Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Luke Wilson

What About Bob?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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As a young fellow in Dallas, Texas, actor Luke Wilson would pass the time listening to his dad's Waylon & Willie tapes, as well as the occasional foray into AC/DC and Huey Lewis and the News.

But that was before his uncle Joe visited and accidentally left behind a cassette tape of Bob Dylan's 1983 album "Infidels."

"I really liked this tape. I loved every song on it, especially 'Jokerman.'" Wilson says.

He's never gone back. The actor is now a full-bore Dylan fan. The only drawback, he says, is that he can't ever discover all those songs again. "I wish I wasn't a big fan so that I would know I had those coming."

Another Dylan fan, writer/director Larry Charles, has given Wilson the opportunity of a lifetime: to star in a film with the elusive singer. The result of their collaboration, Masked and Anonymous, opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday.

Charles and Wilson recently visited San Francisco to spread the word about the film. Wilson, of course, is currently in the spotlight with four major Hollywood releases so far in 2003: Old School, Alex and Emma, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and Legally Blonde 2.

Charles is better known as one of the writers behind such classic television shows as "Seinfeld," "Mad About You" and "The Tick" as well as a director on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

Not long after Wilson agreed to come on board Masked and Anonymous, a host of other Hollywood stars also signed up: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Jessica Lange and Penelope Cruz in the "starring" roles, plus Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Cheech Marin, Chris Penn, Giovanni Ribisi, Mickey Rourke, Christian Slater and Fred Ward in supporting roles and cameos.

"In the end we had to turn down some people," Charles says.

Dylan himself plays Jack Fate, an outlaw singer imprisoned in an alternate America torn by revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. A slick promoter, Uncle Sweetheart (Goodman), springs Fate so that he can perform at a benefit concert. Meanwhile, a cynical reporter, Tom Friend (Bridges), tries to find out what's really behind the concert.

Wilson plays Fate's only real friend, Bobby Cupid. "You don't need to be a Bob Dylan fan to get something out of the movie," he says. "It's like when you go to see a movie as a kid and you're not really aware of actors and directors and you're just watching it like it's happening. It either affects you or it doesn't affect you."

Charles agrees. "I have the same desire as George Lucas, to have people see the movie over and over again. I wanted it to be sort of crammed and dense and chaotic. The more you see it, the more it reveals."

"It's a funny movie, too, but people are afraid to laugh because they're afraid they're going to miss something. If it were a more traditional comedy, I would cut it in a different way so there would be a little more space between those things."

Charles took a different approach to directing Dylan, who has only acted in three other movies: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Renaldo and Clara (1978) and Hearts of Fire (1987). He thought about the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who often worked with non-actors, as well as German director Werner Herzog who drew a brilliant performance out of mental patient Bruno S. in his film The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (1974).

"Bob is a brilliant guy, and he's a primitive at the same time," Charles says. "I tried not to make Bob an actor. I just tried to draw out what was there."

As for Wilson, who plays alongside Dylan in several scenes, "I feel that he's a really good actor. He's got charisma. He's got presence. He's got a good face, a good voice. He's aware of how he looks -- without being vain."

But having such a legend hanging around your movie set prompted all kinds of adoration from the fans among the cast and crew. Many of them had questions for the all-time great singer/songwriter.

"He's so centered," Charles says, "that when you ask him a question he doesn't want to answer, he's not going to say, 'I'm not going to answer that' or 'I don't really feel like talking about that.' He might just stand there -- quiet -- and force you to live in that silence."

"I saw that happen so many times," Wilson agrees. "People would ask him about a song or a concert or a person in common that they knew. I think he's someone who would like to be nostalgic but he knows it's dangerous. He'd have to spend his whole life remembering things and talking about things that happened in the past and that totally goes against who he is as a person and an artist."

For example, Charles burned a Dylan mix CD of about 18 songs that inspired him when thinking about the movie. He made copies and handed it out to the cast members. Dylan was there on that particular day; Charles asked him if he wanted a copy, true to Dylan's style, he murmured, "I already have it."

Indeed, the very strange Masked and Anonymous may not convert any greenhorns into longtime fans, and such an unusual movie will definitely not set any box office records. But Charles doesn't care. "To me the miracle is that the movie got made."

July 28, 2003

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