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Above: Rainn Wilson lets his hair down for The Rocker.
Fans of Rainn Wilson's offbeat, hilarious and strangely endearing performance as Dwight Schrute on NBC's The Office might expect him to transition into film work with straightforward comedy, and The Rocker confirms that suspicion. However, they might not realize the serious professional motives behind his choice. In the movie, directed by Peter Cattaneo (The Full Grown Monty), Wilson plays a grown-up dolt named Fish with a scary fixation on classic rock. Abandoned by the band Vesuvius in his teens -- before they became a commercial phenomenon -- Fish spends the next twenty years working deadbeat jobs and wishing things happened differently. Naturally, he gets a second chance: When the opportunity rolls around to drum for his nephew's high school, Fish goes for it. Ageism and slapstick humor ensue.
While not exactly a classic, The Rocker proves Wilson has the charisma to carry a movie. The script could use some polishing, but Wilson manages to play a completely dysfunctional human being without ever becoming an annoyance. It's a testament to his skill as an actor with calculated timing. The humor emerges from the naturalism of his performances, which make you believe in the outlandish characters he portrays. In a conversation with Cinematical recently, Wilson elaborated on his particular strategies as his career advances, reminisced about his days as a New York theater actor, and shed some light on a few upcoming projects.
Cinematical: You acted in theater for several years before getting any television work. What was the endgame for you during that time?
Rainn Wilson: I went to theater school at the Tisch School of the Arts, and that's a theater training school, so I always thought of myself as a theater actor. I did a ton of plays all over the place, then swiftly realized, "Wait a minute here. If I'm ever really going to make any money or get decent health insurance, or save anything or buy anything, I need to do TV and film." That was a long, hard struggle for me in New York -- to try and get any kind of TV or film auditions. I was here in New York for ten years, and never had an audition for Law and Order, because it's like this club, where you have to be at a certain level even to audition for it.
Cinematical: Once you did get to the point where you were a recognizable television star, what compelled you to start doing film acting?
Rainn Wilson: To me, it's always been about interesting new challenges. I know that sounds like a cliche, but I just love trying to do new things. Recently, I was offered this gig to interview bands backstage for VH1 for this [Rock Honors 2008] concert with The Who. I loved all the bands and I was like, "Sure. Sign me up." I like to have fun that way. As I kept going along, I was getting new and interesting jobs offered to me, and it was enough to keep me going. The jobs kept getting better as I went along. I started doing regional theater, then off-Broadway, then Broadway, guest spots on TV shows, pilots, movie roles. The snowball kept going. It was a long time going, but it just kept moving forward.
Cinematical: So when that happened to you, did you start thinking about what comic traditions you wanted to follow?
Rainn Wilson: It wasn't until many years into it that I thought of myself as a comedian, or even as a comic actor. Even Six Feet Under, though lightly comedic, was kind of serious. It wasn't really until The Office that I got known just for comedy. I did a lot of serious stuff: Long Days Journey Into Night. I played Hamlet. I'm not a sketch comedian, stand-up comic or host. When I was kicking around auditioning for plays, a lot of times I would audition for plays that Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman were auditioning for. I'm a little more of that school of thought. That being said, I've always loved silly comedy. Growing up, I loved the Marx brothers, Jerry Lewis movies, Monty Python, Bob Hope's road movies. Andy Kaufman was my hero when I was twelve or thirteen. Now, I'm getting to do really cool stuff in comedy. It's beyond my wildest dreams.
Cinematical: The Rocker is similar to a lot of recent comedies, including Step Brothers and Knocked Up, in that the main character is this irresponsible man-child who can't seem to grow up. Where does the appeal of that story come from?
Rainn Wilson: The greatest comedy comes from people with big comedy blind spots. People who have a disconnect from reality and live in denial create the best milieu for comedy. I think people that just don't fit in and can't grow up are funny.
Cinematical: What was it about The Rocker that made you decide to take your first lead role in a feature-length film?
Rainn Wilson: Well, man, if you're offered a lead role in a movie...
Cinematical: But you must have been offered lead roles before.
Rainn Wilson: Not so much. I guess I turned down other projects that were pretty low in quality. A funny script with an interesting premise and a great character, and they want me to play the lead? I can't turn that down. It's an amazing opportunity. The Office has opened all these doors for me.
Cinematical: You seem very aware of the way people perceive your comic appeal. Have you ever considered playing against it with a dramatic role?
Rainn Wilson: The next couple of projects that I'm looking at are more in the indie film world, and they're a lot darker and more serious. That being said, they're still essentially comedies. I think it's a mistake for certain actors...no one wants to see Robin Williams and Jim Carrey play psycho killers. I think if you can establish yourself as a comedic actor, you can certainly get established as a great actor, but you need to be very careful. When you become a celebrity, I think you have a responsibility to your audience. If I were to do just serious roles right now, I would come off like a self-serious asshole. But I don't want to do creepy Office weirdos my whole life. I want to expand myself. I think Fish [in The Rocker] is very different from Dwight. They're both comic roles, but as characters go, they couldn't be more different. I do want to challenge myself, but I have to do it gradually, and carefully.
Cinematical: That explains the rationale behind your cameo in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and the voice work you did for Monsters vs. Aliens.
Rainn Wilson: Yeah, pretty much. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has received a ridiculous amount of press considering that it was just a one day cameo. Monsters vs. Aliens -- it was just a blast to do that voice. I play an evil alien warlord, so that's pretty fun. Right up my alley.
Cinematical: Plus, people don't have to look at you as a bad guy.
Rainn Wilson: Exactly. It's not a Rainn Wilson thing. It's just a silly voice thing.
Cinematical: You've written a couple projects that are in development now.
Rainn Wilson: There's this one called Bonzai Shadowhands. That's the indie project Jason Reitman and I set up at Fox Searchlight. I've turned in my second draft to Jason, and he's going to take a stab at doing some rewrites on it, so hopefully we can shoot it next summer. It's a very dark comedy about a down-and-out alcoholic ninja living in the San Fernando Valley.
Cinematical: Then there's Renaissance Men, which you also wrote.
Rainn Wilson: I wanted to write a first grade renaissance fair comedy. It's about two unemployed losers who are on the lam from the law at a renaissance fair. I've just always loved renaissance fairs. I played Dungeons and Dragons and went to science fiction conventions. My buddy who I wrote it with [Matt Ross] started acting in Ashland and did sword fighting. We just know that world. It's a hysterical world that people take very, very seriously. Almost everyone has been to some kind of renaissance fair or reenactment, so there's something everyone can identify with there.
Cinematical: The Office has had some really great directors on some episodes, with Harold Ramis, Jason Reitman and Steve Carrell all pitching in. Have you considered directing any yourself?
Rainn Wilson: I've talked to them about doing both [writing and directing]. Maybe at some point I'll undertake that. Right now, I'm really enjoying writing and thinking about movies. The Office is the greatest day job anyone could ask for. Someday, maybe -- I've talked to Greg [Daniels, producer of The Office] about starting off by writing an episode.
Cinematical: Do you get a sense for how much longer the show will last?
Rainn Wilson: Well, we're all under contract for at least two or three more years, so it's going to be around for awhile.
Cinematical: Any plans to get publicly active in the presidential election?
Rainn Wilson: No. That kind of comedy doesn't really interest me. I think a lot of people are doing it really well. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and The Onion -- I'll leave that to them. I really have no comment on it. I've learned the hard way on that one before.
For more on The Rocker, see Eric D. Snider's review.