I Always Wanted To Be Owen Wilson

As a nerdy kid who wanted to be a film critic, I saw myself in Wilson's unexpected comedy. But my favourite writer was destined to become a movie star.

November 15, 2017

Elisabeth Donnelly’s work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, O...

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“Do I know what I’m doing today? No. But I’m here, and I’m going to give it my best shot.” - Hansel, Zoolander

Some of us are lucky enough to remember falling in love: like a bolt of lightning across a crowded room, a moment of eye contact so life-changing that it looks straight at you and says, hey buddy, starting now, everything else is different. We all have our love stories. We all understand the magic of love at first sight, even if we don’t get to experience it directly.

While this may be embarrassing evidence of just how small my life is, I can remember, fairly distinctly, the first time I saw Owen Wilson. Or, to be more specific, it was a series of events. A red poster in the corner of a used record store, a guy with short blonde hair curling up his mouth at the camera, looking both confused and cool. A picture in that month’s Premiere magazine of the same blonde man looking at a gun like he’d never seen it before, cocking his head like an idiot puppy. But most of all, the thing that I remember is seeing Owen Wilson in scenes from Bottle Rocket (1996), when it was reviewed on Siskel and Ebert.

Now, a little background: I was a weird little kid. I wanted to grow up to be a movie critic. And Siskel and Ebert’s syndicated movie-review show served a particular function, pre-the you-can-have-anything-instantly generosity of the internet. I never knew when movies were coming out. I never knew what to see. But Saturday morning, when I finished watching cartoons and Saved By the Bell, I could futz around a bit on the television channels, and, before my mom would come into the living room with her squall of a vacuum, I’d find two Chicago newspapermen, one tall and thin, one short and fat, each wearing their finest sports coats, sitting in the aisle seat of the movie theater, arguing and talking passionately about movies that were coming out and movies that they loved, as exclusive-feeling clips from each film flickered behind them. They were a form of education in the form of entertainment.

Bottle Rocket was released in 1996, square in the mighty wake of Quentin Tarantino’s gigantic, generation-defining Pulp Fiction. In this aftermath, nearly every indie film about young men trying to commit crime was Tarantino-esque, with showy dialogue overladen with references and very cool music. Meanwhile, if you were a little tween like I was, the definition of comedy at that time was, in some ways, rather traditional. There were Adam Sandler films about young men yelling at the world. There was Chris Farley bringing shame on his family by being fat. Comedy came from action. It was hard to find the wordplay-based wit of your average British comedian. Comedy, as far as I knew it, was pretty obvious. It was a hilarious person (who had been on SNL) breaking the world with their rage.

The week that Siskel and Ebert reviewed Bottle Rocket, neither critic was particularly impressed. And I couldn’t quite pinpoint just what I found so enthralling about the clip. It seemed, on the surface, to be just another movie about young men obsessed with crime. But there was one crucial difference here: by no means were these guys cool.

Wilson, playing aspiring criminal Dignan, is trying to push his way into a strip mall bookstore at closing time. He’s young, twitchy, and handsome, wearing a black nylon ski jacket that clashes with his military-grade high and tight haircut. He talks in a slow, long drawl that makes every sentence feel like he’s coming up with the words for the first time. To hide his identity, he’s got some tape on his nose. He comes up behind the clerk with a gun. The clerk isn’t scared. Dignan acts like the tough guy, demanding that the manager give him money. The manager tells him to not to call him an idiot, and then Dignan turns on a dime, asking, politely, whether he has a bigger bag for larger books, “like atlases.”

The dialogue here isn’t funny on the surface. What made the scenes the funniest thing I had seen in my life was that here was this guy trying to be a cool robber, and he was just getting it wrong. The clerk was asking him about his disguise. The manager demanded respect. I had never seen comedy with that kind of rhythm before. You needed to listen to the dialogue, to think about the way that things were playing against what was being said. It was subtle and dry and pretty witty, and I wanted more of it, as soon as possible.

I didn’t get to see the movie until it came out on video and it ended up being my favorite movie of all time, easily usurping A Room With a View (which had romance, Helena Bonham Carter’s magnificent nest of ‘80s hair, and lots of penis in a euphoric bathing scene). I rented it weekly. I tried to watch it every day. I just wanted a little bit of that attitude.

