Rainn Wilson has evolved as one of television’s funniest actors and as he shifts to the big screen, audiences will discover the naked truth about this comic performer.
Best known as Dwight Schrute in the hit series The Office, in his latest film, The Rocker, Wilson stars as Fish, a soon-to-be-successful heavy metal drummer whose band, Vesuvius, dumps him on the verge of signing a record deal.
Two decades later he ends up drumming for his teenage nephew’s high school band and discovers a new lease on life, love and success, of sorts. Wilson talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Question: You must have a thing about nudity since you bear more than our soul in The Rocker.
Wilson: You know, any time I can reveal this giant, flabby, pale torso for comedic effect, I will do it.
Question: Including the MTV Awards.
Wilson: Yes. Anything. Anything. In The Office, any time they need an extra laugh somewhere, they’re like, “Let’s figure out a way that Dwight can take his shirt off.”
Question: Well, you know, and I must say, I think you’ll have women swooning in the aisle.
Wilson: I don’t know if “swooning”–but I think vomiting, wretching, laughing, rolling their eyes in the aisles, maybe.
Question: You know, obviously when you take a project during your Office hiatus, how important is it for you to try and find something that is as different from Dwight as possible?
Wilson: Well it’s not necessarily my first concern, but obviously it’s important,because you just want to show people your range, and that you can do other stuff than play nerdy, creepy uptight weirdoes. But I’m always going to play character parts, and kind of out there – you know, things a little out of the ordinary and so it’s mostly just finding a great role that I can sink my teeth into.
Question: What was it about this character that appealed to you so much?
Wilson: I was surprised how moved I was when I first read the script. I mean it really is like a coming of age story about this guy who happens to be 40 years old. There’s the maturity that he finds, and arc–when you just go on the journey with this guy, the way he gets over his rivalry with Vesuvius and kind of finds himself over the course of the movie, is really interesting. And most comedies that are as broad and as silly as The Rocker is at times, don’t have its heart.
Question: How much practice did you get in doing the drums?
Wilson: Well, the whole thing – when it finally got green-lit, it was about three weeks before the start of shooting. So the first thing they did was buy me a drum kit and get me a drum coach. And I worked about there or four days a week, just hammering away with this drum coach. And kind of learned the basics of drumming. But also really worked a lot on, like, all the flair and techniques of heavy metal drumming. And working the crowd, and – you know, working the throne, and drumstick tricks. You know, all the little details that kind of make it come to light. So it was a lot of fun. And then they finally had some tracks done for the movie itself, and I started learning the drum parts for the actual songs we played.
Question: Are you a heavy metal fan? Were you a heavy metal fan before doing this?
Wilson: You know, I’m a classic metal fan. You know, I like Ozzie and Led Zeppelin, and ACDC. But it kind of lost me when it got to the spandex and the make-up. When the men started wearing girl’s makeup, that’s when I didn’t quite understand it any more. I didn’t understand what it had become. I mean, I got it when David Bowie did it. But when Bret Michaels did it, it didn’t really make sense to me.
Question: Did you get to keep the drum set?
Wilson: Yeah, I got it in my garage. I’ve got the actual drum set from the movie. And it’s awesome. I go out pretty much every day and pound away on it.
Question: Are they going to be doing – as part of promotion for The Rocker, are you going to be doing any musical stuff on the road?
Wilson: Yeah. We’ve been talking about that. You know, me playing drums for bands, or going on a talk show and playing. And so hopefully I’ll get to be doing some – I’m a pretty mediocre drummer, I have to say. But, you know, if someone was playing “Louie Louie” and they wanted me to play along, I would be great.
Question: The Rocker a film about finding or fulfilling one’s dream, I guess. Could you identify with that facet of the movie?
Wilson: Yeah. I guess, kind of. Celebrity came to me late in life. I wasn’t really well known n my late 30s. And I’ve been a professional actor since I was 23 years old. It’s been nice to have this whole kind of like second career. I was a theatre actor for a long time, and working film and TV actor, but no one really knew. Then all of a sudden kind of being a celebrity is – you know, late in life, is a really cool thing. Getting to host Saturday Night Live and do all these amazing things, so I certainly identify with Fish having that second blast of fame in his life.
Question: How surprised are you by that level of success that you’ve attained?
Wilson: You know, it’s absolutely extraordinary. My whole goal my entire life was just to not have to wait tables, so I just would take jobs that paid and I just wanted to get better as an actor, and make a living as an actor. That’s all I wanted to do. Then I just was so fortunate to end up on really high-quality stuff like Six Feet Under and then The Office. That kind of put me on the map. I could have just as easily ended on a piece of crap TV show. I’d still be working, but not have this kind of level of success.
Question: Was it the comedy or acting that interested you when you were growing up?
Wilson: When I was growing up, it was comedy. I loved comedy. and was a comedy whore. I mean, I would be glued to Jerry Lewis marathons on TV, and I loved Don Knotts, and I loved all the character actors on the TV shows. Bob Hope road movies. You know, Abbott and Costello. Any kind of comedy I could get my hands on, I just absolutely loved. And then I kind of discovered acting, and started down the whole theatre road, and stuff like that. But it was always comedy that kind of ignited me.
Question: Did you expect to make a living doing comedy? Or was it something that you always just did as a – or, thought eventually you’d be doing as a sideline?
