looking at his career to date, it’s clear that his most frequently recurring role has been that of a partner: in romance, in crime, and in filmmaking.
Stargirl (2020-)—“Pat Dugan a.k.a. Stripesy/S.T.R.I.P.E.”
The A.V. Club: With superhero shows and movies in abundant supply these days, did it just feel like a matter of time before you appeared in one?
Luke Wilson: I’d definitely thought, well gosh, I’ve been doing this since like 1994, but I’d never [starred in a superhero movie] even in these last few years where, as you were saying, they’ve become kind of abundant. I had done this one movie with Ivan Reitman and Uma Thurman that was more comedic [My Super Ex-Girlfriend], but Uma was the superhero. I’d heard about Stargirl and that Geoff Johns had written the part for me. I wasn’t familiar with Geoff, but I researched him and he is right at the forefront of that world. We got together and just hit it off. I’m 48, and Geoff is a few years younger than me, but we’d come to Los Angeles kind of at the same time and had similar stories—where he’d driven out with a few friends from Chicago, I’d come out with a few friends from Texas. We just laughed about our early days in Hollywood in the mid-’90s, how funny it was back then for us, getting started and not knowing anybody.
It’s always interesting, the idea that someone would starting reading comic books as an 8-year-old or a 10-year-old, and make that their life’s work. To me, it’s like Keith Richards picking up the guitar as a kid and never stopping. As thoughtful and kind as Geoff is, he’s also got a rebellious streak, which makes me think about people like Mike Judge, and his kind of humor, where you could see someone saying, like, “Look, we get it. You like comic books. But you’re 18 now. You’ve got to pick a college, and you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do with your life.” And to never give up on those kind of things that you began to love as a kid, I just always find appealing. I feel the same way, having loved movies as a kid. I’d never really dreamed that I could wind up getting to work in the entertainment business. We did get told, back in Dallas, like, “What are you guys thinking? “You’re making a short film so you can…?”
But I really like the character of Pat, and Stargirl was like a little town unto itself with carpenters, painters, set designers, and the actors. It really was bustling and exciting. For me, it was just like, okay, I’d better do just a good job on my small part of this.
Bottle Rocket (1993, 1996)—“Anthony Adams”/ Rushmore (1998)—“Dr. Peter Flynn” / The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)— “Richie Tenenbaum”
AVC: Bottle Rocket seems to have been a crash course in not just acting, but how movies get made. Even after you finally got the green light to turn the short into a feature film, the studio wanted to recast all of the roles, right?
LW: [Laughs.] Yeah, they did. Geoff and I talked about this, because when he first got to town, he cold-called Richard Donner’s office, and Richard Donner happened to answer the phone. Geoff ended up working for him as a personal assistant. When we first got to town, we went to work for James L. Brooks and Gracie Films. Cameron Crowe was in the building doing Jerry Maguire. My brother Owen and Wes Anderson were working on the script with James L. Brooks, who was doing a movie with Nick Nolte. It was kind of this back-and-forth; I had come out with [Owen and Wes], but wasn’t involved in any of these meetings. I was just hanging around L.A. and living with those guys, hanging around the offices with them up on the Sony lot. It was a pretty stressful time up there. We were just this little project.
So it’s not as if we came out here with a deal. We came out thinking, let’s see what happens. There was never a celebratory mood; we would make some headway, and then things would just stall out for a month. We finally did get the green light, and then a month goes by and we hear, “Okay, Columbia still wants to make it, but they don’t want to make it with you three guys acting in it.” Owen and Wes would always kid me because I said, “Yeah, that seems pretty reasonable. I mean, they’ll get some real actors and we work on the movie. Wes directs it and maybe we’re in the next project.” [Laughs.] They made fun of how quickly I was ready to acquiesce and bail on our first idea. But to his credit, James said, “Look, there’s no point in doing it without having these guys in it. They’re the ones that made the short. They’re the ones that wrote it. They’re friends. They’re like a little gang. They’re a unit. These are the guys to do it.” And because of the cachet he had there, he was able to make that happen.
So we go down to Texas and start making the movie. We were definitely learning on the job. I remember having word trickle back, “Yeah, they’re looking at the dailies, and they think they’re pretty strange, weird scenes.” Columbia was sending an executive down, and it was like getting sent to the principal’s office. It was a stressful time. We definitely thought, “Well, we’ll always get to say we made a movie.” But there were never any kind of high-fiving moments. If anything, there was a feeling of melancholy, which I think comes through in the movie and works for this movie about these guys and their failed dreams to become criminals.