Every time I watched it, I found more subtle moments of wordplay and pain that I adored. I couldn’t tell if I was in love with Owen Wilson or if I wanted to be him. He was blonde; I was blonde-ish, and if I looked at the mirror from the right angle, I could be his sister. He had a funny nose, the sort of thing that looked like Picasso drew it during a drunken phase; my nose was too aggressive for my face, a cliff about to fall into the ocean.

There was something so beautiful and right about Dignan’s journey, how he wanted to have something like purpose in his life, and the only way to achieve that was to become a “great” criminal, even though he was clearly never going to be any good at it. I felt that way about a lot of things. I wanted to be great, I strove for greatness, it was the only way that I’d get anyone to pay any attention to me; and in that dreaming, I never really bothered to like myself, or to do anything of interest in the first place.

There was something in the character of Dignan that I had never quite seen before. He wasn’t a wannabe gangster of an earlier vintage. Rather, Dignan was a world-weary naïf. He was too innocent to be a true hero or villain in his adventure, but he was too smart to be fooled by the trivialities that kept the rest of the world occupied.

Needless to say, girls never get to go on a journey quite like Dignan’s. I found other images to aspire to. 

Still, on a sunny fall day, years later, in Harvard Square, walking past the Fogg Museum down the cobblestone streets, my then-best friend’s boyfriend launched into a gentle imitation of me.

“Hey …” he trailed off, pausing between each word, nearly enunciating each ellipsis. “I’m … Elisabeth!” Each syllable lasted for an hour. According to Shaun, I sounded slow, daffy and forgetful. I had a twang. A drawl. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I was Southern, maybe. And you’d definitely think I was stoned.

I listened to his imitation with a slight horror. Befitting his position in my life—we were friends, sure, but I bet I was more of an annoyance—the imitation was accurate and a little mean. In my head, I was fast-talking, witty and smart, maybe a Gilmore Girl or a dame like Myrna Loy. I should’ve had an accent like my fellow native of the South Shore of Massachusetts, Mark Wahlberg, making all my As broad and forgetting about Rs.

Instead, what Shaun showed me was that I had changed my speaking pattern so I sounded like a man who was on the poster in my bedroom—blonde like a bleached hunk of driftwood, squinting at the camera with an air of desperation, aiming for cool and coming off confused: actor and writer Owen Wilson. The minute Shaun began his imitation, I knew that was where the twang, the drawl, the stoned affectations (and goodness, I was pretty much straight-edge in every aspect of my life) came from, in some deep hole in my subconscious. It turns out the things you love when you’re young can leave their mark.


Owenergy Studios on YouTube is the passion project of one goofy, passable editor who is devoted to tracking Owen Wilson’s repetitions and verbal tics on screen with an admirable amount of obsession. (And yet, maybe I’m betraying my own amount of obsession to note that whoever it is, they are not completely thorough.)

In various supercuts with titles like “Owen Wilson Says WOW [a two part odyssey],” “Things Owen Wilson Says,” “Owen Wilson Whispers,” “Owen Wilson Is Living The Dream,” peppered with the occasional Matthew McConaughey tribute (“Matthew McConaughey Telling Stories,” ), and some Owen Wilson montages set to songs such as Alanis Morrisette’s “Thank You” and Coldplay’s “Fix You,” Owenergy Studios embodies their mantra: “This is a celebration of Owen Wilson. We love him and just want a hug from him.”

Seeing Wilson’s repetitions, often pretty banal, everyday phrases (“Wow” “C’mon” “Unbelievable!”) pile up on each other in the span of three minutes, the movie selections ranging from Cable Guy to Shanghai Noon to The Internship to the barely seen Peter Bogdanovich screwball-escort banger She’s Funny That Way, is mildly entertaining and a little embarrassing. Sure, Wilson hits a variety of words in the same way, in every film. It makes him seem a little mediocre as an actor. The last scene of Midnight in Paris: he’s standing on the Seine, staring at the sparkling Eiffel Tower, ruminating on life and love and nostalgia; the voice of a familiar young Frenchwoman chimes in, with a “Hi,” and he responds: “Hey! … Wow!” He’s certainly not a chameleon. He’s a persona, a guy, mildly befuddled at this thing we call life. Mostly, he’s just kind of charming because he always appears to be having fun. Even in dreck like You, Me, and Dupree.

