Owen Wilson and the Joy of Paint

The Hair Up There: Owen Wilson and the Joy of Paint

Owen Wilson in Paint (Courtesy of IFC Films)

It starts with the hair.

No, it doesn't. It starts with the script. In this case, the script for Paint, written by Brit McAdams. In 2010 it was named by industry insiders to the Black List of the best unproduced scripts. It was that script, about a Bob Ross-esque artist, that caught Owen Wilson's attention. "I don't read many scripts and go, 'Oh, that's a really good script,'" Wilson said.

But the hair. The elaborate and carefully tended yet seemingly accidental helmet, a dandelion clock of wispy curls that almost fades into the air; and the accompanying beard, trimmed to a hint of a point. It's what makes Carl Nargle so instantly recognizable and allows him to dominate a room even when he's seemingly so humble. And what's so bad about that? After all, he is the host of the No. 1 show on PBS in Burlington, Vermont. "Success has engendered a little vanity and ego, and I can't fault him for that," Wilson said. "That creeps in with the best of us, and it makes for a more interesting, funny character to play."

“With Carl Nargle, it was a great feeling to go in and put that wig on and those clothes, because that was his superhero look that he put on.” – Owen Wilson

That Carl's quiet ostentation is summed up in this attention-grabbing do is somehow suitable. For a master of understatement, whose delivery implores the audience to lean in for every word, Wilson has a long history with memorable, scene- and character-defining haircuts. Dignan's weird, elevated buzzcut in Bottle Rocket; Hansel's flowing locks, cascading down his face, forcing him to peek out with puppy-dog bashfulness; "and in Loki, my character has that gray, kind-of-silver kind of crewcut." The roots of that look go back to another memorable haircut, the straggly silver mane of Father Ra-Shawbard in the "Batsh*t Valley" episodes of Documentary Now! In the spoof of Wild Wild Country, it's suggested that the sex cult guru was actually an FBI informant, and so for one insert shot "they put this quick little wig on me, and I was like, 'God, that's kind of a good look.' For Loki, originally, they were going to have it like my normal hair has been in a lot of movies, so we ended up trying that and now I couldn't imagine that character not looking like that. And certainly with Carl Nargle, it was a great feeling to go in and put that wig on and those clothes, because that was his superhero look that he put on."

This is not performance as cosplay, but rather about how we all put on an outward persona, and how much of our identity is summed up in our hair. Wilson noted how everyone in the JFK era mimicked that neat crew cut as the cool look, and then the Beatles grew their hair out and everyone followed suit. Or think how a bad haircut makes you feel. "That is a painful thing and you really go, 'I'm not going to go out for a couple months until it grows back the way I want it.' We'd like to be evolved enough to go, 'Oh, that doesn't matter,' but it's a big thing to us."

And that exterior presentation seeps back inside. Wilson recalled his boyhood in Dallas, where his father, Robert Wilson, was CEO of KERA, the local PBS station. One night, legendary journalist Tom Wolfe was a dinner guest, and the author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test turned up in his signature white suit. "When my dad answered the door, Tom said, 'I come as advertised.'" With Nargle's own signature look, even though Paint is set in 2019, "you can imagine Carl existing in the Seventies and not having ever changed. I kind of admire that when somebody commits to a look and that becomes their uniform."

Wilson has had his own uniform in the past. When he and Wes Anderson were in L.A. working on the script for Bottle Rocket, "I did start to wear white pants and white shorts, and that ended up being a look that we went for with the character of Dignan. It's very pristine but you are a little bit self-conscious that you've got a look, you're getting attention with that look." Nowadays, his look is almost an anti-look, "trying to blend in. ... Everything is gray or blue, navy blue, edging toward charcoal." He has, he admitted, toyed with the idea of becoming a cool suit guy, "but every time I put on a suit I just get the feeling of, 'Oh, look at this guy, wearing a suit,' and it's hard to break through that."

But there's no avoiding the bushy-haired elephant in the room. Carl Nargle is Burlington's Bob Ross, and the instant you talk about Bob Ross you stir latent warm feelings in the hearts of everyone who ever watched the PBS icon put in a happy little bush, or mix ochre and umber. He sits in a pantheon of public broadcasting legends – alongside Mister Rogers and Nancy Zieman of Sewing With Nancy – about whom audiences will always be protective. "He makes you feel a certain way," Wilson said, "and feel encouraged, and you just recognize that there's a gentle kindness in the guy." If Paint had just been a spoof of Ross, Wilson said, he wouldn't have been interested in the script: Moreover, he doesn't see it as having Carl as an analog for Bob, but rather as having his story be a way to discuss what Bob Ross represents. He said, "It says something nice about our culture that somebody like that can be so popular still. Because you would not pick him. In this day of social media and all these other competing things, that somehow that person has endured, I think that's kind of interesting."

Paint is in theatres now. See our review here.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Richard Whittaker
That's One Pricey Burrito: Chuy's Sells for $605 Million
That's One Pricey Burrito: Chuy's Sells for $605 Million
Austin original acquired by Darden Restaurants, Inc.

July 18, 2024

Pale imitation of what made the original such an unexpected smash of a disaster movie

July 19, 2024


Owen Wilson, Paint, Carl Nargle, IFC Films

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle