Owen Wilson’s latest film, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, just had its Cannes premiere and earned warm reviews from critics on the Croisette (the film opens in U.S. theaters on May 20). In the film, Allen’s 42nd, Wilson plays a screenwriter vacationing in the City of Light with his fiance (Rachel McAdams) who is magically transported back in time to the city’s 1920s Jazz Age. We recently caught up with the star to discuss his unlikely collaboration with Allen, how shocked he was to see the director whip out an iPhone on the set, and why A-listers seem to drop whatever they’re doing to work with the legendary New Yorker.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your first impression of Woody Allen when you met him?
OWEN WILSON: He’s somebody that you’re so familiar with. Someone you’ve grown up seeing. So it’s almost surreal to be standing with him. It feels a bit like Purple Rose of Cairo. He’s come out of the screen and there he is! And he sounds just like he does! I remember working with Bruce Willis on Armageddon and we’re doing a scene and I remember kind of seeing an expression, and thinking ‘Gosh, I know that expression on his face!’ With Woody, you hear him talking and you think I’ve heard him talk like this before.
Allen says he doesn’t see a lot of new movies, but the one of yours he had seen and what led him to cast you in Midnight, was Wedding Crashers. How weird is it to imagine Woody Allen walking up to a multiplex box office and saying, ‘One for Wedding Crashers, please!’
I never heard this! You think it would have been a Wes Anderson movie that he’d seen, but he’s a populist. You know, we never spoke until I got this letter from him, which of course I still have — this great, well-written letter saying ‘This is what I’m thinking, we’ll be filming in Paris, take a look at the script, and see what you think.’ So then I said I wanted to be involved, but we never spoke and never met until I got to France before filming. And when we met, we shook hands, he asked how my flight was and I said good, and he said, well, this will be the last you hear from me. And for a few weeks it did feel like, gosh, we didn’t speak that much. But then you do kind of get to know him more. He’s so polite and gentle in the way he directs.
He’s famous for not giving actors a lot of direction, right?
I had kind of heard that from people, that he doesn’t give you a lot of direction. But he actually is sort of, but in a gentle way. He’s not jumping in, but he’s definitely steering the ship. You don’t have to say it precisely how he wrote it, you have some freedom with that.
Why do you think so many big-name actors drop everything to work with him? It can’t be for the money.
I think it’s because there’s not a lot of people you can work with who are icons. Actors jump at the chance to do his movies not because they’re getting a big payday, but it’s a chance to be in something good and the chance to work with Woody Allen. It’s like sitting for portrait with Picasso.
A pitfall that a lot of stars of Allen’s movies make is consciously or unconsciously trying to imitate him onscreen. How do you not play Woody Allen when you’re the lead in a Woody Allen movie?
Yeah, I know what you mean. But I think we’re starting off at such a great distance from each other. Me being from Texas and Woody being a New Yorker. There didn’t seem to be a great danger of me doing a real successful imitation of Woody Allen. Although there were scenes where I could feel myself slipping into a cadence that probably did sort of sound like one of his characters that he’s played a lot. Did it seem like I was…?
Not that that would be a bad thing.
One of the main themes of Midnight is what a double-edged sword nostalgia and living in the past can be. It seems like a strange message coming from a guy who listens to old-timey jazz and writes on a typewriter and says the only TV he watches is Charlie Rose.
I was actually surprised to see him on the iPhone. He uses the iPhone! Although he seems to pretty much stick to checking the weather. That was our common ground on the set. I’d ask him, ‘How hot is it today in Cairo, Woody?’ ‘Well, here, let me check.’ I was surprised you said he watches Charlie Rose.
Lately, Allen has been making his movies in Europe because it seems like he has trouble getting Hollywood to finance his films. Hollywood doesn’t seem interested in being in the Woody Allen business.
Does he have trouble? Would he be making two movies a year? I can’t imagine him being more prolific. I guess as long as they’re able to get them made.
Do you have a favorite Woody Allen film?
Last night Broadway Danny Rose was on, so I was watching that. But I would say that my favorite one is Hannah and Her Sisters. I think it had something to do with the age I was when I saw it. I really loved it. Wes Anderson and I used to talk about the movie a lot. The Daniel Stern character seemed so funny. The rock ‘n’ roll guy going to Max von Sydow’s loft to look at art and he’s talking about how he wants a painting to go with his [ottoman]. ‘I don’t sell my paintings by the yard!’ ‘Jeez, what is this old guy’s deal?’ And Michael Caine was so funny and Barbara Hershey was really beautiful in it. It’s not such a surprising choice, I think it’s probably recognized as one of his classics. What would you say?
I have a soft spot for Zelig, the way he edited himself into all of those old newsreels.
Zelig?! (Laughs) That was in the early 80s and it’s so seemless. It really looks like he’s in these newsreels. They have all of this technology today, but I don’t know that they could make it look any better than that. You don’t think of Woody Allen as a cutting edge special f/x guy, but he is!