If the name Owen Wilson means anything to an average moviegoer, I would wager that it stands for blondeness, a magnificently broken nose, and a likable presence that generally pops up in bland big-screen films made by committee, with titles that explain exactly what the movie’s about (No Escape, Marley & Me) or, occasionally, a strange, discomfiting presence in movies made by Woody Allen or Wes Anderson. 

He’s a bit like the word surfer made sentient: a ray of sunshine and a manner that says, what, me, worry? The comedy, of course, comes from the way that Wilson’s energy invariably clashes with the world. He can be the chilled-out yin to some neurotic other guy’s yang (see: Jackie Chan, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn), or he can just be an affable, handsome guy learning something about life and love in story about his dog.

The thing that gets me, however, is this: Owen Wilson was a hero of mine. I imagine when I was a kid, seeing the dry, laconic, the joke-taking-a-minute-to-hit rhythm that Wilson applied to comedy was the sort of before-and-after story that people like to apply to the classic, iconic comedians and troupes, the Steve Martins, Richard Pryors, Larry Davids, the Monty Pythons, the Mr. Shows, the Alan Partridges of the world. For me, Wilson was my comedy gateway, the first time I saw a comic hero that seemed like the right kind of model of how a person should be in the world.

And yet these days, when I want to talk about Owen Wilson, I feel kind of like his character Hansel shirtless, wearing a pair of elaborate angel wings, talking about Sting in 2001’s Zoolander: “The music he’s created over the years—I don’t really listen to it—but the fact that he’s creating it? I respect that.”


“Well, does the fact that I’m trying to do it do it for you?” - Dignan, Bottle Rocket

The thing that kicked my mild obsession with Owen Wilson into complete hero worship was the fact that he wasn’t just an actor in Bottle Rocket—he also co-wrote the screenplay with Wes Anderson. The two collaborators met in college when they took a playwriting class together. In interviews, Anderson noted that Wilson, who tended to read the newspaper in class, didn’t talk to him much until one day when he asked him about an assignment as if they were old friends. But it was the start of a beautiful collaboration: they became roommates, and, sparking off each other, they worked on the screenplay for Bottle Rocket, which got them into Hollywood.

If Bottle Rocket was a romance, then their next film, Rushmore (1998) was a revelation. It was a coming-of-age story about slacker-overachiever Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a barber’s son who found a thing he loved—his prep school, Rushmore—and how that love got corrupted with the addition of one comely teacher, Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), and a budding friendship with a rich industrialist, Herman Blume (Bill Murray, in his first and greatest Sad Bill Murray performance).

Like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore also had a poor boy who wanted to be great and a misconstrued idea of greatness. The movie comes on like a shot, with the guitar riff of Creation’s “Making Time” on the soundtrack and a succinct summation of Fischer’s many projects at Rushmore Academy: Yankee Review, Editor-In-Chief, Publisher; Calligraphy Club, President; Rushmore Beekeepers, President; Max Fischer Players, Director; etc., etc. Clearly this is a kid who can do anything he sets his mind to—and yet, as his Dean put it, he’s also “one of our worst students.”

Wilson didn’t appear in this film as an actor (although a picture of him represents Miss Cross’s late husband). But he did appear in a promo shot featuring Wilson and Anderson in go-karts. In interviews about the film, both Anderson and Wilson would demur about how much of it was based on real life, but it was Wilson who was kicked out of his tony prep school in tenth grade for cheating on a math test and ended up at public school, before graduating from a military academy. In an interview from Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson noted that when it came to both Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, “Owen and I were together while we were writing those.”

So here is where I dived into obsession. It was the purest obsession, teenage obsession, where I collected every possible bit of Anderson-related paraphernalia. I had the script for Bottle Rocket. I bought the very same poster that I had first seen in the used record store and hung it over my bed. I bought every film—once I could afford it—on DVD and until then, I rented these films as much as possible. I related to Max Fischer, I related to Dignan. I thought that Bill Murray was robbed at the Oscars, losing Best Supporting Actor to James Coburn in the forgotten Russell Banks adaptation, Affliction. (From the title, you can guess that it’s about how fathers and sons afflict each other with their habits, yes?)

