The only thing in Hollywood more interesting than Owen Wilson's career may be Owen Wilson's nose. It's a wonder to behold: a twisting, swollen ski slope; a special effect that seems to expand and change angles with the light. He broke it first in ninth grade, then again playing intramural football at the University of Texas. Has he considered having it fixed? "I get bombarded with those questions," he says. "I must look like a freak, but if I were to change it I would get so much grief from my brothers."
He has suffered for the nose, but not because of it. Five years ago, Wilson, 33, became known as one of the most original young writers in movies. The film was Bottle Rocket, a sharp-as-a-tack crime comedy he co-wrote with director Wes Anderson. Their low-budget breakthrough, starring Wilson and his two brothers, Luke, 30, and Andrew, 37, earned some devoted fans and critics, but it didn't set any fires at the box office. Since then, however, Owen has established his unique profile with supporting roles in big popcorn hits like 1998's Armageddon and last year's double-header Meet the Parents and Shanghai Noon. (He wrote some of the latter film's funniest dialogue as Jackie Chan's cowboy sidekick.)
With a high-pitched drawl that makes him seem at once sleepy, surprised and seductive, he is becoming a most unlikely movie star, doing his part for the growing Wilson dynasty. Andrew is an aspiring director, and Luke has gone on to appear in Charlie's Angels and Legally Blonde. "We're extremely competitive," says Owen, "but not with business. I'm always excited when I see them doing stuff because it's so amazing that we're even working in movies."
This week the overachieving middle brother gets his first shot at a showy leading role in Behind Enemy Lines, a rah-rah war movie co-starring Gene Hackman. Wilson again appears with Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums, opening Dec. 14. The whip-smart comedy about a family of geniuses, the third collaboration between Anderson and Wilson, co-stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller and brother Luke as Hackman's dysfunctional brood.
Hackman describes Wilson as "a good young actor with original looks." It's an understatement, but true enough. Born and bred in the affluent environs of north Dallas, Wilson was a rambunctious kid (he was expelled from prep school in 10th grade for cheating in geometry) who found redemption in his sly sense of humor and knack for writing quirky dialogue. Majoring in English at the University of Texas, he discovered a kindred spirit in Anderson, his senior-year roommate. In 1992, they wrote Bottle Rocket as a short film. After it played at the Sundance Film Festival, producer-director James L. Brooks (As Good as It Gets) helped them turn it into a feature.
The Anderson-Wilson sophomore effort, 1998's prep-school comedy Rushmore--another funny riff on rivalry and forgiveness--also charmed the critics, but The Royal Tenenbaums, with its all-star cast (including Wilson as a western novelist with a taste for cowboy hats, loafers without socks and hard drugs), is expected to be their most successful movie yet.