AVC: You’ve made a lot of memorable, very quotable films, a few of them with Wes and Owen. There are probably people online debating them right now. Maybe it was just my dumb friends and me, but we loved making the “scrubs” joke from Rushmore in college.
LW: [Laughs.] Right. Well, the funny thing about the OR joke is—and Owen and Wes will tell you this, too—they had sent me Rushmore. They said, “You play this doctor; read the script, and let us know if you have any ideas.” I had a couple pages of ideas and lines and jokes. You know, nothing complicated. Nothing like, you know, “I think there’s some themes in the third act that need to be resolved.” These weren’t like Hollywood notes. It was just lines. And one of the jokes was the OR joke. [Laughs.] Out of all the ideas I had sent them, that was the only thing they used. I’ll never forget being at the premiere with them, and that getting a huge laugh, and both of those guys kind of leaning out and looking at me. And my whole feeling was like, I gave you guys two pages of stuff like that! [Laughs.] You could have had 15 of those. But those guys are so funny and such good writers.
AVC: Working on these movies together—Rushmore, Bottle Rocket, and The Royal Tenenbaums—did you ever wonder how long you guys could keep things up?
LW: It was one of those things where—you always hear about these bands that they’ve had their whole lives to get ready for that first album, so sometimes that’s a hit. But there can be the sophomore slumps, because then you’ve got to come out with the next album, you know, in six months or a year. It was interesting to see those guys go from Bottle Rocket, which was totally a financial failure, but Robert Hilburn gave it a good review in the Los Angeles Times; so did The New York Times, I think. It had definitely gotten some positive response. I can remember word filtering back that Sean Penn and Billy Bob Thornton thought Bottle Rocket was really funny. The guys definitely had a little wind in their sails, but still I would imagine they were feeling the pressure. So it was interesting to see them then going to Rushmore. And of course, to have somebody like Bill Murray respond to it, that’s huge. And then to go from that into The Royal Tenenbaums with Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston and Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow. The momentum started building and has kind of never stopped for Owen and Wes. It’s been great to see those guys hone their craft.
Best Men (1997)—“Jesse” / Home Fries (1998)—“Dorian Montier” / Charlie’s Angels (2000), Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003)—“Pete Komisky” / Legally Blonde (2001), Legally Blonde 2 (2003)—“Emmett Richmond” / Alex & Emma (2003)—“Alex Sheldon/Adam Shipley” / The Family Stone (2005)—“Ben Stone”
AVC: The late-’90s and the early 2000s were kind of your romantic comedy phase. It’s not all that you did…
LW: Right, but no, definitely did a lot of those.
AVC: They’re all different, of course. Some of these movies, like the Charlie’s Angels reboot, aren’t romantic comedies. But what they all have in common is that your character in them is this great, supportive boyfriend. Even outside of your rom-com work, the idea of being a great partner is prevalent.
LW: You know, journalists would point it out to me: “You play a lot of boyfriends.” And it wasn’t until that was said to me that I thought, gosh, I guess I am doing a lot of that. But for me, it was always and still is that I really just enjoy working, and always with a mind for “that would be a great cinematographer to work with if I could get my own project going.” Or, you know, “that costume designer was really interesting, and I would like to work with them again.” With movies like Charlie’s Angels and Legally Blonde and even The Family Stone—where I was the romantic foil—I was always learning. I’d much rather be working on something and on location than just sitting around. I got the impression sometimes that of course there would be movies I wished I could work on that, you know, that I wasn’t on or hadn’t been cast in. You know, that happens to everybody. But yeah. I would get the feeling sometimes, like, gosh, these people think that I can do any project I want to when that’s just not the case. [Laughs.] And at the same time, I was always writing and trying to get things going on my own.
I mean, for me, again, not having gone to film school, people would say, “Well, how do you make these choices? How do you choose these films?” And I was really just loved being on set—meeting crew people or actors, and just always kind of clicked with them. And then there was stuff, like Legally Blonde—where that was before Tenenbaums—that was something that, you know, wasn’t my personal taste, but I was a fan of Reese [Witherspoon]’s from Election. Then seeing the character [Elle Woods], I was like, wow, she’s really doing a character, like a Saturday Night Live type–she’s not just playing this straightforward. She’s playing a really funny, odd character for a mainstream movie.
Old School (2003)—“Mitch”
AVC: There are a few distinct eras in your work, including being a part of the Frat Pack after starring in Old School.
LW: Old School is one of those movies that gets brought up to me all the time. People really seemed to love it, kind of like the Animal House of its day. Idiocracy also gets brought up to me a ton, and not just in the last four years. It became a cult movie after being barely released by the studio. Then when Legally Blonde came out, that was the first time I’d ever had a movie that little girls and teenage girls loved. Now, I’ll definitely get women who’d seen it when they were younger come up and say they’d just shown it to their daughters.