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) would be the last collaboration between Anderson and Wilson as screenwriters. The story of a grown-up family of former child geniuses coming together at a point of crisis, it was, arguably, the film that made Wes Anderson into Wes Anderson, the most influential director of the 2000s, for better or worse. It’s where his inspirations—French New Wave films, Peanuts—coalesced into something like style (montages, dead dogs, elaborate fake books, suicide, father issues, a troupe of familiar faces), leading to divisive notes from critics, some claiming that Anderson treated his film like a dollhouse or a music box (twee was yet to come). It had a cast of stars—Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Luke Wilson, and Gene Hackman—with Owen Wilson taking a small but crucial role as Eli Cash, a hilarious spoof on self-serious cowboy writers like Cormac McCarthy who has a sordid affair with Paltrow’s character, and the film’s pivotal line: “I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum.”

I had liked The Royal Tenenbaums enough when I saw it, but it seemed like a sign that things would be changing in Wilson’s career and Anderson’s art, that these two collaborators may not work together for long. Between the both of them, they were busy: Wilson had the imprint of stardom, and Anderson had the imprint of “great director-ness,” which meant that folks were clamoring to work with him. Life may simply have gotten in the way of the urgency that drove their previous collaborations.

Wilson had become a movie star, making money joking around with Jackie Chan in Shanghai Noon (2000), and he was a perfect blank slate as male model Hansel in Zoolander (2001). It was clear that Wilson was far more in demand as an actor then a writer, and a question as to whether he’d have the time to be writing. He wasn’t my little secret anymore, and he wasn’t Anderson’s, either. He was a big-time comic actor, cast in stuff that comes out in the spring and the summer that takes forever to shoot and requires a high commitment to promotion.


“You know how they say we only use 10 percent of our brains? I think we only use 10 percent of our hearts.” - John Beckwith, Wedding Crashers

Wilson came up through Texas, but part of me suspected there was something of the East Coaster in him. There was a wordy intelligence to the way he talked and the way that his scripts unfolded, the sort of intelligence that felt well-trod. His late father Robert was a public television executive who first put Monty Python on American television, and his mother, Laura Wilson, is an accomplished photographer who worked with Richard Avedon.

The photo of “the gang” in Bottle Rocket—a photo that’s striking in its very composition, way better than a snapshot—was taken by Laura, along with fine-grained set photos in black-and-white on nearly every film by Wes Anderson. Her talent is on display throughout The Wes Anderson Collection, and perhaps befitting a mother’s love, Wilson seems to be bathed in light while Anderson recedes into the background, a nerd in wire-rim glasses.

That intelligence, which you could see in the way that Wilson’s comedy felt new, quickly grew old as he appeared in cheesy big-budget movie after cheesy big-budget movie. Wilson was no longer a bright spot, an actor with all the potential and a great screenwriting career; rather, he was an actor-for-hire, lost in the world of big budget comedies, of scripts by committee, of “Oh Wows,” of appearances in the gossip columns as “the Butterscotch Stallion” (never not funny, especially when Wilson responded to a salacious Page Six posting about the Butterscotch Stallion’s lovemaking in Rolling Stone with “There’s lots of different paths to the waterfall”).

While Wilson was making films like Wedding Crashers and doing a voice in Cars, Anderson was releasing more films under the aegis of “auteur” (a flawed, much-abused and mildly sexist term that we will nonetheless use as shorthand for “film director whose name and style you know, immediately”), choosing new screenwriting collaborators and traveling all over the world for his next films, working on the screenplay for The Life Aquatic with filmmaker Noah Baumbach and The Darjeeling Limited with Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, films that came to life in Italy and India. 

Clearly a creative breakup of sorts had occurred, and yet it wasn’t discussed in public. The casual moviegoer probably wouldn’t even notice it, as Wilson was still taking funny, complex roles in Anderson’s films, mostly as a steadfast supporting character. In interviews with Anderson, the director chalked up working with other screenwriters to the fact that Wilson had become a big movie star. Wilson’s reduced appearances seemed like good sport, a sign of friendship. But a Los Angeles Times interview from 2006 classified Wilson as “shocked” that Anderson wrote with someone else: “I can hardly think of anyone that I have as much fun talking to as Wes. We’re really on the same page.”

I saw The Life Aquatic in the theater. The woman next to me, anytime something wacky happened, would say, “That’s weird.” I cringed. The Life Aquatic felt different from the previous Anderson films. The actions that characters would take didn’t feel natural. It felt like quirky for quirky’s sake. I suppose the balance of an innocent naïf who wants something very badly in a strange gingerbread house world is one that’s hard to maintain, but you could see the seams. In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane wrote, “nobody could leave without the impression of having nearly drowned in some secret and melancholy game.”


