When the American incarnation of The Office launched, fans of the original were skeptical that any stateside actor could do justice to the role of the smarmy, delusional boss played by Ricky Gervais, and his creepily intense, almost feral sidekick, played by Mackenzie Crook. But it didn't take long for Steve Carell (in the boss role) and Rainn Wilson (as the sidekick) to make those characters their own. The Office has grown in popularity, and Wilson has branched out with scene-stealing supporting roles in films like The Last Mimzy, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, and last year's surprise smash hit Juno. Wilson recently picked up his second Best Supporting Actor Emmy nomination for his work on The Office.
Before The Office, Wilson logged appearances on Six Feet Under and in movies like Galaxy Quest, Almost Famous, and BAADASSSSS! In The Rocker, Wilson makes his leading-man film debut as a drummer dumped by his '80s hair-metal outfit, only to find success decades later playing in a band alongside his teenage nephew. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Wilson about film projects that never made it to the finish line, having children quote his Juno dialogue back to him in malls, The Rocker, and the complicated psychology of Dwight Schrute.
The A.V. Club: When it comes to film, are you deliberately seeking roles that differ from Dwight Schrute on The Office?
DW: Well yeah, I think Dwight is a very distinct character. I think definitely people know me from playing creeps and weirdoes, and I'm definitely looking to expand my range. I started in theatre, and for me, it was all about transformation. You transform into the character that you're playing. You're not like Jerry Seinfeld, who's always playing himself no matter what he's in—he's great at doing it, but I'm a different kind of actor. I found it very easy to transform into creeps and weirdoes and losers and goofballs, and I'm happy to play eccentric kinds of characters, and I have a great affinity for the outsider, but I definitely am about expanding my range as well.
AVC: Big stars tend to play the same role over and over. Character actors have more leeway, but even they tend to play the same role.
RW: But now we're in the day where there's a lot of character actors that have become stars. Both on the comedy side, like Will Ferrell and Jack Black, but you also have Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman playing lead roles, and transforming themselves in some really cool, great performances. So things have opened up a lot in the last couple of years, and I think audiences are willing to accept character men in a lot of different kinds of roles.
AVC: The Last Mimzy was certainly a departure for you.
RW: Yeah, I still think it's a very nice, very daring little family film, in that it's dealing with a lot of advanced ideas underneath. It has metaphysics and genetics and science fiction.
AVC: It's very trippy for a kid's film.
RW: Yeah, and it didn't really find an audience, but I loved the script, and that's always going to be my first thing, if I get sent the script and I respond to it. But I did like playing a northwest hippie-type elementary-school science teacher who gets to go on this mystical journey—it's about as different from Dwight as you can get, and it really was a lot of fun.
AVC: Fish, your character in The Rocker, is very different from Dwight Schrute, but they share this intensity and unshakable belief in themselves. Do you think that's the character, or something you inherently bring to roles?
RW: Well, I think there are similarities between Fish and Dwight. Definitely. I think they're both oblivious in different ways, but I think that's a good thing, because I think Dwight fans, who we'll be trying to lure out of their houses from watching Office reruns to go see The Rocker, need to be compelled to see the film. They like to see me do a certain thing, right? So they want to see something similar to that—it's not like they want to go out of their houses and pay $10.50 to see me play Hamlet. So they're both characters with big blind spots that think very highly of themselves, and they have to have that in common, and I hope that works in my favor.
AVC: According to the IMDB, you play "College Professor" in the upcoming Transformers sequel. Is your character also an automobile?
RW: I didn't make automobile, but my character is kind of a Vespa that transforms into a small kitchen appliance. I'm not sure which one.
AVC: And then it transforms into a college professor.
RW: Yeah, so it works out on a much smaller scale.
AVC: How did your role in Juno come about?
RW: I have a great relationship with Jason Reitman, and I had done this really terrible comedy with his dad [Ivan], My Super Ex-Girlfriend. I was in Vancouver shooting The Last Mimzy, and Thank You For Smoking had just come out. I was sitting in a Starbucks, and a young man walks in and he goes [Affects fast voice.], "Hi there. I don't know if you know me but my name's Jason Reitman and you just worked with my dad and I want to do a movie with you where you play a ninja that lives in the San Fernando Valley." And I felt like I was discovered at Schwab's, or something like that, and I was like, "Okay, cool." And then a month or two later, we met in L.A. and talked about what he had in mind and his vision for it, and then we talked about hiring writers, and I was like, "Jason, just give me a shot at writing this movie. I've never written anything like that before, and it could suck, and if it sucks, we'll throw it away and hire a real writer, but let me do it." So about a year ago, I finished the first draft—I had very little time to spend writing screenplays—and I'm really happy with it. It's really good; it definitely needs some work, it needs a new ending, so I've been working on the second draft. I'm getting ready to hand it in to Jason in the next month or two, and hopefully maybe in 2009, we'll be shooting that movie. It's called Bonzai Shadowhands.
