Texas manufactures movie stars. Maybe it’s something in the water that fosters a creative spirit, and fuels those 40-watt silver screen smiles.
Whatever it is… it’s real.
Dancing musical maven Ann Miller was born in Houston, and so were Lisa Niemi and Debbie Allen. It was the late mega- successful producer Aaron Spelling’s home state – same for contemporary actors such as Jennifer Garner (“Alias,” “Dallas Buyers Club”), Jennifer Holiday (“Dreamgirls”), Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”) and Isaiah Washington (“Grey’s Anatomy”).
Former Disney-kid-turned-millennial-celebrity Selena Gomez was born and raised in the area. So was venerable character actor Stephen Tobolowsky (“Groundhog Day”), rapper Vanilla Ice, Nick Jonas and Kelly Clarkson.
And then there’s Luke Wilson.
With his sharp wit and sheepish, “Who, me?” manner, coupled with a disarmingly boyish charisma, the 45-year-old actor possesses a unique quality all his own.
And while Wilson may be another star in Texas’ storied movie galaxy, it seems that he’s cut from a much different cloth.
He may not have the critical cache of his older brother, actor Owen Wilson, as of yet, but it’s abundantly apparent the younger Wilson has tremendous talent. With a substantial catalog of work, he has a charm that radiates on screen and resonates with moviegoers.
Wilson progressed from his first role in the independent darling, “Bottle Rocket,” through iconic parts in quirky films – “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Old School” and “Rushmore” – to darker, more dramatic fare including “Ride,” “Concussion” and “Meadowland.”
He’s also appeared in a series of successful romantic comedies starring with top actresses ranging from Kate Hudson and Drew Barrymore, to Gwyneth Paltrow and Texas-born Jessica Simpson.
Wilson has significant range as an actor; in Hollywood, he’s increasingly bankable…and, coincidentally, particularly likeable too.
“Bottle Rocket” was released in 1996, co-written by Owen and good friend – director and Houston native, Wes Anderson. The “hip little comedy that-could,” starred all three Wilson boys: Luke, Owen and Andrew, the eldest brother, as well as veteran, Oscar- nominated actor James Caan. The lm was shot here in Texas. It also marked Anderson’s feature directorial debut, beginning a long and productive working relationship with the Wilsons.
By the late nineties, Luke landed parts in a series of pictures including “Best Men,” “Bongwater,” “Telling Lies in America” and “Home Fries.”
Then, in 1999 “Blue Streak” was released. The action-packed, buddy comedy featured Wilson in a sidekick role opposite red-hot comedian Martin Lawrence. The picture was a blockbuster success, setting the table for more significant roles to follow.
Soon, there was the heartwarming “My Dog Skip” with Kevin Bacon and Diane Lane, plus “Legally Blonde” and “Charlie’s Angels,” as well as sequels for both.
As for theories on what is it about his home state that’s nurtured such vast amounts of creativity so successfully, Wilson speculates, “The wind…the weather? I wonder that myself.”
“Stevie Ray Vaughn is from Oak Cliff [a Dallas suburb],” he says. “Willie Nelson is from down I-35 in Abbott.”
“I recently worked with Ron White – the comic – who is also a great actor. He’s from a small town [Fritch] up around Amarillo.”
“It’s a pioneer, rebel spirit, I think,” says Wilson.
In a family chock full of imagination via accomplished actors, writers, producers, filmmakers and photographers and such; did the atmosphere impact his direction?
“Growing up, we weren’t aware of our environment being particularly creative,” says Wilson, retrospectively. “But I guess it was.”
Luke’s father, Bob Wilson, was a successful advertising man.
“I remember my dad being in a great mood about a poster for Bill Dickey’s Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q he came up with,” says Luke. “It was a [classic Old West artist] Charles Marion Russell painting of some cowboys being dressed by Indians and the headline was: ‘How Far Is This Damn Chili Parlor Anyway?’”
