Rainn Wilson: ‘No one thought The US Office would work, and here it is years later’

Rainn Wilson cannot escape Dwight Schrute. The other day, the star of The US Office was in a car park wearing a hat, sunglasses, mask and a full beard. “Someone drove by and was like, ‘DWIGHT!!’” recalls the 55-year-old, shaking his head. “I don’t know how that happens.”

He doesn’t mind it. Yes, he’s been in lots of other things – last year’s badly timed pandemic thriller Utopia, for example – but it’s Schrute to whom he seems inexorably tied. When people come over to say they love the show that made him spottable-with-his-entire-face-covered levels of famous, Wilson finds it “very beautiful”. What he can’t abide are the “lame Dwight jokes”. “If I say I had a cheeseburger for lunch, it’s like, ‘You didn’t have beets?!’” he says, pulling the kind of disgusted face that Dwight would make if you didn’t own a nunchuck. “If you’re gonna do the joke, make it a smart joke, I implore you.”

The Office was full of smart jokes. Absurdity, slapstick and emotional heft, too. It started out, in 2005, as a faithful remake of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s mockumentary sitcom: the location had moved from Slough to Scranton, Pennsylvania, but the premise – hapless, unenlightened manager of a mid-level paper company irritates his variously odd employees – was the same. “No one thought it would work,” says Wilson, speaking over Zoom from his home in LA, “because the far superior British Office was perfect and could never be bested.” There is a heavy note of sarcasm in his voice. “And here it is years later. We really managed to make something special.”

Dwight Schrute, assistant (to the) regional manager of the Dunder Mifflin paper company, is perhaps the most beloved character of them all. He was a “fascist nerd”, as Wilson describes him, with brilliant sales skills and atrocious social ones. He lived on his family’s beet farm, was a volunteer sheriff deputy, claimed to have performed his own circumcision and boasted fluency in “pre-industrial and mostly religious” German. With his centre parting, Aviator glasses and maniacal smirk, he earned Wilson three consecutive Emmy nominations, the perfect accomplice / foil to Steve Carell’s Michael Scott.

Michael was the show’s lynchpin, but he’s also the reason Wilson doesn’t think the show could be made today. “The concept of the buffoonish, clueless white male who is unwittingly racist, sexist and ableist – it’s funny and it’s been a great mine of comedy for a long time, but I feel there’s a large segment of the population that just would not go for that,” he says. “They would just be like, ‘Enough of this. This isn’t funny any more’ – because it hits so close to home in America, only [in reality it’s] a lot less buffoonish. I think we should be able to laugh at this stuff, but it would be tricky. It would be a tricky tightrope to balance. I think that for Michael Scott to be funny, he’s got to do outrageous things. There’s a humour in that – but that would be a struggle today.”

That doesn’t quite explain why the show’s popularity has only grown in recent years. In 2020, it was the most watched show on any streaming service. Gen Z-ers love it – most famously Billie Eilish, who was four when it first aired and has seen it 15 times. “Most of the things that I know are because of The Office,” she said, somewhat concerningly, on a podcast last year. Jack Dylan Grazer, Wilson’s 17-year-old co-star in his new film Don’t Tell A Soul, was such a huge Office fan that he clammed up on first meeting him – as Wilson recently recalled in an interview with The Guardian.

It’s that film – “the cat and mouse thriller of a mysterious man trapped in a hole by feral boys” – that Wilson is here to promote. Grazer plays Joey, a sweetly naive teenage boy; Fionn Whitehead is his borderline sociopathic older brother Matt. When they rob a house that’s being fumigated, a security guard called Mr Hamby, played by Wilson, takes chase – then swiftly falls down a large hole. Joey wants to help him; Matt thinks he’s seen too much. What seems at first to be a straightforward morality tale soon becomes something much slipperier. Thanks to Wilson’s ability to seem at once goofy and sinister, it all just about holds together.

“Beyond the twists and turns, the element that I thought was so touching was the father-son story that emerges between Hamby and Jack’s character,” says Wilson. “There’s a real emotional truth. He’s missing a son and the boy is missing a father. In the midst of all this chaos, there’s this tale as ancient as the bible of fathers and sons. It’s Shakespeare, it’s the bible, it’s Greek myth. I found that quite moving.”

The situation the brothers have found themselves in, with a dead father and a mother too unwell to care for them, felt pertinent too. “It has to do with this whole generation of kids raising themselves,” says Wilson. “In the United States, in certain areas of the country, there’s this opioid epidemic. And you’ve got these children of addicts raising themselves. It’s just them and screens, and it conjures up a Lord of the Flies kind of world. It evokes for me the millions of unparented children running around the recesses of mid-America.”