AVC: And that led directly to appearing in Juno as Rollo?
RW: Right. In the midst of all that, Jason was getting Juno ready. It's a project he had been chasing for a long time, because he really loved the script. He just called me and was like, "Look, could you do me a favor and fly to Vancouver for a day and do the part of the convenience-store clerk?" And he was like "Please," and I was all "No," and he was like "Pretty please," and I was like "Okay." So it was one day's work, and I got paid $750. I think that's SAG Canadian one-day minimum, and the movie has grossed $800 million.
AVC: It's kind of inconceivable how much money that film has actually made.
RW: Yeah, I think it cost him $11 or $12 million, and at this point, I think it's over the $150 million mark.
AVC: Do you have people quoting your dialogue to you?
RW: Yeah, what's interesting to me is that a couple times there have been kids who are like, 11, that are a little too young for The Office but who love Juno, and I'll be walking through a mall with my son, and there will be kids going, "Hey, homeskillet! Your eggo is preggo." And I'm like, "Juno? You're quoting Juno? For my one-day? My $750?"
AVC: That character makes an indelible impression.
RW: I don't know about that, man, I just showed up and tried to get my lines right. Jason just told me to play it real, and I tried my best with that dialogue to keep it as real as possible. [Laughs.] Because I say some pretty outrageous stuff.
AVC: It's odd seeing such an intense relationship between a convenience-store clerk and one of his customers.
RW: Well, I think he knows her. She comes in every day to buy her Sunny Delight. She's shoplifted before, and I think she's given him a hard time before, so I don't think the antagonism is a fabrication of an anonymous interaction. I think there's a little bit of history there.
AVC: There's also a lot of sexual tension.
RW: Sexual tension… I think Ellen Page is hott, double-t hott. All that sexual tension will probably be on the 25th-anniversary DVD as the torrid erotic scenes between Rollo and Juno. I think they bathe in a bathtub of Sunny D and get it on.
AVC: Steve Carell is on record as having never seen the British Office, but you were a big fan.
AVC: Was it difficult to not be influenced by the actor who played the equivalent to your role?
RW: I get asked that question a lot, no offense, but the situation was—the guy playing Gareth is very distinct. He looks like a whippet, he's 97 pounds and has very intense eyes and demeanor, and I knew I'd never be able to copy him. We have totally different energies and are very different as actors. He's just absolutely brilliant for what he did. I knew for the American show, what we were going for was Seinfeld-like success. People who compare the English and American Offices—there's so much ignorance in that comparison, because the English Office made 13 episodes. We make that many episodes in three months. We've made 89 episodes at this point. Their show is more like a miniseries, and our show is like an American TV show, because the demands of the market are so different.
It's like comparing a book and a movie. Gone With The Wind the movie and Gone With The Wind the book, it's difficult to compare them, because they're different forms. So I knew that ours needed to sustain, but I also knew that the Dwight needed to play a similar role, and I knew that [Steve Carell's] Michael Scott needed an acolyte and a foil, and I knew that Jim [Halpert, John Krasinski's character] needed someone to butt heads against. I knew that the office needed someone who was a real stickler for rules, and at the same time was a nerd and had weird, oddly obsessive-compulsive ideas about the military and gaming and fantasy worlds, but also needed to be a real in to the hierarchies of office life. I also didn't want him to be—one thing I really appreciated about the character of Gareth was that he wasn't a loser. The guy had a lot of friends, he could go to bars, he could get girls. He wasn't like the office nerd that we've seen so many times before, so I knew that—this is a very long-winded answer—I knew there were certain needs that needed to be fulfilled. I wanted to find my own way of doing that. I wanted to find my own bad haircut, my own way of kissing the boss' ass, my own way of butting heads with Jim, and so I tried to forget Gareth as much as I could.
AVC: Dwight is very loyal to Michael, yet he also goes behind his back and tries to get him fired.
RW: I remember writing [American Office creator-producer] Greg [Daniels] this e-mail early on. After the pilot, I had a concern I would just be the annoying nerd. I wrote Greg, and I was like, "I just want to make sure that the direction we're going in with Dwight is that I'm not just the predictable annoying nerd, and that I have some more interesting stuff to do. Is there a more interesting way to explore this character?" He wrote me back the greatest e-mail, this really articulate, very long treatise on Dwight, in which he talked about how Dwight had this teenage love of hierarchies, and that his family was very clannish. And as soon as he said those things, a lot of pieces just fell into place. I think it makes total sense for Dwight, having a teenage love of hierarchies and a very clannish family. It allows him to be so loyal that he'd throw himself on a grenade for Michael Scott, and also at the same time, a second later, try to stab him in the back and take his job, because he's just wired that way.
