It's three in the afternoon, and a sandy haired guy in a sweater and jeans sits outside a West Hollywood coffee shop, politely waving his middle finger at a paparazzi. "Are you really going to get some money off these shots?" he says as if the photographer could hear, which he can't. "Seriously, what is this guy thinking?"
Wilson, 33, has the day off from NBC's hit sitcom, and this is simply the latest stop in his day. Prior to flipping off the photographer, he spent the morning with his four-year-old son, Walter, and then took him to pre-school. He answered emails and then met with two actors starring in a web series he is producing for Microsoft.
Next, he handled business concerning Soulpancake.com, an ambitious, provocative and addictive (in the best way) website he launched on March 9 that reflects his serious-minded curiosity about spirituality, creativity and life’s big questions. Sample questions: What’s your bliss list? Do dreams really mean something or are they brain spasms? How do you understand your potential?
"I also Twittered a couple times," he says. Then, lest anyone think he's too focused and serious about business, Wilson breaks into a maniacal, Dwight-like grin and adds, "I also made time for half an hour of Call To Duty, where I got to shoot some people in the face."
Born and mostly in Seattle, Rainn graduated from New Trier High School outside of Chicago and went on to get his graduate degree in acting from NYU. He worked on the stage for a number of years before relocating to Hollywood and making a name for himself as a scene-stealing character actor with guest shots on Entourage and Six Feet Under. His unique turns have also lit up the films 'My Super Ex-Girlfriend', 'Juno' and 'The Last Mimzy'. Married for 14 years to writer Holiday Reinhorn, he managed to find time between carpools and gaming to talk about work, spirituality, and the real life person who inspired his portrayal of Dwight Schrute.
What’s the normal day when you’re working on The Office? Oh that one is easy. Get up at 5:45 a.m., no not even, get up at 5:15 a.m. and being at the office by 6:30 a.m. And shoot all day long until 6 p.m. It’s pretty boring stuff.
I interviewed Leslie David Baker (he plays Stanley) and he said not so, that the computers are live and all of you are on them when the camera is not on you. There are a lot of You Tube videos being passed around, yeah.
On a recent episode you said the line, “I can retract my penis into itself.” How do you say such things without laughing hysterically? Mostly I do laugh. I laugh a lot. And then once I get the laughter out of the way, I can go at it. The great thing about Dwight is that he has no sense of humor about himself at all. He takes himself seriously. Not just seriously, like deathly seriously. So no matter how cockamamie his ideas, it’s life and death.
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What did you do at the beginning to shape Dwight? Obviously the role – the character of Dwight – is loosely modeled on the character of Gareth from the English version of The Office. He plays a similar role in the dynamic on the show. But that being said, my Dwight is really a very different animal. I just try to personalize him as much as possible, and make him – just make him speak to who I am, and my background – the Dungeons and Dragons marching band nerds that I grew up with in Seattle; kind of my white trash, South Seattle family. He has elements of all of those things, and just kind of how my own absurd sense of humor works.
Did you draw on any one person specifically? There was a guy I think about sometimes. He’s certainly not based on him in any way, shape or form. His name was Chris. He had ‘Battlestar Gallactica’ glasses back in the ‘70s. They said Battlestar Gallactica on the side of the glasses. He played Dungeons and Dragons. He was very nerdy. He had a very bad haircut. He was also kind of like blue collar and kind of militant. He loved fencing and sword fighting and he played the coronet. And joined the Marines just so he could do like more fencing and coronet playing in their marching band. And I think he went to the Gulf and then most of those guys transitioned to like video game, on line gaming, and that kind of stuff.
What were you like as a kid? I was kind of all over the place. I was definitely the geek. I was on the model United Nations, the marching band, the chess team all at the same time. But then I discovered that by being a drama geek I could gee the ladies. Once that happened, I left my other pursuits behind.
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What favorite shows did you have back then? Well I grew up watching classic – what I considered classic – ‘70s sitcoms. Pretty much every night of the week was determined by what sitcom I was watching that night. For instance ‘MASH’ and ‘Barney Miller’. In fact, I recently got to meet the actor who played Wojciehowicz on Barney Miller. That was really something. I don’t know his name, the actor, but I ran over and shook his hand and was just really effusive.
