Okay, it's a cliché, but Texas-born actor Owen Wilson took the saying to heart during the six-month shoot of his new film, The Life Aquatic, in the Eternal City.
To say, 'I lived in an apartment right next to the Palazzo Fernese that Michelangelo designed,' reminds me of the opening line in Out of Africa: 'I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,' " says Owen Wilson in his signature Southern twang before suddenly jolting from his daydreams of Rome and back to reality. "But … what was I saying again?"
He was saying that he became so enamored with the Eternal City while filming this month's release, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, costarring Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Cate Blanchett, that he "had to call American" to extol its virtues once he got home.
We're sitting in Wilson's house in Santa Monica, situated on a leafy glen off a major California thoroughfare, which the actor has decorated with black-and-white photographs, books, and a boar's head. But for all practical purposes, he's back in Rome. He runs up and down his stairs to bring pictures, documents, evidence, if you will, that he, the lanky Texan who rode a crazy grin and broken nose to big-screen stardom, really was, from September 2003 to February 2004, a citizen of Rome.
He'd had the trip arranged in his mind before he even got on the plane. His college buddy and longtime writing partner, director Wes Anderson (the pair cowrote the underground hit Bottle Rocket, as well as The Royal Tennenbaums), had told him he'd written a script for a movie, to be filmed in Italy, called The Life Aquatic. But in this film, Wilson didn't have the major role, which suited him just fine. "I thought it was nice because it gave me a lot of downtime to explore the city," says Wilson. "Bill Murray [who plays Steve Zissou] said he didn't get to appreciate it as much because he was always working. I liked Rome so much that I never even went to Florence or any of those other places. I kept meaning to, but it would come to be the weekend, and it was like, 'Well, I could go do that, but I'm just going to stay in Rome and go have gelato for the hundredth time.'"
He took along his bike and his dog, a blue heeler named Garcia. Several friends and family members came to visit, including his brothers, fellow actors Andrew and Luke; his father, Robert, an advertising exec and author who has a small role in the film; and his mother, Laura, an author and photographer (that's her handiwork above).
Just as he did before he left L.A. for Rome, Wilson gets into the mood for our conversation by listening to a song, Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," that he says "helps get you ready for Rome."
Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble, ancient footprints everywhere. You can almost think that you're seein' double, on a long, dark night on the Spanish Steps.
"It's a great song to listen to," Wilson reasons, "because it captures the mood. It feels so exotic when you're there and seeing so much history, just kind of walking around. The way the city has people living next to ruins. People live right next to the Colosseum. That's their view! I wake up here, and I'm looking at my neighbor mow the yard, and they wake up and see where Caesar was assassinated."