A roundtable chat with Luke Wilson of “Middle Men”

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It’s been nearly 15 years since producer James L. Brooks bankrolled a feature version of a short film made by some Texas youngsters, and that movie (“Bottle Rocket”) introduced the movie world to director Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson, and his brother, Luke. Since then, Dallas-born Luke Wilson’s movie-star handsome likeness has become a highly familiar to filmgoers, playing both leading men and supporting roles mostly in comedies like “Legally Blonde,” “Old School,” and Mike Judge’s criminally maltreated “Idiocracy,” as well as “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and a classic cameo in “Anchorman.” (He was the anchor who — spoiler alert — got his arm was sliced off with a sword by Tim Robbins.)

To this day, Wilson has a habit of turning up in odd and interesting places, like a series of well-known commercials for AT&T or in the uneven but entertaining “Middle Men,” in which Wilson very credibly stars as a Texas businessman who gets much more than he expected at the intersection of e-commerce and adult entertainment. He is also preparing to play the part of Laura Dern’s flaky ex-husband on “Enlightened,” a new TV series from cult writer-producer Mike White (“Chuck and Buck,” “School of Rock“) with episodes directed by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme.

At the risk of creating an embarrassing but perhaps partially correct impression of a man-crush, in person Luke Wilson is a highly charismatic guy. Behind his highly colloquial speech — I’ve left out a lot of “likes” — is an intelligence that, without giving away much of anything, dispenses with a lot of the usual show business interview platitudes. Now in his late 30s, he also appeared thinner than his slightly chunky appearance on “Middle Man” or his recent AT&T commercials. That was because Wilson had deliberately gone over his normal weight by about 25 pounds for the role of a hard-driving businessman and family guy.

What was that like?

“It was great. Pasta, Mexican food, beer — all the things you kind of avoid. Obviously, as an actor you kind of look up to all the people who push themselves and it’s not like it was a super-important part of the role but…you get a little older, stop exercising, and you don’t eat very well and in a week you can have 12 pounds. It’s not like I did a De Niro,” he said referencing the actor’s astounding 1980 transformation from near-perfect human specimen to fat slob and back again as boxer Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull.”

How about taking those 25 pounds off again?

“More difficult! Still working on it. Of course I tried the stuff of ‘Well, I’ll just eat right but I won’t start jogging,’ but you gotta really do both. I played sports growing up so I got to be in shape but, definitely, as you kind of pass 30, pass 35…I thought I might be immune,” he added, getting some laughs from the table.

How did Wilson approach playing a character loosely based on his producer, Christopher Mallick.

“I always kind of envied actors who got to play a real person or got to do research. I always had these roles where it was pretty much just right there on the page. You read about somebody playing Dian Fossey, or Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp going to live with him, you think ‘God, that would be incredible.’ I just thought that now was the perfect time to do this and it was helped by me being not computer savvy at all. I wanted to learn about that. I liked that fact that Chris…was there every day, every shot…We’d eat lunch with him, go to dinner with him. He was a cool guy. He wouldn’t give straight-on advice but you could ask him any questions you wanted to. I just found that really interesting.”

“It helped kind of relax me because it was a different role for me. It’s not that I didn’t think I could do it but you just get told enough ‘Well, this is a really different role for you’ and you start to think, ‘Wow, it is. Should I be doing “Legally Blonde 3″?’ So it was great to have the chance to see that this is a real guy, and he’s just a businessman that actually did get in over his head.”

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Then, came a question about, of all people, Bill Murray and his unorthodox approach to promoting his current film, “Get Low,” which led to him bailing out of two press days in Los Angeles but going to a film festival in Poland and dumpster diving on David Letterman. The justification for even asking Wilson about this was that he appeared with Murray in “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Was his attitude towards promoting those Wes Anderson films in any way similar?

