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Owen Wilson loves how 'Wonder' deals with tough issues

Julia Roberts, left, and Owen Wilson star in "Wonder."

LIONSGATE/AP

By RICK BENTLEY | Tribune News Service | Published: November 17, 2017

Owen Wilson’s not 100 percent certain how he got through his childhood without major emotional scars. He remembers how hard it was as a kid trying to fit in, handling peer pressure and getting through a dance without someone having their feelings hurt.

"In the fifth grade we went to dancing class, and they had the boys sit on one side of the room and the girls sit on the other. They would say it was time to go pick your partner and we would run across the floor at the girls. And some girls would not get picked. It sounds crazy now that the adults would set up a system like that," Wilson says. "I kept thinking about how crushed I would have been if I had not been picked."

The reality of that moment from his childhood stayed with Wilson and has played a part in his selection of projects, especially those where children must deal with serious issues. As much as he liked the script for his latest project, "Wonder," Wilson would have walked away from the project had it been too melodramatic.

"Wonder" is based on the best-selling book by R. J. Palacio about a 10-year-old boy who has facial birth defects. Wilson’s fatherly role is to be there for support and dish out words of wisdom (often with a touch of humor) because Auggie faces a world already rife with disrespect for anyone with the slightest difference. The film opens Friday.

"The thing I try to avoid, especially in movies with kids, is making it too preachy or too saccharine," Wilson says. "There’s also that tendency as adults to look back at what life was like as a kid where all you had to do was run and play. But, a big part of being a kid is trying to fit in and the anxiety of social pressure.

"That’s greater pressure than we will feel as an adult."

Wilson laughs at the suggestion the entire description for his character in "Wonder" consisted of only two words: cool dad. The design of the character was a little more complicated than the simple phrase suggests.

"I actually got an email from (director) Stephen Chbosky describing how he saw the dad and what qualities he hoped I could bring to the character," Wilson says.

What the director needed was an actor who could handle the heavy emotional scenes. Wilson has shown his drama skills over the years with work in films such as 2008’s "Marley & Me." Chbosky also needed an actor who could provide some light comic relief to a story that revolves around serious issues like bullying. Wilson’s comedy credits are extensive going from the absurdity of "Zoolander" to the smart humor of "Midnight in Paris."

Wilson had not read Palacio’s book before being approached about the film project, so his introduction to the characters was through his first reading of the script. Wilson would have turned to the source material if he had faced any problems getting a handle on the character. That wasn’t necessary, as it only took one time going through the script to recognize this was a story with something important to say.

"What felt true was the way it looks how parents always want to project their kids, but when they go off to school, they are on their own. They are in their own world," Wilson says. "That was certainly what it was like for me growing up."

Wilson grew up in Texas attending both the New Mexico Military Institute and the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied English. His first acting job was starring in "Bottle Rocket," a film he co-wrote with Wes Anderson. After that, Wilson was off to Hollywood and has been working steadily in films since then.

The wide mix of film genres Wilson has done was not something he planned.

"It’s just the way things have worked out and the things people have cast me in. If you think about childhood dreams of what we say we want to be when we grow up, I have covered all the bases," Wilson says. "I have been a soldier, a cowboy, an astronaut. It’s been a fun ride."

Despite rolling up almost 70 acting credits, Wilson had never worked with Roberts until "Wonder." It didn’t take long for Wilson and Roberts to find a comfortableness working together that helped them come across like a married couple.

There’s even a moment in the film when the parents have a rare evening at home without their children where Wilson gets Roberts to react in what’s best described as a "Pretty Woman" moment. In that 1990 film, there’s a scene where Richard Gere snaps a necklace case shut, catching Roberts off guard and she lets out a howl of laughter.

Wilson gets the same big response from Roberts in "Wonder" when he gives her a gift in the quiet evening. Roberts opens the box, but it’s filmed in such a way that the audience can’t see what’s inside. Wilson reveals it holds something that goes back to the first lunch meeting between the actors and the director. Whatever is inside causes Roberts to let out a "Pretty Woman" laugh.

"There were different things each time she opened it," Wilson says. "What got the biggest reaction had to do with a reference to something the director said at the lunch. That really got her."

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