“That was my favorite age.” - Steve Zissou, The Life Aquatic

It was a strange and sudden tabloid story. Owen Wilson, the forever-easygoing slacker star of big-budget comedies, had attempted suicide, slashing his wrists. The story dominated the tabloids in August 2007. 

A People cover story alluded to past drug problems, referred to as “the hard stuff,” and two rehab stints were mentioned. Courtney Love weighed in, warning via quotes in British tabloids that her ex, comedian Steve Coogan, played a role in Wilson’s downward spiral, taking him out to strip clubs and partying. The two men had become fast friends working together on the set of A Night at The Museum. Wilson was fighting an addiction to cocaine and heroin; a quote from a 2005 Playboy interview in which he talked about suffering “from an Irish strain of depression” came up again and again, along with suggestions that he was heartbroken over his breakup with Kate Hudson.

Wilson released a statement, asking for privacy “so that he could heal during this difficult time.” Required to do press for The Darjeeling Limited’s fall 2007 release—in which he played a survivor of a suicide attempt—his first interview was a pre-taped video piece with Anderson, which ran on MySpace. The collaborators avoided the suicide talk completely, focusing on what it was like to film in India and what monkeys they ran into.

At this point, you could say that Wilson disappeared from public life. He pulled back from interviews. The films that he starred in for the next few years were an interchangeable series of cartoons and wacky comedies that felt beneath his intelligence. He did the voice of Marmaduke in a live-action dog movie. He starred in the Farrelly Brothers dreck about male sexual anxiety, Hall Pass.

When I heard of Wilson’s suicide attempt, it was as if a distress call went up from somebody who was very important to me at one point in my life.


By the time I graduated college, I had slotted my love of Wilson and his early work with Anderson into a past version of my life. I had thought that loving movies and actors meant something, that the great amount of time and space in my brain devoted to things like minor roles for Wilson and Bottle Rocket trivia on how Kumar Pallana became part of Anderson’s movies would pay off in a job, some drive, a sense of purpose.

When it came to all that time and expertise, however, IMDB had made me obsolete. And a love that felt like a secret code that made me special had become mainstream. Liking Owen Wilson, liking the films of Wes Anderson, it didn’t quite mean anything anymore.

Perhaps as a response to the emptiness of Hollywood’s celebrity-driven culture, it was as if Wilson and Anderson—another artist who has never seemed crazy about selling his work—began hiding in plain sight. They were working, Wilson making terrible comedies, Anderson making more films, but they avoided press, staying reticent on the subject of their lives. The work was speaking for itself, with little input from the artist—the sort of thing that was an inevitability in Anderson’s case, the sort of thing that creates mystique and mystery. But in Wilson’s case, it felt like an act of survival.

Because, while Anderson has had the opportunity to keep defining himself as an artist again and again, whether it’s through the stop-motion animation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox or the nostalgia-laden fantasies of Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wilson—as a writer, at least—has stayed in amber.

To me, there was a quality to Anderson’s work that came out of his screenplays with Owen Wilson that’s missing from his more recent films, even if we are at the stage where he is accepted as a Great Director, a true visionary. It’s something like sympathy for the outsider. The bratty innocence that fueled characters like Dignan, Max Fischer, and Eli Cash all got sanded down into general rich-person malaise, the drive of the outsider turning into Bill Murray’s despair, the curve of Adrian Brody’s distinguished nose, a perfectly symmetrical shot of Louis Vuitton suitcases representing the baggage that humans bear everyday. Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel make some gestures towards being outsiders' stories, but they lose the elegance and drive that characterized Anderson’s earlier work. (Also, Budapest’s twee take on fascism is pretty much unforgivable.)

As a writer, what Wilson brought to the table can be sussed out, looking at the negative space between Anderson’s first three films and the rest of his career. It is something akin to sympathy for the underdog, an appreciation of the outsider, and it can be seen over and over again, in Dignan’s drive to be someone, Max Fischer’s desperate love of Rushmore Academy, and, well, Eli Cash’s desire to be a Tenenbaum. And it worked best in Rushmore, arguably one of the seminal films about an American teenage boy who, through heartbreak, becomes a little bit more of a man. 

