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Rainn Wilson – Steps Out of The Office to Put On a Rock Face in The Rocker

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

Rainn Wilson at the NY press day for "The Rocker."

Rainn Wilson at the NY press day for “The Rocker.”

Rainn Wilson

Steps Out of The Office to Put On a Rock Face in The Rocker

by Brad Balfour

It’s an old story, as old as the Beatles. A rock combo starts out playing the clubs, building the band’s repertoire and following, and then, on the verge of signing the big deal, fires the most expendable member—the drummer.

It may not be as classic a scenario as the on-going bathos of The Office, but that’s essentially the kick-off point for the The Rocker. A rock and roll parable, the comedy stars media magnet/TV-star/ace eccentric Rainn Wilson as that drummer bounced from his burgeoning metal band, Vesuvius, because a record company executive wanted to his own guy in the band. Absurd, though not always funny, the movie in far too many ways imitates life.

After twenty years of life’s indignities, batterist Fish finds himself as the last-minute replacement, as the percussive bottom so to speak, to play the prom in his nephew’s band. Though that gig is a disaster, it inspires him and he proposes that they work together to launch a tour. Lo and behold, the band takes off—thanks to a vid of him drumming in the nude, virally broadcast throughout the internet. The spread of his cheeks get the band spread all over the country.

Certainly not all bands share this history, but the 32-year-old  one-time founder of a teen rock band grasps this classic rock tale. Wilson’s career has since diverged from rock roots as he went on to sing in musicals, do theater, and get discovered as a television star by becoming the abrasive Dwight Schrute in the comedy The Office. That role garnered him his own fans and a few accolades including a nom as Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy for this year’s Emmys. Though he didn’t win, a touch of the rocker style rubbed off on Wilson as strutted around at the Primetime Emmy Awards in cool sunglasses and tux.

So what is your favorite music? 

I would say rock.

How did you get this gig? Do you know if you were the first choice for this role? 

I doubt it. Any comedy script in Hollywood, guaranteed, goes to any three of these people: Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. So I’m sure it went to those people, I have no idea who. But then it trickles down to, “Okay, now what the fuck do we do with this thing?” Then I was on the next list of the B-talent and somehow I rose to the top of that. I was supposed to host [a VH1 rock show] last year that was a tribute to a bunch of different bands. I have a good relationship with them, and may do it in the future. They know that I’m a big rock music fan and they try and get funny people mixed in. I’m thought of for real people that are odd and kind of misfits and funny in their own way. We see so many doors opening. Audiences are much more allowing of the fact that you don’t have to have chiseled cheekbones—not that I don’t have them—to star in a movie. People like Seth Rogen and Michael Cera and all these great new comedy stars are much more interesting and real. I think studios have discovered that audiences enjoy that.

Rainn Wilson at the NY press day for "The Rocker."

Rainn Wilson at the NY press day for “The Rocker.”

What was your first step to getting into this role? 

The first thing I started to do was take drum lessons, and that opened my eyes to who this guy was. I was in orchestras growing up, but when you drum, you’re just loud and pounding away. There’s something like, “Yeah!” This drum coach I was working with was all about putting on the big show behind the kit. When you get in that mindset of the drummer—the sweat and the pounding and the ugly face—Fish just became totally clear to me. This is not a thoughtful guy. Dwight [his character from The Office] is tight and controlled and maybe in his head too much, but Fish is just like, “Let it loose.”

How does Dwight’s love of metal music compare to Fish’s?

He would listen purely as a motivational tool to increase the adrenaline and the flow in his brain stem. He would have his reasoning for it, whereas Fish just wants to rock and have a good time. They both have a love of metal, unflattering haircuts, and not the best wardrobe, but beyond that, they’re pretty different characters.

What was the most interesting thing you learned about drumming?

It’s an incredible workout. It’s a workout not even of your body, but of concentration. It’s like playing golf. You can’t get fuzzy on hole seventeen and check out. It’s the same thing. You’re in these songs and they’re kind of repetitive. It requires an amazing amount of focus.

What drummers inspired this character?