It’s Max Gail. I don’t think he knows who I am, or I don’t think he’s ever seen The Office. All he knows is that some big weird guy ran up to him and started shaking his hand, and wouldn’t really let go. And it must have been a little creepy for him.
What were more of your favorites? Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Taxi, Cheers. I loved those shows, and I loved – I always loved the more quirky characters on those shows, the offbeat guy who comes in and spins the show off in a different direction. And now I’m getting to do that. I’m getting to do what I grew up marveling at. It’s my dream come true.
So explain, who is Dwight – and why does he seem like a guy whose time has come? Geeks used to get beat up. Now geeks are billionaires. Dwight has come of age. Girls love geeks. They wear ‘I love geeks’ tee shirts and even hot girls call themselves geeks. It’s been the perfect convergence, of Dwight and geekdom. So I’ve kind of become this weirdo geek icon.
And you’re comfortable with that? Extremely.
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How did acting enter the picture? I discovered acting in high school, and I found out I was pretty good at it, and like I said, I could get the girls by being funny. Then I just kept doing theater. I never really thought about film and TV because in high school we did plays and in college I did more plays, and then, at NYU they only talked about doing theater. I never thought about acting in terms of film and TV, at least in terms of my career. I just wanted to be part of like a theater ensemble and do repertory. Then I did a bus and truck tour of Mid Summer Night’s Dream and Jeffrey Wright was on the tour. He was playing Puck. He’d played Basquiat in the movie and he’d been in a bunch of big films. So we got back from this theater tour and I looked at my bank account and I had like $1100 in the bank. That was as much money as I’d ever saved in my life, but I was basically broke. And Jeffrey got back to the theater offices and went through his mail and he had a residual check for $3,000 for doing a single day of work on a Harrison Ford movie. He was like wahoo. And I was like oh, something is not right here. I need to try to figure out how to get into film and television and make Jeffrey’s kind of money. Then it was a long pursuit after that point.
How did ‘The Office’ come to you? What were you doing when you got the script? I had been getting increasingly well known in LA doing guest spots and pilots and small parts in movies and really it was Six Feet Under that was the role that got me recognized.
The weird mortician. Yeah, the weird mortician. That was at the time when HBO was in its absolute heyday. There was ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ ‘The Sopranos’ and everything was happening. ‘Entourage’ was just starting. It was hitting on all cylinders. And everyone was watching ‘Six Feet Under’. At least in LA they were. It was a perfect tool to use to segue to doing other kinds of things, and that’s kind of what led me to audition for ‘The Office.’
Do you remember though when you got the script or the part? I had seen the English show. I was a huge fan of it. I had just absolutely loved it, and I was – I said this before in interviews, but I was like great, great, good. Why not? I wasn’t one of those people who expressed disdain and horror, like ‘oh how could they do it? They’ll ruin it.’ It’s a TV show. We’re not repainting a Monet painting here. You know what I mean? We’re not trying to recreate Mozart. It’s a TV show. It can be adapted to be an American TV show you stupid snobs. You TV snobs. And the fact that there are people that are snobby about television is just so preposterous to me. And it’s mass entertainment, you know, period. So you know, the American show needs to be a little snappier, it needs to be 21 minutes instead of 30 minutes and, you know, we need to sustain it and go at least 100 episodes, so you know, figure it out.
What do you remember about the audition? The main thing was that they had a weekend long call back session on the set where they filmed everyone auditioning and mixed and matched people, various partners and stuff like that. And I read a lot with John and a lot with Jenna. Just once with Steve. But it was – it was a really – it was really fun. I got to improve and do written scenes and get notes and play with it. It kind of like – it was the environment in which we now make our show on a regular basis. Greg Daniels kind of created that environment in the audition situation, which was a brilliant way to do the show, to cast the show.
Did you have a sense you were going to get the part? I knew there was no one else more right for the part than me. Absolutely.
Do you have any favorite shows? I have so many favorite shows. You know, people are like – it’s so interesting because people are like oh, it’s really starting to find its voice in Season 2 and Season 3, and you know, early on it was bad. It’s like you go back and look at some of those first episodes that we did – ‘Health Care,” “Basketball” – those are great episodes.