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In many ways, with his calm, cerebral manner, Wilson could not be further from Dwight Schrute – but they share an eccentricity. Behind him is a bassoon and a shelf full of strange wonders – bizarre paintings; knick-knacks; what looks like an animal horn. His chin is resting in his hand, so I can see the nine-pointed star – a symbol of unity in the Baha’i faith to which he belongs – that’s tattooed on his wrist.

Wilson felt an affinity for the part of Dwight from the moment he read the character description. “I was like, ‘Oh this part is mine,’” he says. “‘There’s no one who can play this as well as me. Skip the audition process, just hand me the contract.’ But it was not so easy. I had to fight for it a little bit.”

As Dwight in ‘The Office’

(Nbc-Tv/Kobal/Shutterstock)

He’d had a few supporting parts here and there – a pompous magazine editor in Almost Famous, a funeral home intern in Six Feet Under – but nothing as big as this. Why was he so confident? “I related to Dwight,” says Wilson. “You can’t quite put your finger on what he is. He’s a nerd-bully. He’s a suck-up but he’s very independent. There are all these interesting dichotomies that are so rare when you’re creating a comedic sidekick, but I knew all that from my alienated suburban Seattle background in the Seventies. I had friends that both played Dungeons and Dragons and drove muscle cars. I knew that world.”

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the people who named their son Rainn were unconventional. Wilson’s mother was an actor and yoga teacher (in fact, she still teaches it at 80); his father, who died last year, was a painter and writer who released a science-fiction novel called Tentacles of Dawn. From the ages of three to five, Wilson lived with his dad and stepmum in Nicaragua, before moving back to Seattle, where he was shoved and punched by his classmates to chants of “Rainn, Rainn, go away”.

“I was an offbeat young lad,” says Wilson. “My parents were pretty bizarre and we were poor and living in the pacific northwest. And as if it wasn’t weird enough that I had strange parents and low self-esteem, as if I wasn’t a member of the pottery club and didn’t play the bassoon, my parents were members of this obscure, strange-sounding religion – the Baha’i faith. That adds a whole other level of alienation from me and the world of Seventies and Eighties Seattle.”

Still, he’s grateful for it all now. “There’s something about that unsettling alienation that allowed me to access these kinds of characters. If I’d had a normal childhood, I don’t think I would have gotten to be an actor – I don’t think that I would have got to bring to life strange, offbeat characters like Dwight Schrute and Mr Hamby.”

With Ashleigh LaThrop in ‘Utopia’

(Elizabeth Morris/Amazon/Kobal/Shutterstock)

The Baha’i faith, meanwhile, is not actually all that obscure; some five million people follow it. It was developed in Iran and the Middle East in the 19th century, its core belief being that all people and religions are essentially united. Wilson still follows it. “The importance of the arts in the Baha’i faith is really special,” he says. “It teaches that the arts are a form of worship – that they’re a divine impression. Now you may say, ‘Give me a break Rainn, you’re playing these weirdo characters. That’s a divine expression? Isn’t that a little haughty?’ But it doesn’t matter who you are or what kind of art you’re doing. You could be making poetry in your basement or writing a poem on the weekends, but that expression of our soul, of our hearts, of longing for transcendence, to help tell stories, this is a divine act according to the Baha’i faith. And I think anyone who’s ever tried to be an artist can relate to that.”

Wilson’s divine expression has taken many forms. As an actor, he’s starred in the indie darling Juno (2007), as the store clerk who told the teen protagonist that her “eggo is preggo”; in the superhero spoof Super (2010); and in the underrated drama Blackbird (2019), as the husband of Kate Winslet. He’s also written a memoir, The Bassoon King; launched a fictional podcast; and last year made a YouTube docuseries called An Idiot’s Guide to Climate Change. In that, he brought his dry humour to an urgent subject matter, speaking to several scientists and activists, including Greta Thunberg.

Did making that series make him optimistic about the planet’s future? “Optimism is a strange word,” says Wilson. “If a house is on fire, you don’t discuss, ‘Hey, are you optimistic that this fire will be put out and the family inside will be OK? Or are you pessimistic that they’re gonna burn to death?’ It’s like, ‘No, we need to call the fire department, turn on the hose, get the pets out, make sure the family is safe, alert the neighbours.’ So it was more about that. We have so much to do here in a very short amount of time.” And can it be done? “If we really act in the next five years – and I mean really act – we can avert the worst of the scenario. It’s still going to be quite bad.”

Wilson is optimistic about humanity, though. He credits that to his Baha’i faith. “I think humanity is in its turbulent adolescence and will go through a lot of painful changes over the upcoming decades, but I think that ultimately, one way or another, we will come out the other side with a much greater maturity, love, wisdom and unity at the end of the day,” he says. “We’re not there now. We have a long way to go. But how bad this transition is is up to us. It’s up to us individually and collectively to build bridges of understanding and create bonds of unity and healing…” He smiles. “Or to go to war and destroy the planet. It’s pretty simple.”

Don’t Tell A Soul is out on digital download on Monday 12 July

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