The iconic drummer of all time is [The Who’s] Keith Moon so I watched a lot of Keith Moon, but he’s impossible to emulate. He’s too good and too crazy and too specific. I watched a lot of heavy metal videos back in the day of Tommy Lee [Mötley Crüe], Lars Ulrich [Metallica], and the one-armed guy [Rick Allen] from Def Leppard. Rock drummers before metal were so faceless, except for maybe [the late] Keith Moon and John Bonham [Led Zeppelin]. You have all these great bands and you have no idea who the drummer is, but metal was the genesis, flowering of the rock drummer.

What bands would you like to sit in with as a drummer?

My two favorite bands have the most awesome drummers ever from Radiohead [Phil Selway] and Wilco [Glenn Kotche]. They are the best drummers in rock n’ roll. I think it would be really cool to go with The Raconteurs. They have a great drummer, but Meg White—I don’t know what happened to her, she had a nervous breakdown or something—so I would love to play with Jack White. It would be pretty cool.

Rainn Wilson in "The Rocker."

Rainn Wilson in “The Rocker.”

How did you develop your drum face?

It comes natural to anyone. You try playing the drums and try making a normal serious, serene face. You can’t do it. You just look weird when you’re drumming and you’re intense. We started rehearsals and they thought it was hysterical what I was doing [with my face] but I didn’t even think about my face.

Since your ousted drummer is loosely based on him, what role did former Beatle Pete Best play in the film? 

He had a tiny cameo. If you blink, you miss him at the bus stop, reading Rolling Stone magazine. We had a little scene that will be on the DVD. I find it highly ironic that Pete’s scene from the movie got cut. That painfully freaked me out. He’s a great guy. I got to interview and hang out with him. The movie is not based on him in any way, shape or form, but he’s kind of the poster child for this kind of story. There have been plenty of band members kicked out of the band before they got big during the course of rock n’ roll, but he’s the most famous. He’s such a sweet guy. He couldn’t be nicer or more low-key. He’s not bitter. He said, “You just don’t know how things are going to work out. I’ve got six grandkids and get to tour the world with my band.” He’s doing great, he’s fine.

Did you have rock star dreams of your own?

I got to, thankfully, live through a little bit of a rocker nightmare, which was probably the shortest-lived high school band ever. I did two gigs with my band Collective Moss; I wish I still had that flyer [we printed]. We played two gigs, one for a bunch of eleven-year-olds who stole our patch cords in a church basement. Our second gig was an audition for the Battle of the Bands which we didn’t get into. That’s how bad we were; we were not even in the top six bands at New Trier High School [in Winnetka, Illinois]. I was the singer.

What was it like playing yourself twenty years apart?

It was kind of ridiculous. They put on a little more makeup. Here I am, this 40-year-old guy trying to play a twenty year-old. I don’t know how successful it was. I think the audience buys it because it says 1988. You’re like, “Okay, whatever.”

How did you relate to this character, who is a 40-year-old and playing in a rock band with teenagers?

The main obstacle is this guy getting over what happened in the past. I didn’t have that, but I certainly can relate to finding success late in life, which is pretty cool and also pretty weird too.

Josh Gad, Teddy Geiger, Emma Stone and Rainn Wilson in "The Rocker."

Josh Gad, Teddy Geiger, Emma Stone and Rainn Wilson in “The Rocker.”

Do you ever regret that your youth didn’t include having groupies?

I’m happy the way it worked out. I couldn’t be more thrilled. I struggled for a long time, the first ten years of my career, and now things are taking off. I have no regrets that I wish this or that had happened. I’m a much better actor now than I was then. I needed to learn. Some people like Leonardo DiCaprio were immediately brilliant at nineteen. I wasn’t that way. I was learning and in the trenches.

What would you do if the music of this fictitious band A.D.D. took off?