Agreed. The show might have been a little bit slower back then, but it’s essentially the same show that we’re doing now. Other than the pilot, I don’t think there was any finding of itself. I think the audience found us, but I don’t think we were finding ourselves.
But favorites? I really love the episode called “Money,” where Dwight has a bed and breakfast. I really loved the Super Bowl episode. Another classic is “The Injury, “where Dwight vomits on his car. That’s’ pretty much an all time great. A lot of our Christmas episodes have been really good. And this season we’ve been really hitting our stride as well. I think there have been some really good episodes this season. “The Duel” was really good. Last season’s “Local Ad.”
Any favorite lines? Well there’s this line that they wrote for one episode where Dwight says fact, I am faster than 90% of all snakes. And they could never fit it into an episode and finally I figured out what episode they fit it into. That was great, because they had a line that had no relevance to anything, and they just kept trying to fit it into an episode because it was a perfect Dwight line.
Let’s talk about your new wesbite, Soulpancake.com. What is it? The Internet is filled with crap – Fancast excluded, of course. It grew out of conversations I had with friends about life’s big questions and the intersection of creativity, spirituality and philosophy. We were like surely there are young people – and people of all ages – who want to discuss these things. There didn’t seem to be a place to explore these things online. And so as I became better known, I thought it would be a good service to create an online destination where people could go, especially young people, and dig into why we’re alive, what it means to be an artist, what it means to have thoughts and feelings about these things. In short, that explains Soulpancake.com.
Interesting name. Originally I wanted to call it Metaphysicalmilkshake.com. People blog about themselves endlessly. I wondered how we could create an online community where people could dig into what makes us human. And ask questions like what happens to us after we die. And is there a God? Why is there suffering? It’s kind of where philosophy and spirituality and creativity all meet.
And how does this relate to you personally? I think that when I look at my life it’s been an artistic and a spiritual journey. This is the kind of place I would’ve gone, and loved.
How long has it been in the works? We began talking about it about two years ago. I had no idea how much work building a website involved, especially one that has interactivity, video, contests and membership.
Tell me about your own spiritual journey. Briefly, I’m a member of the Bahi’a faith. I grew up a member of Bahi’a faith. Left it for a long time and found it again in my adulthood. However, that’s not really what’s important here. My belief is my own private thing between me and my family and my faith. Sure, I’ve talked about it here and there, but the most important thing is that every person can investigate the truth for themselves and in their own way. I want to emphasize the importance of the arts and its connection to spirituality. There’s not a lot of difference between making art and making prayer.
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Who do you imagine clicking on this site? Oh, let’s say a nerdy Office fan in some town that wants to, you know, wants to dig a little deeper than maybe what they’re finding at their local high school. It’s skewed younger, but I don’t know the average age of our user.
It’s a different kind of engagement for people, that’s for sure. Here’s the thing that I find interesting. How come you can can talk to some people for hours about how messed up they got over the weekend at a party and how they threw up on their shoes, but if you try to talk to them about God or death or the nature of the universe they will look at you like you’re a leper?
What’s the response been thus far? Overwhelmingly positive.
Seriously? I would spent it with my wife and son. They would be watching me play Call of Duty and feeding me grapes.
If you could ask God one question, what would it be? What are the power ball numbers for Thursday?
Come on. Seriously. Serously, I don’t know. I can’t answer that.
Is there any question and response on the site that has bowled you over? The challenge to write a haiku about why we suffer. Some of the submissions were astonishingly good. They were real poems. And fantastic.
A couple more questions. American Idol – who’s going to win? I’ve never seen it.
Why? I don’t like the music. I listen to Radiohead and Frightened Rabbit. I don’t understand re-singing songs made famous by Whitney Houston.
What are your thoughts on the economy? It sucks. I have a lot of hard-working relatives who are hurting right now.
For lunch, are you a hamburger or a salad guy? I hate to say it, but I’m a salad guy. I eat my salad and long for an In And Out burger. Unfortunately I have to watch my girlish figure.
Do you have a favorite old T-shirt? I have an old concert shirt from a band called The Silos. They were big in the early ‘90s. And I got it at the show.