Bob was also a TV executive, which also left an impression on the Wilson boys.
“Early on, my Dad was working for [PBS], so we met interesting people… guys building sets… technicians,” says Luke.
At one point, Bob Wilson hired a for- mer newspaper reporter, who’d covered President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, to host “Newsroom,” a daily program on the station. In time, the local anchor, Jim Lehrer, left Texas for a national gig in Washington, D.C. where he joined “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” PBS’s signature evening news broadcast. In 1995 it was rebranded as “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”
Later, Wilson audaciously scheduled an off-the-wall British comedy on the station when no other local station would dare. It was just the runway “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” needed to take off on American television.
The boys’ mother, Laura Cunningham Wilson, is a rare wellspring of polished creativity.
She worked as an assistant for renowned fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon, and launched her own successful career.
Over the years, her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ and more.
She has also authored a number of books including: Watt Matthews of Lambshead, Hutterites of Montana, Avedon at Work: In the American West, and Grit and Glory: Six-Man Football.
“Now that I’m older, I think how lucky I was – and am – that I had two parents that were excited by ideas…and creating something,” says Wilson.
To the world, he’s a name on a marquee; however to his pals, he’s just Luke.
“I met him a while back, right after “Old School” came out,” says Texas magazine publisher and advertising executive, Pete Northway.
“He was in town playing golf with some mutual friends. I joined them for a cocktail.” One of the guys in the group didn’t know who Wilson was so, Northway, rather indignantly, pointed him out.
“That’s Luke Wilson. He’s a movie star,’” he said. “The guy shot back – ‘That guy’s not a movie star – Cary Grant is a movie star!’ Luke laughed harder than any of us. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
He graduated from the St. Mark’s School of Texas. Notable alumni include Ross Perot, Jr. and Kansas City Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt, actor Tommy Lee Jones, musicians Rhett Miller (Old 97s), Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs, and the list goes on.
“Along with my family, St. Mark’s has had the most impact on my life,” he says, “…a great school with incredible, interesting teachers and coaches.”
Wilson was a solid high school athlete – a member of a St. Mark’s track team that still holds a number Southwest Preparatory Conference records.
Roby Mize was a classmate of Wilson’s older brother, Andrew. He met Luke in the late 1970s.
“He’s seven years younger so I didn’t pay much attention to him until late 1980s,” says Mize.
The Texas private banker describes teenage Wilson as, “talented, mischievous, witty and athletic,” but admits he had “no clue he’d end up in La-la Land doing movies!”
Just a “regular guy, humble and very loyal to his family…old friends,” says Mize.
As a high school student, Wilson describes himself as, “somebody just trying to get by and be able to be lucky enough to stay here.” He credits the school for contributing much during an impressionable period. “Some of the first true characters I met were the students and teachers at St. Mark’s,” he says.
After high school, he traveled west, to California, enrolling in the prestigious liberal arts school, Occidental College in Los Angeles. But he didn’t stay, and returned to Texas to get on with his education.
Eventually, he returned to California, entering the Hollywood machine. The acting bug had bitten the young Texan as a college student, supplanting athletics. And L.A. was a logical place to be.
Considering all of Wilson’s significant lm roles, what’s more rewarding: dramas or comedies?
“I do remember having the realization that it’s a lot more fun to do a comedy, and to hear the crew laugh at a scene,” he says. “Or see a cameraman smiling while looking down the lens. But dramas and parts of more depth have their rewards.”
Over the years, he’s worn a number of professional hats capably as a writer, producer and director. “I like being behind and in front of the camera,” he confirms.
“But I also enjoy writing and putting a team together to make something, then being a part of the team. It’s fun to work with cool, smart directors, like Wes or Cameron Crowe or Mike Judge. Each guy is a stubborn visionary, something I love, and respect,” he adds. “It’s almost a Texas quality [Cameron is from San Diego, but Judge and Wes are both Texans].”