AVC: Do you see your career as being broken up in phases?
LW: With the comedies—Old School, Idiocracy, The Tenenbaums, Bottle Rocket—obviously you want something to do well in the theater just so whoever put up the money could make their money back, and it makes it easier for you to make another project. It feels like a second chance when something doesn’t do well at the beginning, or they don’t put any money behind marketing. Like, Idiocracy for instance–I remember getting the L.A. Times and seeing this tiny ad for the movie. It had kind of a Michelangelo sketch as the ad in a tiny little box, showing at maybe two theaters. I called Mike Judge saying, “What happened? What is this? Is this our movie?” I ended up finding out that the studio didn’t like it. They just wanted to get rid of it. They were only going to open it on seven screens.
I’m definitely used to that kind of thing happening. Going back to Bottle Rocket, that was in and out of the theaters in a couple of weeks. It’s really exciting to have something be number one at the box office or do well. But I never felt pressured in that way to have a hit, where I definitely feel like Owen and Ben Stiller were those guys who felt that pressure. And I mean that in a good way, where they’re that involved. Whereas with me, I just never really minded. To me, it’s like, I’m a big Bob Dylan fan. I know there are these albums of his that were considered failures when they came out. So I’ve always had that in the back of my mind. There are all these movies I’ve loved, like Drugstore Cowboy, which has had such a big influence on me, but was just basically an arthouse movie. So that’s always been my thinking.
AVC: You mentioned it just now, but over the last four years, Idiocracy has either been discovered or rediscovered by people, many who think it was prescient or see it as timely now.
LW: Yeah, it’s funny how that’s happened. I can remember there being an article in Time magazine about Idiocracy. I’m still good friends with Mike Judge, and he’s one of those people that’s much more involved online than I am. So he’ll say like, “People are constantly talking about it online.” My only knowledge of it is when people mention it to me in person, but definitely, it’s incredible even to me with this administration, where I remember hearing there was actually a guy from Carl’s Jr., like, in the original cabinet. [Laughs.] I just thought, how unbelievable is that? For a joke from Idiocracy to then be happening. You see like, just a super, super-sized Big Gulp or something like that, and it makes you think of the movie. I think there was that kind of crazy, Fox News-like broadcast in Idiocracy. So those things… you just can’t believe that anything would even be close to that, and then there are things that are very similar. But hopefully, seeing the movie gives people a little relief without them getting too bummed out about the damage being done to the country.
It’s also one of those movies where people will shout at me and will be like, “That’s from Idiocracy. Don’t you remember?” There are definitely lines that even I’ve forgotten.
Anchorman (2004)—“Frank Vitchard”
LW: Just like with Idiocracy, I consider myself lucky to be a part of something that sticks in people’s minds. Anchorman is like that. I remember growing up, going to see a movie with my friends. We’d repeat lines from like Revenge Of The Nerds and things like that. [Laughs.] So I definitely know that feeling. We still do it. I mean, I just got a message from Owen today where he was quoting something from Taxi Driver—in a funny way, but yeah.
Enlightened (2011-2013)—“Levi Callow”
AVC: Enlightened was critically acclaimed when it was on the air, but it’s also having this second life during quarantine, where it’s being recommended by people to anyone looking for a great show to binge.
LW: Wow, that’s cool.
AVC: It’s not the first time this has happened with something you worked on. Did you have the sense that you were making something that would gain that kind of devoted following?
LW: No, definitely not. What I remember originally was I had seen Chuck & Buck and thought it was great but also just such a strange movie. Then seeing School Of Rock and loving that, and then finding out it was written by the same guy, this Mike White guy, and thinking, really? And that was also the guy that played Chuck? That must be an interesting guy.
That was one of those projects where it’s interesting to play a smaller part. I had a different perspective on that show. I got to see it was really well-received by the critics and people in the business seemed to really respond to it. But then, for me it’s like, I’d go back to Texas and run into people who would be like, “Yeah, I saw that Enlightened show. Man, that’s weird. That woman playing your wife? That’s a weird character.” [Laughs.] So I’d get that response, too. It’s a little like politics, where what people might be thinking in the press or in L.A. and New York is not what people are thinking out in St. Louis and Dallas or something.