Bill Murray in “No, I think he might have had a more traditional approach back on those movies but he’s always been a totally different guy. Like I heard he doesn’t have an agent anymore, he has a 1-800 number. I hear that and I think ‘This guy’s a genius.’ Also, what you forget about him is that he’s now been in the business over 30 years, so I can see him getting a little tired of, ” Wilson paused, probably not wanting to say something along the lines of “idiots like you guys.” Fortunately, he came with something more diplomatic. “He probably doesn’t want to go on ‘Entertainment Tonight’ or something…”

Then, quizzed about his involvement with AT&T, Wilson volunteered that people were actually coming up to him to discuss the service provided by the telecommunications giant.

“The first time it happened to me, I was making a connection in the Denver airport. Some guy said something to me about ‘service.’ I was [thinking] ‘What the hell does that have to do with movies?’ and ‘What movie was I in the service industry?’ I had not seen the ads. All of the sudden they were on all the time. I had friends say, ‘Hey, if I wanted to watch the football game with you, I’d have had you over at my house.’ It shows the power of the medium — you’re making movies for 15 years and then people are saying ‘Hey, you’re the AT&T guy!’ ‘I guess I am!'”

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His role as a commercial spokesman doesn’t limit the kind of roles he can take in any way, does it?

“I honestly like to be busy. It’s how I’m the most happy… It makes me want to write my own stuff. I like being on the set, like the guy who directed those AT&T ads was Errol Morris who did ‘The Thin Blue Line’ and all these incredible documentaries. To get the chance to be around him day-in and day-out was really incredible. And, yeah, it’s interesting to work for a big company like that.”

In person, one other thing you notice about Luke Wilson is that his Texas drawl is a bit more pronounced than it is in most of his movies. Noting that my favorite Wilson film, Wes Anderson’s underrated debut, “Bottle Rocket,” was in many respects almost a modern-day western, was there any chance of Wilson appearing in a real western?

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“Somebody asked me today ‘Is there anything you’d like to do?’ That’s definitely at the top of the list. I’d like to do a sports movie too, but being from Texas and being a big Eastwood fan, last night I was watching ‘High Plains Drifter’ for, like, the fiftieth time and I would definitely like to do a western. Those kind of themes, simple stories, and just the idea of being on location in New Mexico or Montana just seems like it would be incredible.”

How about working again with his brother, Owen?

First he’d have to catch up with his peripatetic sibling, who is currently shooting a film with Woody Allen and he would also include the other acting Wilson brother, Andrew. “It’s just a matter of getting us all together and buckling down and trying to write a good script. Which I think we’d like to do.”

What about the fact that “Middle Men,” in something of a mini-“Bottle Rocket” reunion, reunited Luke Wilson with James Caan? Caan gave one of his best later-career performances as the only real criminal in the 1996 comedy.

“He was the first big star that we worked with. We would always kid around that we were high-fiving ourselves back then. ‘This is incredible. James Caan!’ Then you’d look at him on the set and he’s like ‘What am I doing here? I was working with Coppola. I was working with Michael Mann’… And, really, that’s how he was the first two days. We were [thinking] ‘God, this poor guy.'”

“He thought we looked weird. We sounded weird. There’d be takes where I’d say something and he wouldn’t even do the line. He would just look at the director… He really [adjusted] after a couple days. Maybe he just admitted defeat,” Wilson said to some laughter. “He was really nice to us and a really good guy. I’ve kept in touch with him over the years. So, yeah, 15-16 years later to get the chance to work with him again was really, really cool.”

Does Caan still think Wilson talks weird?

“Yeah. I’m sure he does. We had a real funny take one night where we’d been working all night. It was four in the morning. We had the scene where he opens his door and [says], ‘What’s this?’ and I say ‘It’s 150 grand.’ They said ‘action,’ he opened the door and I said ‘It’s 150 grand.’ He goes like, ‘No, see, I say “what’s that?,” you say “It’s 150 grand,” and then he slams the door and I think, ‘This could be 1995. This is like old home week.'”

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