Baby, you can drive Owen Wilson's Cars

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      LOS ANGELES—Owen Wilson is in Hollywood. More specifically, he’s in a room in a hotel within spitting distance of that famous, star-spangled boulevard roamed by people dressed as Michael Jackson, Darth Vader, and Spiderman, and, naturally, by tourists. But for a moment, just as he’s about to be interviewed for his new animated film, Cars 2, his mind—and perhaps his heart—is seemingly somewhere else entirely.

      “I’ve just flown in from Paris,” Wilson’s costar, Brit comedian Eddie Izzard, whispers to him before the buzz in the room has officially settled down.

      “I wish I was flying out to Paris,” Wilson whispers in return. His distinctive voice—that odd muddle of Texas drawl, California surfer dude, and what sounds like someone speaking while sucking on a butterscotch candy—now sounds decidedly in the neighbourhood of wistful. “I could easily live there.”

      Hmm, couldn’t we all? But unlike the rest of us, Wilson is currently starring in Woody Allen’s latest comedy, Midnight in Paris, in which his anxious fledgling novelist also has a soulful yearning for the city where F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway once played, drank, and wrote.

      But their conversation, with its revelatory tidbit, is heard only later, a surprise picked up by a journalist’s nearby recorder. Just now, the topic is Disney’s shiny new sequel to 2006’s highly successful Cars and Wilson’s role in both films as the voice of hotshot race car Lightning McQueen. Cars 2 (opening Friday [June 24] ) is, unsurprisingly, all about cars: cars that roar along racecourses from Tokyo to the Italian Riviera, conduct James Bond–style spy missions, and learn lessons about liking their friends just the way they are.

      In real life, Wilson claims to drive a Prius, a hybrid electric car that “gets a bit shaky” if things get too speedy. “You don’t want to just be hauling ass in a Prius along the PCH [Pacific Coast Highway].” But the actor with a busted schnoz worthy of a prize pugilist has found himself the object of unexpected attention for playing a rather more high-performance automobile. “Somebody was just asking me, ”˜Do you ever say “Ka-chow!” ’?” he says, referring to Lightning McQueen’s goofy-yet-kidtastic catch phrase. “And I say that. It’s more because parents will say ”˜This is Lightning McQueen!’ and the kid just stands there. Not even in disbelief, just more: ”˜What are you talking about?’ And so then I’ll sort of, ”˜Ka-chow!’ ”

      “Ka-chow!” is all very well, but you can’t convincingly play both a classic Woody Allen protagonist and a cartoon race car in films debuting in the same month without people noting just how well your chameleonlike acting skills complement the possibly more neurotic of the two roles.

      “What surprised me was, I guess I was playing the character that Woody Allen might have played—or would have played—and, yeah, there probably is a cadence that you slip into,” Wilson says. “I mean, obviously, we’re pretty different backgrounds, but people would say that I sounded like him. This woman even said that I looked a lot like him, which I’d never heard before. But Woody would kind of disagree when someone would say that, and say, ”˜No, I don’t think Owen sounds anything like me or is anything like me. He couldn’t be more different.’ ”

      During his 15-year career—the starting point perhaps best marked by when Bottle Rocket’s loony slacker, Dignan, hit screens in 1996—Wilson has acted in everything from The Royal Tenenbaums to Wedding Crashers. He has cowritten three films with his friend, director Wes Anderson, with whom he shares a certain childlike, loopy, and deadpan-absurd comic sensibility.

      It’s fitting, then, that the perpetually boyish Wilson has given voice to rather a few cartoon protagonists. “It’s just a lot easier to work on an animated movie,” he says. “You’re in your own sort of imagination, more like a kid. Whereas a [live-action] movie”¦you go through wardrobe, hair, and makeup, and this is more sort of pure. You’re just sort of seeing it all in your head, and I like doing it that way.”

      But—nagging question: he really, truly only drives a Prius? “I do have a Porsche,” he says finally, to much laughter. “I remember Luke, my brother, always wanted a Porsche, and I’m not that big into cars and, you know, over on Wilshire Boulevard there’s a Porsche dealership. I went in there and ended up getting one, and Luke kind of felt like, ”˜I wanted to get a Porsche!’ and then he got one. And then we, I’m sure, looked pretty obnoxious with matching Porsches, because at that point we were living together.”

      Just then, a lofty replica of the clock dubbed “Big Bentley” in Cars 2 begins striking the hour, startling, then amusing, its audience. “Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls,” Wilson says drolly.

      He turns to get a better look.

      “This needs to be in my bedroom,” he says with perfect seriousness.

      Watch the trailer for Cars 2.