Wilson: No, I never knew that. I started doing plays in college, and theatre is kind of this whole world unto itself. So I was kind of really sucked into the whole theatre thing, and doing Shakespeare and Chekhov and a lot of classic plays. But I always really excelled at the comic characters in the theatre. I always got cast as them. The clowns in Shakespeare, and stuff like that. But it was until I was out in LA that I was like, “Hey, wait a minute. If I’m really good at playing clowns in Shakespeare, and doing funny parts in farces onstage, maybe I could transition and do funny characters on TV shows.” for some reason, it just never crossed my mind for a long time.
Question: Yet in Six Feet Under there was a sort of dark, melancholy facet to that character that you play in that show. Was it a nice way to prove yourself, playing a character like that in Six Feet Under?
Wilson: No, although on that show, it was so dark and kind of self-serious, that Arthur did end up being a little bit of the comic relief for that show, just because he was a little more out there. But it was a nice transition from the dramatic work that I had done, to play such an oddball. who has one foot in drama, and one foot in comedy.
Question: I remember talking to you at a previous junket, and you were saying that you’d jumped at the chance to do The Office, despite the fact that the British show was so critically-acclaimed. Did you expect that show to take off the way it has done?
Wilson: You know, I totally did. I’ve said this before in interviews. But, I don’t know. Call me naïve. I guess I hadn’t been in Hollywood very long, and I was like, “Look. The English show is fantastic. And you’re never going to be better than it. But you can Seinfeld it. You know? You can try”. Address to the camera, awareness of the camera, and the kind of – documenting the uncomfortable silences. And you can take all that, and find a new way of doing it, and make it more of a character comedy. A little bit quicker, a little funnier, a little flashier and Americanize it. I was sure from the beginning that The Office had the potential of being a great TV comedy, in the American style. That whole English idea of doing, like, six episodes a year, you know? And then ending after two years – it just doesn’t work in the American model. We’re not subsidized TV here, so it doesn’t work that way, but I was always optimistic.
Question: I take it that Dwight is probably as far removed from you as any character you’ve ever played.
Wilson: Yeah, I would say so. I mean, I have my nerdy aspects, and my kind of weird uptight aspects. But, you know, it’s certainly not me.
Question: He’s also very – in his own way, he’s also somewhat ambitious, though. I mean, he is striving to take over at some point. I mean, he does want to be accepted by his peers. Do you ever feel that way about your own life?
Wilson: Well, I’m certainly ambitious, like Dwight. But I think – you know, Dwight’s big obstacles are idiocy, one, and two, idiocy. [LAUGHTER] And three, just a complete lack of social competence.
Question: He’s about the only character in the show that doesn’t seem to be growing. Even Michael, with his former relationship. And there’s aspects of Michael’s character that suggest a sense of – at times, a sense of growth. But Dwight seems to have remained – doesn’t seem to want to grow up at all. Is that a concern as an actor, or is that something you still quite relish playing?
Wilson: Well, I think that a character like Dwight can’t really grow and mature, because he will lose, essentially, what makes him so funny. However, what the writers have done really well for him is show lots of different aspects of his character and put him in a lot of different situations. Give him heartbreak to deal with. Give him a bed and breakfast to run. You know, show his obsessive qualities, show him out of the office. His loyalty, his disloyalty, lots of different aspects of Dwight that episode by episode, they allow me to explore, bcause that’s the important thing.
Question: Do you think that – I mean, given the big screen successes that you and Steve have attained that The Office can last much longer, with you guys as successful as you are?
Wilson: I don’t know, man. It remains to be seen. We’re all certainly under contract, but I imagine that Steve’s movie stardom is big enough, he doesn’t have to necessarily be beholden to his contract
Question: What are your hopes? I mean, your hopes are that you’ll at least –
Wilson: Well, I love doing The Office and I would definitely love to do it for a few more years. And kind of see where it goes. But I definitely don’t want to be one of those shows that’s on well past its prime. And I don’t think, like, turning it into, like, Dwight’s Place, where Dwight runs a bar in Scranton and go for another seven seasons of that, is a good idea. But, who knows. Talk to me in six years. I might be hosting a daytime game show. You never know how things work out.
Question: What other aspirations do you have besides acting? Are you doing some writing, yourself? Do you want to do more behind-the-scenes stuff?
Wilson: Well, I’ve been writing a couple of scripts, which has been really fun and really challenging. It’s certainly challenging to just find the time and the energy to do it. But I’m really excited about doing that. I’m writing this very dark ninja comedy for Jason Reitman called Bonzai Shadowhands nod I’m co-writing a Renaissance fair company with Jay Roach’s company. It’s really fun and satisfying and who knows? Maybe someday I’ll move and try my hand at directing and maybe someday run a studio. That would work.
Question: You haven’t signed up for anything else for your next hiatus, have you?
Wilson: No. I mean, this hiatus, there really was nothing shooting, because there’s this potential SAG strike happening. So there are not really any movies happening right now. But I have The Rocker to promote and I’m doing a couple days on The Transformers II.
Question: Oh, really? As whom?
Wilson: As a robot. No. As a professor. But maybe he’s a robot. Maybe I’ll just pretend he’s a robot, or I’ll play him as a robot.
Question: Have you ever worked with Michael Bay before?
Wilson: I have not worked with Michael Bay before. And I think that is a hilarious, hysterical match-up. Is Rainn Wilson and Michael Bay. It’s like – I was at the MTV Awards last night, and Paris Hilton and their boyfriend wanted their pictures taken with me. And I – as the camera clicked, I said, “This one is for the ages.” I love the idea of Rainn Wilson and Paris Hilton, together at last.
Question: Well, maybe Michael Bay can direct you and Paris Hilton in something.
Wilson: If Michael Bay could direct me and Paris Hilton in a remake of Roman Holiday.
Question: That would work.
Wilson: That would be stupendous.