AVC: Can you tell us anything about the Office spin-off?
RW: Yes, it stars me. It's called Schrute To Kill, and I'm a mercenary for hire like Blackwater, and I get into all kinds of comic misadventures all around the globe. So we'll be shooting a lot in Kabul.
AVC: Is a lot of it in front of a green screen?
RW: No, we're going to many actual locations—Latvia, the mountains of Colombia. There's going to be a lot of dangerous stunts and a lot of hysterical comedy as Dwight and Mose try to pick up women all across the globe.
AVC: Do you feel protective of Dwight? Do you wind up thinking things like "Dwight wouldn't do that"?
RW: I am, but at the same time, the writers protect the characters too, and write really interesting stuff for him. There was only one time in the history of the show, out of 80-some episodes, where I went, "Dwight wouldn't say that." It was a talking head discussing massive multiplayer online gaming, and I was like, "It's just too on-the-nose, it's just too easy." Everyone's making fun of massive multiplayer online gaming and World Of Warcraft, and South Park had just done a World Of Warcraft episode, and I was like, "Can he do something more interesting than that?" So we just wrote a different talking head, and it all works out the same.
AVC: With The Office, it seems like there's sometimes a tension between having low-key realism in tune with the British series, or going a little broader.
RW: We have to find a balance between doing all the comic stuff you want to do, and—it's not a documentary. It's in a documentary style, but you can't have every episode… Even in the English show, people are like, "It's so much more realistic." Wait a minute, Gareth picks up a woman in a bar and drives home in a sidecar with a scarf around his neck, while Finchy is banging a woman on her knees in the headlights in a parking lot? There's an absurdity to it that's grounded, so you're allowed to go with that level of absurdity and kind of keep it real. We've always been about finding the absurdity of those human interactions while grounding it in a real office workplace, but we do some really ludicrous stuff on our show. We throw watermelons off the roof and put on fake mustaches and crash forklifts and throw up on our cars and stuff like that.
AVC: Michael Scott is a little like Homer Simpson, in that the level of his stupidity varies from episode to episode. Are you always on the watch for going too broad?
RW: We are. We were very concerned about that episode where we wore fake mustaches and went to the Utica branch. We were very concerned: John, Steve, and I said to Greg and Joss Whedon—who directed the episode—and the writer, Mindy Kaling, "We're really concerned it feels like Three Stooges. It feels too broad, it feels not right." And Joss Whedon is a terrific director, a great comedy director, and he's like, "You know what? It's going to be fine. Let's just play it really straight. These guys are going on this adventure, it's this misguided mission." And it turned into a really nice episode, and actually a really believable one, even though we were doing all this absurd stuff. We just committed and played it as straight as possible, so a lot of it is the directing and editing choices that ground the humor.
AVC: When did you realize that The Office was taking off?
RW: There were so many things that happened all at the same time. During our second year, we were on the verge of cancellation, and then all of a sudden, that wasn't really being talked about. Our numbers were still pretty low, but NBC put up a giant billboard of The Office in Burbank across from their main headquarters, and I was like, "Oh my God, they can't cancel the show, they have to have spent 20 grand hanging that enormous billboard. Are they going to hang that banner and pull that plug?" Right at the same time, we started doing some killer episodes. There was the Halloween episode, and then we did what I still think is one of our greatest of all time—we did "The Injury" right around then where Dwight throws up on the car and Michael burns his foot on the George Foreman grill. We did the Christmas episode where I dress up like the elf. Michael Schur wrote that one, and it was really well-directed.
It was right when video iPods were coming out, and the first video iPods were loaded with that episode. All of a sudden, kids were watching it—I was going around and kids were showing me their video iPods, and I was on them. When I saw 13-year-old boys showing me my image on their video iPods as they were passing me in the mall… I don't spend that much time at the mall, by the way. But that's when I knew we were arriving. It was like, "Oh my goodness, this is going to take off." In the early days—I don't read them anymore, but we would read a lot of Office fan sites, and the level of involvement in the Jim/Pam relationship started to get so heated, people got so invested in Jim and Pam, and it just hooked them into the show. Especially chick viewers. They love the Jim and Pam. Dwight is more like the teenage-boy viewers. But when all those things were happening at the same time, I knew we were going to be around for a while.
