Wilson, the action hero

Actor Owen Wilson plays Jack Dwyer, an American expatriate who finds himself caught in a coup, alongside his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and young daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare).
Actor Owen Wilson plays Jack Dwyer, an American expatriate who finds himself caught in a coup, alongside his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and young daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare).PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

Comedian Owen Wilson takes a dramatic turn to play heroic father in No Escape

Owen Wilson, action hero?

At first glance, it might seem odd to cast the comedy veteran and star of films such as Wedding Crashers (2005) and the Night At The Museum trilogy (2006 to 2014) in an adrenaline-pumping thriller about an American family trapped in a coup-ravaged city.

But the star of No Escape, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, says that being a father now, he can totally see himself turning heroic to protect his children, much like his character - an American expatriate defending his wife and young daughters from an angry mob - has to do.

Speaking to Life and other press in Los Angeles, the 46-year-old actor admits he "might have a hard time seeing myself playing the lead in a real action movie like something The Rock might play, just because I don't see myself that way, and I don't think I'd be believable".

But the role of Jack Dwyer, who with his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and young daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare) find themselves in a life-or-death situation in an unstable South-east Asian city, was one Wilson immediately identified with.

"We sort of had a litmus test for actors, which was that we wanted somebody who seems like they’d be a great father,and somebody who it would be really shocking to see kill someone with their own hands.And Owen passed both of those tests with flying colours."

DIRECTOR JOHN DOWDLE

Being a parent to five-year-old Robert and one-year-old Finn - his two sons with different ex-girlfriends - informed his portrayal, he says.

"It's that feeling when your children are born, that you feel this love that you've never really felt before. I think it's so strong because it also comes along with this responsibility.

"There's something about when your children are in jeopardy that I think you're going to be capable of a lot more. I think there's something that's kind of hardwired into human beings, that instinct to protect your children, and to protect any child."

For the duo who co-wrote the story - brothers John and Drew Dowdle - casting an unlikely star in the role was a deliberate move.

John, who also directed the film, says: "We sort of had a litmus test for actors, which was that we wanted somebody who seems like they'd be a great father, and somebody who it would be really shocking to see kill someone with their own hands. And Owen passed both of those tests with flying colours.

"There's something about if you've seen somebody doing this kind of thing over and over again. You just react to it differently. Whereas with someone like Owen, whom you haven't really seen do something quite like this, it makes it feel more real. It feels more like watching one of your own friends."

That is how a comedic star best known for his quirky presence in 2011's Midnight In Paris or the films of director Wes Anderson - including Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), both of which Wilson also co-wrote - wound up leaping tall buildings and beating up bad guys in this movie.

To prepare for the role, it was less about pumping iron and getting in shape, and more about becoming a believable family with his co-stars.

That is why he, Bell and the two girls who play their kids spent time together in Chiangmai in order to bond before filming began in that city.

It helped that in the film, a character played by former James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan comes to the family's aid.

"It felt like we were in good hands," says Wilson.

"Pierce also lives in Malibu, and so sometimes I'll see him out there, and even at nine in the morning getting coffee, he still looks like James Bond. I'll feel like I've kind of just rolled out of bed and there comes Pierce and he looks like a million bucks."

While comedy is seen as Wilson's forte, he points out that he never had any proper training for it.

"It's actually kind of funny that I ended up being in comedy so much because I don't have a stand-up comedy background and I didn't study acting - at university, I was an English major, and I wasn't really a class clown.

"So just ending up doing so many funny movies is kind of unusual," says the performer, who adds that a sequel to his Shanghai Noon (2000) and Shanghai Nights (2003) with friend and co-star Jackie Chan could be on the cards.

Nowadays, though, he is less preoccupied by what anyone thinks he should or should not be doing.

"I think early on I felt a lot more stress with how a movie was going to do and be received because it seeemed like so much was riding on it... there's no guarantee you'll even be able to have a career," says Wilson, who has been in many big hits, including the Night At The Museum films and the romantic comedy Marley & Me with Jennifer Aniston (2008).

"And now, 20 years in, it's not that sort of anxiety anymore. But you always want to do a movie that you think is good or that other people would enjoy, and it's always nice to do one that is well received."

  • No Escape opens in Singapore tomorrow.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2015, with the headline 'Wilson, the action hero'. Print Edition | Subscribe