Though associated predominantly with the lighter side to cinema, in No Escape we see Owen Wilson turning his head to the action thriller genre – and to mark the film’s September 4th release, we had the pleasure of speaking to the talented actor.
Discussing why he decided to go down this particular path, his joy working with Lake Bell – and we couldn’t help but quiz him on Zoolander 2, which recently finished shooting.
Is the action thriller genre one you’re not commonly associated with out of choice, as one you’ve actively not sought out? Or is it just one you’ve not been offered many roles in, but have always been keen on exploring further?
Well I know that when picking a movie to watch, usually it would tend to be a drama or a thriller, so it’s funny that I’ve worked in so many comedies and have a background as a stand up comedian – but for me it was as simple as just reading the script and thinking it was an exciting story. I could see myself playing the part because, and despite the action thriller elements, I’m not like a navy S.E.A.L. or something, it felt like it was within the realm of possible stuff they’re asking this guy to do.
Does the genre at hand change how you approach a role? Did you try and play Jack as you would have any other role?
I guess the challenge is usually the same regardless of the genre, just within the context of the story you’re trying to make it work, to be believable. With this one, I knew some of these scenes would be very intense, and I’d have to get worked up to do it, but what helped me was, I had two girls playing my daughters and yes they’re actresses, but they’re still kids, you look at their faces before some of these scenes and you get worked up because it does stir up something primal in a parent, wanting to protect your family and your children, especially young ones.
Jack is just a regular person, like you or I, is that part of the appeal, that it allows the audience to step into his shoes and think – what would I do?
Yeah I think it was. In those early scenes when you just see me with my family and we’re joking around, they felt very familiar to me, like I’d done these before in movies. Then very quickly the rug gets pulled out from under my character and all hell breaks loose. Hopefully that happens to the audience too.
But were there any moments in the movie, where you couldn’t abide by Jack’s actions, where you thought, I would never do that?
Usually to act it, it helps to make sense in your mind. So I felt that pretty much everything he was doing, I could figure why he was doing it.
There is one scene in particular – on a roof – where the whole audience were just gasping in the cinema. How was that scene like to shoot?
Well that was an intense scene, I knew from reading it in the script, I remember thinking – how are they going to pull this one off? But the director did a good job of making it obey the laws of physics somewhat, that you could, if stuck in a crazy situation like this family are, do something like that.
You’re playing a tourist who feels afraid, and is vulnerable – especially with the cultural and language differences. Is that a frame of mind that’s quite easy to get in to when you were a tourist in another country in real life?
I do think had we filmed the movie in Atlanta or Vancouver, where a lot of movies seem to get made these days, that we would have been missing a crucial element of being a stranger in a strange land feeling. Even though where we filmed in Thailand was a very hospitable place with great people, it is a very foreign culture to me and to most Westerners, so that was important to the story because it ends up becoming a character in the movie, that idea of not feeling comfortable.
Do you get the chance to do some exploring and see the location when shooting?
I did. I love that part of the world. I went to Tokyo for the first time last year and that was an unbelievable city. Then filming in Thailand and seeing Bangkok, I love travelling and experiencing a new culture is stimulating for me.
As an actor you can play being in love, or being angry with someone – they are emotions you can get used to doing, and are able to relate back to in real life. But in terms of playing a character who is fighting for his life, with nothing to lose, it’s almost incomprehensible – can that be a difficult headspace to get in to?
I think that can be difficult or challenging to make that believable because you don’t have anything, typically, in real life to relate that to. I kinda liken it to sports, that intensity. I know that it’s easier to be out of breath and act out of breath when running around and holding the children, you’re really doing that – so when these scenes do call for that, where you’re fighting for your life and your family’s life, it helps just looking at Lake and the girls playing my daughters, and just seeing their faces, and you can get worked up because that is such a basic human instinct to want to protect your family.
Is the atmosphere on set informed by the genre of the movie? Of course you often do comedies – but when making an action thriller, is it less jovial than a comedy set, or do the themes of the narrative not have as much impact?
Not necessarily, I’ve worked on some comedies where the set can sort of grim and severe [laughs] and then you work on this movie, where I got on along to well with the director and his brother, and you can joke around somewhat. There were days when we were doing scenes that were so intense I didn’t really feel like joking around because I wanted to concentrate, and I was worried about making the scenes believable, so on those days it was less kidding around.
It must’ve helped to have Lake Bell around – because’s such a likeable, funny person.
Yeah I just saw her the other day, and we went out for dinner and her husband had just seen the movie and was joking how reassuring it was to see that Lake had these chops that if push came to shove and they were under siege in a third world country, she’d be able to defend them.
I was gonna say how good your chemistry was – I’m assuming her husband didn’t mention that part though?
[Laughs] No, he just said he enjoyed the movie!
One of my favourite aspects of the film was that there was no palpable heroes and villains. Of course the antagonists are brutal and violent, and we do root for your family’s cause – but on a broader scale, they’re protecting and preserving their own culture so it’s hard to despise them. Was that part of the appeal for you too?
Yeah I think so. And not getting too much into it, but they did a good job of streamlining the plot and keeping it fairly simple. They didn’t bite off more than they could chew by trying to explain geo-political situations. This movie keeps it pretty wrapped up in intensity the whole way.
Do you hope this role could lead on to more films of this nature?
Yeah you always hope they do well and it’s always out of your hands. At this point, having worked in movies for a long time, I don’t worry as much as I did in the beginning. Like wit Bottle Rocker (?) where I worried about even getting the chance of making another movie, so there isn’t that same level of anxiety, but certainly you do hope that it does well, just because it gives you more options in the future.
Is it at easy at that? For someone of your standing to say, right I wanna make an action movie now, and then get involved in one? Or can it be hard to convince people to take that punt?
That’s probably why you have agents, they insulate you from the market place somewhat, so I don’t know how easy it is. I guess it was a little bit hard for them to get the budget for the movie and have everything come together, so may be attributable to the fact that I wouldn’t be an obvious choice for this sort of genre.
Zoolander 2 isn’t far away now. You’ve finished shooting – what was it like falling back in to the character of Hansel? Did it all come very naturally for you?
We just finished filming in Rome and Ben’s editing the movie now as it comes out early next year, on Valentine’s Day. So I think the script was really funny. You never know how it’s going to turn out, but if I had to bet, I think it’s going to funny and good.
Was it nice being back in Rome? I know you were there before around 10 years ago, because I saw you in a cafe!
Yeah I was there for Life Aquatic. I had a great time. Ben selecting Rome to film the movie and have that as the backdrop is good for the movie.
So finally what can fans of Zoolander expect from this sequel? What are Hansel and Derek up to these days?
Well I think their challenge is to reclaim their title as world’s greatest models, so there’s some great cameos, Will Ferrell is back, Kristen Wiig too – some great people, and we were lucky enough to have a really good cast.
Not to take anything away from the film, but does it ever surprise you just how much people love it and have embraced it?
Yeah of course it does, because it was 14 years since we did the first one – and that one didn’t even do very well, in America it did so-so. But over the years it’s developed a sort of cult following I guess.
Well it deserves it.
Why thank you.
No Escape is released on September 4th.