AVC: The 40-Year-Old Virgin had to bode well for the show. The show's lead became a big movie star overnight.
RW: Yeah, although remember, he did The 40-Year-Old Virgin that summer, and we came back with our second season in the fall and had really low numbers. So having a movie star on a TV show does not guarantee audience.
AVC: What do you get out of writing that you don't necessarily get out of performing?
RW: You have total control of it, and when you're an actor, you're subject to production design and costumes and directors and studio choices and producer choices, but when you're writing it, you're creating your own little world in your head, peopled with your little characters. No one is in there monkeying with it, at least not at first—though they will. With this and the other projects I'm working on, it'll have to be given away, and it'll have to be someone else's property.
AVC: Do you see it as an extension of acting?
RW: No, I don't see it as that. I always wanted to write, I just never got my shit together. I wish I'd done it when I was younger. I said to my wife the other day, "One of the few regrets I have in my acting career is that I didn't start writing sooner," because I really enjoy it. It's really, really hard and it sucks, but I enjoyed it at the same time.
AVC: You were talking at the Q&A; yesterday about the different endings of The Rocker. The film is kind of about a guy coming of age 20 years too late. It seems like the ending you talked about, where he becomes a manager and gives up on playing with teenagers, is a little more in tune with a coming-of-age story.
RW: Yeah, the great thing about The Rocker is, it's a coming-of-age story for a 40-year-old character. The kids don't come of age, they get their shit together and grow up a little bit along the way, but the guy who needs to come of age is the guy who's 40. I think that's one of the cool things about the movie. That's kind of the heart and soul of the movie.
AVC: Very quickly, your character goes from being this mildly debauched figure to being very paternalistic, which is also more in line with your original ending.
RW: I don't know how much to say, I don't want to give it away, but there's a very uplifting, upbeat ending currently in the movie, and there was an alternative ending that was more of a tag, where you cut ahead a few months and you see where Fish is with the band, and he's become their manager and is more involved in his romance with Curtis' mom, and the studio people just felt like we didn't need to see that—you could just imagine that happening, and you didn't need it. It slowed down the emotional uplift of the ending, and they wanted to take it out on a strong musical upswing, and I think they have a really good point. But I was hoping to see that ending over the credit roll.
AVC: There's a bit of wish-fulfillment, eternal-adolescence element to the ending as it is.
RW: I think there is a bit of wish-fulfillment in this movie. Fame is the thing people want now more than anything else. People would take fame over money, over anything, and getting to finally live your dream, even if it's 20 years after when you thought it would happen, really tugs at people's heartstrings, and takes them on this journey.
AVC: It also seems central to the whole mythology of rock music, in that there's a fountain-of-youth quality to it.
RW: Yeah, Charlie Watts needs to be hauled off the stage and put in buckets of ice and carried away in an ambulance with an IV to his hotel after he performs with the Stones.
AVC: Does touring behind this movie give you any sense of what it's like touring with a band?
RW: I have a little bit of my rock 'n' roll fantasy going. [Affects rocker singing voice.] "It's all part of my rock 'n' roll fantasy…" We got to play arenas with literally thousands of people, and we got to actually drum in front of them, so I got a little bit of a taste—there's something very primal and powerful about rocking people's worlds and playing some kick-ass music.
AVC: Do you think Dwight's breakup with Angela humanized the character, that it made him seem more vulnerable?
RW: Yeah. What I appreciate about the writers is that they always find different facets of Dwight. A lesser team of writers and a lesser show runner would make Dwight the same annoying guy doing the same annoying things week after week, but they write in power struggles and heartbreak and being rivals and challenges and all kinds of great things for me to play as an actor, so I really appreciate that.
AVC: That's one advantage of having a hundred episodes to explore a character, instead of 13.
RW: Unlike Seinfeld, where we basically saw Kramer every week getting into the same kind of—just a different style of a ridiculous predicament, whether it was painting lines on the highway or having a cockfight or whatever. He was always up to some crazy scheme, but they never revealed anything about Kramer, his family, his life, his hopes, his dreams. The great thing about The Office and it being single-camera and the documentary style is that it's mostly a comedy, but 10 percent of it is, we get to show the existential angst that exists in the American workplace. Did you know they call our show in England, The Office: An American Workplace?
AVC: There are incarnations of The Office in a bunch of different countries. It's both specific and universal.
RW: I've been running into Brazilian Office fans. Apparently The Office plays in Brazil. Who would've thought that Brazilians would identify with a bunch of pasty white Scrantonians in a paper company? But the Brazilians I've met have really loved the show.