The actor and indie writer talks about his work in the Jackie Chan film
Credit: Buena Vista/Everett

Perhaps you’ve heard of Owen Wilson, cowriter of the cult favorites Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. Or maybe you’re familiar with Owen Wilson, supporting player in such popcorn flicks as Anaconda, Armageddon, and The Haunting. Most likely you’ve just discovered him costarring in Shanghai Noon, the Jackie Chan Western comedy that opened to a strong $32.2 million in its first two weekends. As Chan’s lovably neurotic, girl-crazy sidekick, Wilson, 31, is earning the kind of notices that could put some major giddyup into his career.

Most of Hollywood doesn’t even know how multidimensional his performance really is. Though uncredited, Wilson helped pen much of the hilarious dialogue that gives Shanghai Noon its comic kick. He’s a walking, talking contradiction, delivering lines such as ”All the other cowboys hated me!” as if his badass-wannabe outlaw character Roy O’Bannon had just come out of a group therapy session. ”If I waited for a script I loved, I would never have acted,” explains Wilson, who says he tries to work with directors who allow him to improvise. ”So I guess [my films] make up a funny list. At least it’s not pretentious…. But it does kind of drive my agent crazy.”

Of course, that which drives his agent crazy only makes Wilson stronger. ”Owen is fascinating to watch, because it always seems like he has something on his mind and you don’t know what it is,” says Ben Stiller, who costars with Wilson in the upcoming film Meet the Parents. ”His friends do Owen impressions with that cadence and demeanor and voice. But he’s really inimitable.”

And did we mention unusual? For a guy starring in his first big summer comedy, you’d think he’d been asked to talk about recent dental work. Over a late lunch at an L.A. Mexican cafe, he tries to deflect questions about his buzz-generating career, instead lamenting in his you-can’t-help-but-love-me drawl about his dorky behavior at a recent Playboy Mansion party. ”I was more excited there than going to the White House. I was like an 11-year-old looking in people’s garbages for Playboys,” says Wilson. ”I was like, Hefner! He’s real. He’s not a stuffed animal.”

”Owen is in a league of his own. And a world of his own,” says Shanghai Noon director Tom Dey. ”But I knew after the first take of the first scene — he’s a star waiting to happen.”

That certainly seems to be a common refrain these days. Wilson has a mentor in James L. Brooks (Brooks shepherded Bottle Rocket and made Wilson an associate producer of As Good as It Gets), a rocking girlfriend in Sheryl Crow (they appeared together in last year’s The Minus Man), and an inner circle that includes Stiller, Wilson’s younger brother, actor Luke (Blue Streak), and former University of Texas roomie/writing partner Wes Anderson. ”Things are working out,” says Wilson. ”Matt Damon and those guys, it’s not like I’m in the running with them…. I don’t even know if I’m close enough to lose parts to them.”

Good thing, then, that Wilson helped pen his own next role. Anderson is preparing to shoot his and Wilson’s comedy about a family of geniuses this winter. And although he’s received several studio offers, Wilson isn’t ready to commit. ”I’ve always been lucky in that Wes and I have been able to make movies without having any hits,” he says with a laugh. ”I’m an amateur. None of us are trained actors. But I guess it’s worked out. If the Olympics had an amateur spirit award, that’s what we’d get.” Give that boy the gold.

Shanghai Noon
  • Movie
  • 110 minutes