I feel like The Sopranos started that quality television, where you could have these different kinds of stories and really take your time telling them. Working on movies, even ones with good scripts—if it’s 125 pages, you’ve still got to get it down to 110. And you’re just like, gosh, why do they have to do that? What’s losing 15 pages? I know it’s 15 minutes, and it’s always kind of budget-related. I was impressed by how cool the HBO executives were, and how supportive they were of something that was obviously offbeat. This was the first time I got to work on something offbeat where you had the time and the money to get it right. It’s like that cliché of John Ford waiting three days for the right clouds. Hollywood was not doing that anymore, at least on the movies that I was working on—you had one shot at it. So I was always in that mode, which is not a bad way to be, to hit the ground running. I still have this thing where if someone starts talking about motivation or what’s going on in the scene, I find myself looking at my watch and being like, “This is not the time for this.” [Laughs.] It goes back to Bottle Rocket, and not having the time and the money. But we got to do that on Enlightened. There were times when I’d take a few shots at a scene, and then Mike White and I would walk away for five minutes or ten minutes and talk about it, and then go back and do it. That was cool to experience.
Roadies (2016)—“Bill Hanson”
AVC: In a way, Bill Hanson and Levi Callow subverted the “good boyfriend” persona from your rom-com days. Were you looking to change things up with Roadies or just eager to work with Cameron Crowe?
LW: Cameron Crowe was the reason I wanted to do the show, because when we first got to town and were in the Gracie Films building on the Sony lot, Cameron was there and had an office. We’d all been huge Fast Times At Ridgemont High fans; we loved Say Anything and Singles. He was working on Jerry Maguire at the time—we were even involved in some of the table readings for it. I had known him for a long time and always gotten along really well with him and wanted to do something for him. I’d read for different things that had just never quite clicked. So when Roadies came along and he had it for me, it was really fun to finally to work with him. Like I was saying, I’m not musical at all, but really love reading about the bands and the singer/songwriters that I love, like Neil Young and Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. When that came along, he said, “Okay, I got the perfect thing, I think, for you.” That was really, really exciting. I mean, it was too bad that it didn’t catch on so that we could keep doing it. But for me, it was fun to get to work with him and be involved in something that was such a big part of his life. And to get to meet the different musicians he had involved in that—like to be around Jackson Browne—was just so, so fun.
The Skeleton Twins (2014)—“Lance”
AVC: You co-starred with Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig on The Skeleton Twins, adding to the long list of Saturday Night Live cast members you’ve worked with.
LW: That has been really one of the high points of the work I’ve gotten to do. I can still remember Saturday nights where my dad would just be all pumped up to watch Saturday Night Live at 10:30, and getting to stay up and watch it with him. But getting the chance to work with people like Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, and Adam [Sandler]—how quick they are, how funny they are between takes. The ideas they come up with. I can still remember with Will, where I would see him get a look in his eye… I would never want to start to laugh to ruin a take, because then, you know, it’s a ruined take. But he would do things that were crazy and say things. I started doing a thing with Will where I would look at his hairline so I didn’t have to look into his eyes. [Laughs.] Because I could feel him just, like, trying to put the pedal down and make me laugh. To see Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader between shots and kind of riff, it’s a different level of somebody being funny. They’re not just goofy—these are really sharp people. The same with Adam Sandler. They’re all just really driven and so much fun to be around.
3:10 To Yuma (2007)—“Zeke” / The Ridiculous 6 (2015)—“Danny” / Outlaws And Angels (2016)—“Josiah”
AVC: As a Texan, is there an innate desire to be in a western?
LW: Yeah, definitely. I grew up loving westerns, like Pale Rider and Unforgiven. There were westerns on TV, reruns like The Big Valley and things like that. But it wasn’t until Blockbuster Video came along that I got to see The Wild Bunch. I’d always heard people talk about it, but then to watch it—it’s unbelievable. Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid is probably in my top three movies—I mean, Kris Kristofferson and Sam Peckinpah. Pale Rider would have come out when I was probably in eighth grade or seventh grade. So I am definitely from that era where westerns were still really cool, and the chance to work on one was always appealing. Even something like The Ridiculous 6, which was a comedy and kind of a parody of westerns, I’ve still never had that feeling like we had on that. You’d be in New Mexico, in the middle of nowhere—you’d have an incredible location and sky and horses around. [Laughs.] And you’re dressed as a cowboy.
I still talk to Adam Sandler about it, how that’s one of the best times I’ve ever had in my life. You go to work at sunrise, you finish at sundown, then you’d go into Santa Fe and have Mexican food with the guys. But once I was there, it was also like, okay, it’s actually hard. All those other guys made it look really easy to hop on a horse. [Laughs.] And my foot would miss the stirrup and people would be like, “Well, I thought you were from Texas? Thought you’d be a better rider.” And I’d be like, “I’m from North Dallas.” [Laughs.] That’s like being from Phoenix. It doesn’t mean I’m a cowboy.