When Jason Reitman asked him to play Buddy, a happily married alpha male whose high-school sweetheart tries to rekindle the flame just after the birth of his first child, Patrick Wilson knew he had to say yes.
He also knew there were two ways to play the part, neither of which would be endearing to audiences. He could portray Buddy, in the new comedy “Young Adult,” as totally unassuming, clueless about his gorgeous ex’s transparent advances, or as an egotist who feeds off her attentions without any intention of acting on them.
“I gravitate toward characters who, on the page, seem unlikeable, and the challenge is to make them at least sympathetic,” says Wilson, 38.
“We’d do different takes, some where Buddy is completely aloof, and [others] where he knows exactly what she’s doing.
“Both are easy to judge — the dumb jock or the adulterous husband. But I think how Buddy handles it is very human. Only in movies does someone hit on you and you either hook up with them, or you say, ‘Screw you,’ and leave. In real life, you’d probably act like it didn’t happen. People don’t tend to leave. They sit there, maybe for a little too long.”
Wilson likens it to an awful first date, thinking back to times when he’d ask girls if he could call them again, despite an obvious lack of chemistry.
He doesn’t read much into it — people, he figures, like the flattery. And sometimes their behavior follows a ritualized playbook, such as going for the end-of-the-night kiss even when the gesture is hollow.
Now married with two sons, Kalin and Kassian, Wilson doesn’t spend much time fending off still-smitten exes, but he can appreciate Buddy’s predicament mostly because he enjoys what he describes as Reitman’s specialty: “abrasive” humor that makes half the audience laugh and the other half cringe.
He also trusts the director’s instincts. Wilson knew he could toy with Buddy’s motivations from take to take because Reitman, a onetime Oscar nominee for 2007’s “Juno,” would be crafty enough to make the best of the footage. So turning down “Adult,” which opens Friday, was never really an option.
“Patrick is like a stealth bomber,” says Reitman, 34. “He does these really subtle moves. Buddy can’t slap the girl, and he can’t be too into her. He has to walk that fine line, keeping the story going without seeming too wise to her plan. And, as we learn in the end, he’s quite a bit smarter than we gave him credit for.”
Starring Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser
Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Jason Reitman
Running time 1 hour 34 minutes