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Luke Wilson made Bottle Rocket in 1996. It was the first film he ever made, and he was convinced it would also be his last. The studio wanted to make it, just not with Luke and his brothers in it. But along with first-time director and creative co-conspirator Wes Anderson, they stood by their roles and their vision. The film became a cult classic and, as fan and fellow filmmaker Ivan Reitman pointed out, “…a touchstone for those who want to make movies.” It also made fans of Martin Scorsese and several actors the Wilsons admired. And as Luke has said, sometimes that’s all the encouragement you need.
In hindsight, maybe it also foreshadowed Wilson’s affinity for films that are slow out of the gate and pick up rearview-mirror acclaim for odd humor, understated artistry and layered cleverness—not unlike Wilson’s performances themselves. His work is at its best when his material is at its most original, to wit: The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, and Mike Judge’s peculiar, prescient Idiocracy. Some audiences didn’t know what to do with those films; others did—watch them repeatedly and love them deeply.
Yes, there’s a certain amount of “the guy” roles in more mainstream fare such as Legally Blonde, Home Fries, and Charlie’s Angels. His reviews in those movies could be summed up in two words: dependably charming. But look closer, and maybe “suspiciously skilled” is more apt. Those everyman characters are exactly what make you overlook his admirable lack of showboating and effortless on-screen presence. Reitman calls him one of the most underrated actors around, with more comic chops than his laconic demeanor might indicate. Wilson’s Skeleton Twins director Craig Johnson provides supporting evidence. “He’s profoundly humble, and able to deliver lines that otherwise might come across as outrageous with such sincerity that you completely believe them… He ended up being our improv secret weapon.”
Maybe his ambling demeanor is just a Texas thing (he was born in Dallas and returns to his home state often), and it can be deceptive. Though he never officially decided to be an actor before he started acting, and never sought out formal training, he’s learned from every role he’s played—especially, he says, the smaller ones. He’s boasted of how good he is at “not doing anything,” but given his recent track record, it appears he’s not as good at it as he thinks.
In addition to his well-received turn in Skeleton Twins, he was quietly brilliant as a despairing parent opposite Olivia Wilde in Meadowland and Laura Dern’s recovering addict ex-husband on Enlightened. Next up (and we can’t wait) is Cameron Crowe’s Showtime series Roadies. He’s also produced Tower, a taut and surprisingly filmic version of the tragic 1966 sniper shootings on a Texas university campus. His most crazily ambitious—or just crazy—undertaking to date may be Satellite Beach, a 20-minute, mostly-improvised gem about a guy named Warren Flowers (played by Wilson) who believes he’s in charge of the Space Shuttle Endeavor’s journey through the streets of Los Angeles to the California Science Center. He and his brother Andrew shot it kamikaze style during the shuttle’s actual journey (you can almost hear the great stories piling up from that one). It became a hit on the festival circuit; Wilson’s probably just grateful he didn’t get arrested making it.
These days, Wilson’s work seems to get more interesting with each new project. And while we don’t want to rush him, we’re finding ourselves impatient for more.