“What I’ve always liked and admired about [Mike Judge] is that he’s got a certain sense of humor (‘juvenile, smartass’),” says Wilson.
The pair worked together, along with brother Andrew, on the 2006 satirical comedy, “Idiocracy.” “When you have that [kind of humor] but with a guy who’s highly intelligent, something pretty interesting can happen,” says Wilson.
“I still remember Mike saying, ‘Do you think Andrew would play [villain] Beef Supreme?’ in a very serious tone.”
Some critics have attempted to pin a fresh dystopian subtext on “Idiocracy” as it’s become a bit of cult classic over the years. It was recently re-released to celebrate the lm’s 10th anniversary.
“I’m just a little wary of sitting on a panel and saying my goal was to make a Swiftian satire [i.e. deadpan, ironic],” he says. “It was a movie about dumbasses. And I love dumbasses. I’m in their ranks, here and there.”
And for those who assume that his comedic work – “Old School,” “Legally Blonde” and other lighthearted fare – is nothing but nonstop fun and games on the set, he takes a different view, understanding that the stakes are high.
“I guess the misconception is that it’s all just a blast,” he says.
“Our first movie, ‘Bottle Rocket,’ was tough to get made and kind of nerve wracking to shoot,” he says. “I remember feeling the corporate heat. Millions at stake and you’ve got an offbeat idea with some offbeat fellows.”
Regardless, the good roles keep coming his way.
“Last year I did a western at Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch in [Abiquiu], New Mexico with Adam Sandler,” says Wilson. “I felt like a kid. I had a pistol, and a horse…I couldn’t help but smile.”
Recently, he starred in Showtime’s “Roadies,” an ensemble comedy that was cancelled in September after only one season. He played a road-weary, sleep deprived tour manager of rock band.
Wilson was attracted to the project about a group of unsung backstage heroes, because, he says, it presented another opportunity to work with Academy Award winning director, Cameron Crowe.
“He was one of the first guys we met when we got to town,” says Wilson. “I always loved his personal story, and first movie, ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High.’ It had a major impact on my brothers and my friends. Just a kind, cool, smart guy – and so enjoyable to hang and work with.”
After all these years, swimming in and out of Hollywood’s mainstream, he’s grown into a well-seasoned student of the game, with an abiding admiration for for craftspeople, particularly the old-timers.
“What I like about the veteran character actors – such as Harry Dean Stanton [‘Cool Hand Luke,’ ‘Repo Man,’ ‘The Green Mile’] and Seymour Cassel [‘Coogan’s Bluff,’ ‘Indecent Proposal,’ ‘Rushmore’] – is that they’ve lasted,” says Wilson.
Both Stanton and Cassel appeared in the Luke and Andrew Wilson-directed feature, “The Wendell Baker Story.”
“In the best case, acting is a job – a life- time trade, if done well. And…they have great stories.”
“The list of people I’ve enjoyed working with is endless,” he says. “It’s crew, cast and directors: Wes Anderson, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Drew Barrymore, Laura Dern and Gene Hackman. It’s just too hard to make a list because truly, with a few exceptions, all been great stories.”
As for his home state, Wilson’s remains enthusiastic, visiting every couple of months for a few days. “I spend a lot of time in [Tex- as] where my parents and some of my best friends live,” he says.
Finally, for such a longtime sports fan, knowing the Super Bowl returns to Texas, this time at NRG Stadium, does Wilson have any bold predictions on teams, and who’ll end us on top?
“Well, I’d like to see the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl,” he says. “Dak Prescott has been so much fun to watch.”
“It’s like the early 1990s,” he says. “It’s good to be winning again, and in an exciting fashion.”
In his mid-forties Wilson probably has the best years of his career in front of him. And audiences genuinely seem to be rooting for him.
As for how he’d like to see a period on the end of his life’s sentence, Wilson’s characteristically low-key philosophical. “Maybe, ‘…he was last seen on the International Bridge in El Paso.’”