Unlike the people profiled in the new documentary A Glitch in the Matrix, actor Owen Wilson does not believe he’s living in a simulated reality. Probably. But his character Greg in Amazon Studios’ Bliss — Wilson’s first film project since 2017 — is a different story. Greg finds out at the beginning of the movie that the world around him isn’t real. That reveal sends him on an adventure with a woman played by Salma Hayek, who tips him to the situation and leads him on an increasingly fractured and twist-filled adventure.
It was an unusual challenge for Wilson, who’s more used to playing down-to-earth, relatable characters. His extensive work with his old college roommate Wes Anderson has put him in a number of films where wild and outsized events happen around him — in Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, among others — but he’s usually the most grounded character in the mix. He’s often brought a little bit of cool-guy certainty and swagger to his roles, whether he’s playing an inadvertent time traveler in Midnight In Paris or voicing speed-happy racer Lightning McQueen in Pixar’s Cars movies.
But writer-director Mike Cahill (Another Earth, I Origins) pushes Wilson’s limits with Bliss, which has him playing a disconnected and disintegrating character trying to come to terms with a breakdown in reality. Polygon recently connected with Owen Wilson via Zoom to talk about simulation theory, and trying to find the consistency in a character living in ungrounded realities.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Do you have any good tips for proving that you aren’t living in a simulation?
Owen Wilson: I don’t! I wonder what would be a good tip? It’s a hard thing to prove. I had never even heard the idea that we’re living in a simulation until a few years ago. The Matrix does that idea, of course. But the idea that we might be in a simulation didn’t land on my radar until, I think, Elon Musk said something about it. And then there was something in the New York Times about it.
Since that idea was presented to me, I could start to find a lot of evidence that we’re in a simulation, especially with this past year. Yeah, you could make a very good case. Who knows, maybe we are? But every day we have choices we make, and things we decide we’re going to believe in. Your whole life can change on these little moments.
Did you and Mike talk about any of this beforehand, either about people who believe simulation theory, or past films like The Matrix or Vanilla Sky that have taken them up before?
We did talk about it. Mike has a background in physics and science that I do not have. I sometimes almost couldn’t keep up with some of his ideas, with him talking about Plato’s Cave. But what I could keep up with was the feeling, the emotion. The idea of somebody like this character who’s dealing with substance abuse and a mental-health crisis. No one would choose that for themselves, but the reality he’s experiencing is very different from what most people around him are experiencing.
You get to play him in a lot of different mental states, and states of reality. What was the spine of the character for you? What kept him consistent?
For me that was the challenge of the movie! Just the uncertainty I had about how to play it. Because so many of the situations were unbelievable, or unusual, I couldn’t ground it with any sort of reality from my own life. So I was trusting the director and the other actors to tell me I was in the ballpark of it being believable.
The film leaves some ambiguity about some of the story’s fundamental truths. Did Mike ever talk in terms a specific truth he wanted you to be playing? Or was it more about what the truth is for Greg in a given scene?
It was sometimes kind of hard to draw it out of Mike, because he’s so hesitant to say anything critical. I think the way he approaches things is more, “Oh! The way you’re playing that is not the way I maybe imagined it, but now that it’s here, that has its own validity.” I think that type of mind is probably what allowed him to create this story, and deal with these sorts of ideas. He has a real humility in his opinions.
So how do you prepare to play a character that’s this variable, and in this much of a state of flux?
Just rehearsing with Mike. I’m trying to think of something that would be interesting to say about the way we prepared for it. It was really just Salma and I talking. I find that acting is more kind of trying to find the parts of your own personality or your own life where you can create links with the story and the characters, identifying those, and then relying on those to create an emotional truth.
Where were you most able to identify with this character?
I think that as I’ve gotten older, my relationship to time has gotten more surreal. You can start to look back on your life and think, “That seems like another lifetime ago, when I was doing that, or when I was living there.” So the uncertainty, sometimes that I can have now with — it sounds funny, maybe, to say “What’s real?” But the past can start to have a dreamlike quality to it. Sometimes I feel that in life, in both good and bad ways.
Fundamentally, this is a film about a man who has all of his ways of thinking changed. Are there projects you’ve worked on that you identify as thought-provoking or world-altering in that way? Roles that helped change how you think?
Yeah, this movie obviously did, just for the reasons we’ve talked about — there being so much uncertainty, and not quite knowing what’s real, the Bliss world or this ugly world we live in. Where should he stay? This, and Midnight in Paris, which had my character existing in a Paris in his mind that feels more real than the life he finds himself in. Sometimes if I see a really great movie or TV show, or a great book, I can feel that character — you know, Tony Soprano, he seems to me as real as people I’ve known in my actual life, you know? He’s existing. That’s what makes the show so moving and so affecting. Fiction can be kind of a hall of mirrors sometimes.
What about individual people you’ve worked with who’ve given you new ways of thinking? Anybody that particularly stands out?
Well, there are people that live their life in a way you can admire, or find interesting. I remember working with Jeff Goldblum. He’s doing a show on National Geographic now. He’s just this very positive person. Even “positive” isn’t a strong enough word. You see this as a kid in school: you sometimes bond over shared dislikes. Like, “I don’t like the cafeteria food! Yeah, me neither! And I don’t like homework!” And then sometimes you carry that on into being an adult. But sometimes you meet people who aren’t interested in bonding over shared dislikes. They only want to connect over things they’re excited about, not giving into any kind of negative stuff. I remember that about Jeff, even though we didn’t work together that much — I just appreciate how he was.
And then my good friend Woody Harrelson. I think he lives his life not worrying too much about what people think. And I think that’s a freeing idea for a lot of people, to not worry so much about the judgment of others.
Bliss launches on Amazon Prime Video on Feb. 5.