When Anderson and the Wilson brothers all lived together in Los Angeles, a Ping-Pong table dominated the living room. As Luke, now 30, recalls, they would “have rallies that only ended because we were laughing so hard.” They’d be analyzing the way each game was going, and the awareness that everybody was so simultaneously aware broke them all up. “It’d be like, ‘Yeah, it’s a good rally’”–Luke pauses a beat–”‘I can’t believe it’s not ending!’”–another beat–”‘We’re in-cred-ible Ping-Pong players!’ You start moving back farther and farther from the table. It’s like a U.S. Open match, where you walk around the table, changing sides, without even speaking.”
That kind of sync is the foundation upon which the Anderson-Wilson alliance is built. Back in Texas they used to wander around bumping into people they thought were ludicrous or scary or askew, and they’d riff on what it was that struck them. Things are different now; that’s what success does. Owen’s asymmetrical face is suddenly everywhere on, screen: as a male model in Zoolander, as a born-again Christian in Meet the Parents, as a bumbling cowboy in Shanghai Noon. And there’s more to come: Behind Enemy Lines with Gene Hackman, I Spy with Eddie Murphy, and the sequel Shanghai Knights with Jackie Chan.
Owen and to a lesser extent Luke (who’s been in the recent hits Legally Blonde and Charlie’s Angels, among other films) might be thought of as the anti-Afflecks–rising young actors who work hard, steal the show, but don’t seem much interested in celebrity.
On a bookshelf behind Owen is another framed photo taken by their mother. Owen, 8, and Luke, 5, are sitting with two women–the oldest living twins in Massachusetts. A wide-eyed Owen is telling a story, his hands clasped awkwardly in his lap. He has Luke and the old ladies transfixed. “I’m sitting there on the side, with a kind of funny expression, watching Owen,” says Luke. “It does seem like we’re kind of little partners.”
When Owen looks at the photo, he focuses on the women’s reaction. “Maybe that’s our audience,” he says. “Senior citizens!”
In The Royal Tenenbaums, one of the first scenes Anderson and Owen Wilson wrote was for the character Eli Cash, a hot young novelist–a Cormac McCarthy knockoff played by Owen. The first we hear from him is when he reads an excerpt from his new novel, which is based on the supposition that General Custer survived Little Bighorn. Not that either Anderson or Wilson knew any of this at first. They were just writing for the joy of capturing Cash’s faux-western voice.
“The crickets and the rust beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sage thicket,” Cash reads aloud. The script specifies that he wear a fringed white buckskin jacket and a short-brimmed Stetson. “‘Vamanos, amigos,’ he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.”
“Friscalating,” Owen whispers to me. “Wes made up that word. It’s what you see on the horizon at sunset with the light kind of shimmering.” Only after they’d written the scene, Owen admits, “did we try to figure out, Well, how can we get that in?”
With language, as with clothes, these guys like to try things on to see whether they’re ostentatious or genuine, full of braggadocio or yearning. They love how people express themselves as they fumble through life, because they’re fumblers, too. Owen was expelled from prep school; both had average grades but fancied themselves Ivy League material. Anderson used to say he was going to transfer to Yale, and he even dressed the part, donning L.L. Bean duck boots.
Owen purses his lips to express how sweltering a pair of rubber boots feels in the middle of a Texas summer. Then it’s as if the talk of Anderson’s wardrobe sobers him up. He doesn’t want his friend’s aesthetic flourishes to be misinterpreted as self-congratulatory pretension. The emotions are what matters in the movies, Owen says; the fabric they’re draped in is just a way to keep them fresh. “Wes and I don’t want to do something that’s corny or sentimental. There aren’t too many original emotions. So the world that Wes creates is a way to keep it original.”