How Do You Know - Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson
Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) and Matty (Owen Wilson) © 2010 Columbia TriStar

Reese Witherspoon has quite a decision to make in her new romantic comedy How Do You Know, choosing between Owen Wilson or Paul Rudd.

In the movie she portrays Lisa, a professional softball player who has just been thrown off the team. Trying to restart her life, she begins dating and hooks up with Matty (Owen Wilson), a major league baseball pitcher, and self-confessed ladies man. But before their relationship gets too serious, Lisa goes on the blind date from hell with George (Paul Rudd), who has just been accused of a financial crime, even though he’s done nothing wrong. And strangely enough, they will discover that they have more in common than they think.

At the press junket for the movie, both ‘suitors’ spoke of their characters and working with the movie’s iconic comedy writer/director, James L Brooks.

Can you describe your characters?

How Do You Know - Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson
Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) and Matty (Owen Wilson) © 2010 Columbia TriStar

Owen Wilson: The best way I can describe Matty is happy-go-lucky. He doesn’t want to complicate things. At first, Lisa’s just another girl – he’s just out to have a good time. But that changes as he hangs around with her more. He starts to see what makes her unique, and he falls for her.

He’s kind of innocent, enthusiastic, wants to have a good time, there’s a slight disconnect sometimes between what he intends and the way Lisa takes something that he says. Any time he does something that he thinks of as being romantic, he asks her, ‘Isn’t this incredible what I’m doing?’ So it’s a little bit like a little kid who goes, ‘Get a load of me,’ which kind of takes the focus off of doing something generous.

Paul Rudd: George is indicted for stock fraud, his girlfriend leaves him, and his former assistant gives him dire warnings of a peril of which he is unaware. Then, when he’s really hit rock bottom, he meets Lisa – and suddenly things start to look better.

He is so absorbed in his own problems that on his first date with Lisa, he can’t talk about anything else. The way she handles it is just perfect: she suggests they don’t talk during the entire dinner. And for a moment, he changes focus from himself and I think he falls in love with her in that instant.

All he’s got going for him is his honesty – and the fact that he feels he has nothing to lose. And he listens to her, which is exactly what she needs.

What was it like having Jack Nicholson playing your father?

How Do You Know - Jack Nicholson and Paul Rudd
Charles (Jack Nicholson) and George (Paul Rudd) © 2010 Columbia TriStar

Paul: I couldn’t imagine anybody but Jack Nicholson in the role of Charles. Working with him has been one of the biggest professional thrills of my life. He has a persona that’s larger-than-life and he’s been the biggest name in movies for four decades. But what was amazing to me was how good an actor he is. He makes it look so easy, but he’s present every single moment he’s in front of the camera.

Is there one particular flaw in your character that you embraced?

Owen: I think it was kind of nice how my character has the built-in censor of trying [to figure out] people’s reactions, like, ‘Gee, this might not come across right, I’m going to say something different.’ And the idea that my character would just say exactly what he was thinking. That kind of honesty was funny and charming.

Paul: One of things that I loved about George is that his whole world was falling in on itself and yet he tried to carry himself with this dignity. It was who he was and he seemed to be unconcerned with how he might come off.  Even in the way the character spoke it seemed to me to be from another time. This character could have been in a movie in the forties, you don’t see that very much these days, and I loved that.

What was working with James L Brooks like?

Owen: He began as a writer, he created The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi and all these great shows, and so first and foremost there’s the attention to the writing and the stuff always feels so human. He also has the ability when you might think something Jim will perfectly articulate it or crystallize what you’re thinking.

There’s some quote, that you can judge a man by his laugh without knowing anything about him, and if you find that he has a great laugh you can be assured he’s a great guy. And I feel like that’s Jim. He has one of the all time great laughs. And you actually can go back and look at Taxi and hear his laugh in the laugh track.

We’d be doing takes and he’d laugh in the take, but you almost were playing for that laugh. You’re like, ‘Okay I hear him laughing, that’s good even though I’m going to have to loop this now.’

How Do You Know - Paul Rudd
George (Paul Rudd) © 2010 Columbia TriStar

Paul: You don’t get to work on material this good too often with people as talented as James Brooks all that much. To me the script, even the stage directions, are like reading a novel.

The description of my character, I remember when I first read it, was described as someone who you might think is the color grey, but no one has stopped and pondered the specific vibrancy of grey. Who reads that in a character description? That’s so amazing that you want to put it in the movie.

There are many levels of complexities and dimensions to all of these characters, all due to James.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.