My love of Bottle Rocket was vindicated in 2000, when Martin Scorsese called it one of the top ten movies of the '90s, writing about it in Esquire: “the central idea of the film is so delicate, so human: a group of young guys think that their lives have to be filled with risk and danger in order to be real. They don’t know that it’s okay simply to be who they are.” He mentions the film’s tenderness and innocence. And he, rightfully, notes that the end—when Dignan is caught by the cops to the sound of The Rolling Stones’ “2000 Man”—is a transcendent moment. Even as savvy an artist as Frank Ocean seems to have a preference for earlier Wes Anderson. I perked up when I saw his list of his favorite films in his Boys Don’t Cry zine, which included Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.

Collaboration is a dance that requires total trust. It makes complete sense that two young men could only keep it up for a short amount of time; in particular, as work and drugs pushed them apart. Wilson elevated Anderson’s work to a certain level, adding a drive and drama and soulful characters that would lose out to interior design in future work. The indulgence that characterizes later Anderson films is a tribute to Wilson’s skills. Like a hidden editorial voice, a wife saying, no, don’t go to that well once again, don’t kill the dog quite yet, something about Wilson’s eye meant that Anderson pulled back, and the scripts had more affecting stories. Normally when two men work together like Wilson and Anderson, you get report after report of every quality they brought to the table (see: The Beatles), but the way in which Wilson’s disappeared as a writer reminds me of the thousands of wives, sisters, and helpmates who looked over every word that the great man wrote, getting written out of the story in the process.

“If the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.” - Hemingway, Midnight in Paris

In the new decade, Wilson’s best role was in Woody Allen’s porn-for-English majors Midnight in Paris. Wilson’s strange rhythms and pronunciations made the script seem more charming that it actually was, and the glee that Wilson expresses as he meets all the literary superstars of the Lost Generation, from Hemingway to Fitzgerald, makes the fantasy all the more appealing. He’s so authentic you can almost forget that each woman is an underwritten shrew.

It was a reminder that there’s a quality to Wilson that’s in short supply. Perhaps it’s a particular sort of charisma, the likable befuddlement of the handsome yet disheveled, the way that dopiness can be forgiven with a wink underneath it. It’s the quality of the guy who can get away with it. It’s never been a quality I could aspire to, as a woman always too confused and shy to know what capital I have to play with. It’s something quite unlike women’s charisma in film, which is never in service to their genius; too often, rather, it’s just about being appealing to some guy or another. I wanted to know how to be interesting and I always felt like Wilson offered an example as an actor, because he would end up surprising me in some way, whether it was how he hit lines, improvised, or swaggered through the world. I wanted to be him. 

Even though I feel very far away from the young woman who looked at Wilson onscreen and saw something like a hero, well, I still have a lot of affection for the guy. Enough so that I still end up seeing his movies: I sat through material like Matthew Weiner’s uneven initial attempt at filmmaking, Are You Here, and the (terrible) Zoolander 2 looking for that moment where Wilson is sparking and alive. Wilson can slip in a “Wow” or a wink or a well-told joke, and it’s as if the mask is lifted, and you can see the interesting man underneath. It’s hard to find these days. But I still root for the wild-eyed Dignan of my childhood to find something like happiness. It’s probably not coming through the cinema.

A person once told me “the world is ruled by the semi-smart,” a phrase that’s fairly haunting in its accuracy. As actors, directors, and artists try to have careers in Hollywood—a place that’s for vampires at best—you can see it in action every day. At one point, I thought that Wilson’s career was something to aspire for, the dream of making it with your best friend and creating things that were hopeful and earnest.

But it was naïve to think that there’d be something like salvation through unfettered admiration of someone like Owen Wilson, even if, by accident, he shaped some things in my life, from my vocal inflections and my sense of humor, to a new realization about the ways that we contribute to—and are hidden from—the history of art.

You get older, and actors stay in the same place. Your relationship with them, even virtually, can have a strange sort of intimacy because they have faces that you see magnified, or they’re even inside your house. Their adventures and ups and downs may take you back to very specific places.

I know that there is a part of me that will always, in some way, be rooting for Owen Wilson. He provided a spark in my life when I was lonely and unformed. His rhythm showed that enthusiastic, drawling girl that I used to be, that there were different ways to look at the world, dreaming of a way to be big, even when you’re more than enough. Some days I root for that girl, too.

Elisabeth Donnelly’s work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, O Magazine, Vanity Fair, and the Guardian. She has worked as an editor at Flavorwire, and, under the pseudonym Alex Flynn, is the coauthor of the middle-grade book trilogy The Misshapes (Polis Books). The Misshapes 2: Annihilation Day is now available.

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