Don’t worry; we’re hitting the road, opening for The Jonas Brothers. Not really! It would be a little bit of a stretch and take a few weeks of rehearsing, but we could pull it off. I could learn those songs. Emma Stone [Amelia] totally learned the bass; she learned every note. She got really good at it. Josh Gad [Matt] is a total fraud, so we would Milli Vanilli a keyboard behind him somewhere. Teddy [Geiger, who plays band leader/siger/songwriter Curtis] is the real deal. That was something that should feel authentic. Rock music sucks in movies nine times out of ten. We wanted good, catchy pop songs that would be accessible to a large audience, but at the same time, had an indie rock feel that felt like they were written by a seventeen-year-old writing songs in his garage. He has an amazing voice and he’s a completely self taught suburban kid musician. I did my own drumming. You won’t hear me on those tracks but that was me playing over the tracks. That was something that was important to this film, that the music should be authentic. We would shoot into the night through morning rush hour, so a lot of times we were driving home at 10:30 in the morning wanting to go to bed. It was ridiculous. They would just be drinking their Red Bulls and chattering away. I called them The Squirrels.

What was it like working with Christina Applegate?

Christina’s amazing. We were so lucky to get her to be in the movie. I was such a big fan of hers, especially in Anchorman. I thought she really anchored that movie, Hahaha! She’s effortless. She’s so deft at comedy, with a light touch, and she’s hot, smart and really cool. We had a blast. I’m really psyched, and now we’re both Emmy nominees.

Christina didn’t mind being characterized as a MILF?

This was her first MILF role, and I’m sure there will be many more. I think she knew, she was like, “You know what, I’m late 30s now, it’s time for me to tip-toe into the MILF world.”

Rainn Wilson in "The Rocker."

Rainn Wilson in “The Rocker.”

The band becomes famous when your character drums naked and gets posted on YouTube—what was it like to film the scene?

You can see the naked drummer footage up on YouTube. Put in “naked drummer” and you can see my ass crack all over the airwaves. It felt very sticky. I’ll take my clothes off right now; I have no shame. It’s just a human body that passes away at the end of our lives. It’s a glorious thing. The body is your temple.

What do you think of rock n’ roll movies?

There definitely needs to be a period metal movie. There’s that Rock Star movie with Mark Wahlberg that sucked but that took itself very seriously. There’s a nod in the film to the famous Robert Plant story [in Almost Famous] where he said, “I am a golden God,” and jumps into the swimming pool on top of the roof. I rode a tricycle [in this film] into a swimming pool, which was my little stunt. There’s still another heavy metal or hair metal comedy to be made. It has to be more than dancing around like peacocks with guy liner [black eyeliner].

What is your favorite concert memory?

I never caught a drum stick or been sweated or urinated on. But I got to see Nirvana in their last U.S. concert, and that was a thrill for me as a Pacific Northwest Nirvana freak.

Did you get to go backstage and meet Nirvana lead singer/songwriter Kurt Cobain?

No, I wasn’t a huge international superstar like I am now, [able] to throw my weight around with my posse. My favorite concert memories are about the music. I saw Radiohead last year and that was pretty awesome. Doing this VH-1 Rock Honors The Who concert was just tremendous. I got to meet The Who and they were idols of mine growing up. I just thought Pete Townshend was the best. I got to interview Flaming Lips and Dave Grohl and Pearl Jam. That was really awesome, to be part of the experience.

What was your first encounter with a fan?

My first fan was when I did Casey Keegan, the homicidal stand-up comic from One Life to Live. I was on three episodes, that is when I first had my first fan. People really watch the soaps, and when you’re on the subway people see you. I was the bad guy so I got a lot of “Oh man, you’re him. You tried to kill my man Antonio! That’s the guy! That’s the guy!” That was pretty cool for me, who had mostly done theater up until that point, and you never really get recognized as a theater actor.

Now it’s passé?

Yeah, you’re like “Who cares? The little people, the little ants, whoever they may be, by the millions. Where’s my car?”

Are you in The Office spin-off?

No. They would never break up a formula that’s already working for fear that it would fall apart. They cast Amy Poehler and it’s not really going to be a spin-off per se. It’s going be another workplace, kind of a mockumentary of some kind.

Would you consider doing a naked drummer routine live?

Are you propositioning me?

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved. Posted: September 5, 2008.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2008 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.#2 © 2008 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.#3 © 2008. Courtesy of Fox Atomic.  All rights reserved.#4 © 2008. Courtesy of Fox Atomic.  All rights reserved.#5 © 2008. Courtesy of Fox Atomic.  All rights reserved.

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