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Rainn Wilson – Trying Harder in The Office

Updated: Oct 27, 2021


Rainn Wilson in “The Office.”

Rainn Wilson

Trying Harder in The Office

by Ken Sharp

Whoever said it doesn’t rain in Southern California is an idiot. It’s an atypically dismal day in Los Angeles; overcast, chilly and raining just enough to make driving a miserable experience. But it all makes perfect sense, because today I’m driving to the set of The Office to interview Rainn Wilson, who portrays Dwight Schrute, the arrogant and misanthropic paper supply salesman on the NBC show. Being East Coast born and bred, this weather reminds me of, well … Scranton, Pennsylvania, the phony locale for Dunder/Mifflin’s paper supply office.

Hands down, NBC’s The Office (airing on Tuesdays at 9:30 PM) is one of television’s most hilarious and compelling shows. Impeccably written and acted, the show, starring Steve Carell, centers upon the daily grind and almost suffocating boredom emblematic of typical office life. How do you survive day in, day out, krazy glued in a cramped cubby hole, supervised by a boss like Michael Scott (Steve Carell) – who is as clueless as he is incompetent – and a slew of disenchanted office mates … and be the subject of an ongoing documentary? The answer is frequently hilarious, touching and awkward, often all at the same time.

Without paying studied homage to its predecessor, the popular BBC series starring Ricky Gervais, the American version of The Office succeeds on its own terms.   It does this by smartly forging its own aesthetic path, adopting its own distinctive character, stylistic sensibility and unique comedic flair. Recently picked up for the entire second season, the show keeps getting better and better. Indeed, the growing popularity and appeal of The Office is firm testament to its fine acting ensemble (Carell, Wilson, John Krasinski as Jim and Jenna Fischer as Pam are the standouts), compact writing, unpredictable storylines, unconventional humor and a big ol’ heart.

Best known for playing such offbeat, and indelible characters as Arthur on HBO’s Six Feet Under (plus a ton of film and TV credits including Almost Famous, Galaxy Quest, Full Frontal, CSI and Law & Order), Rainn Wilson is one of America’s finest and most arresting character actors. As Dwight Schrute, Wilson completely inhabits his role as an annoying, deadly serious and slightly disturbed salesman. So much so that when you sit down with him, you’re taken aback by how normal he is. Taking a break from the grueling shoot, Rainn is nothing like his character; instead he’s intelligent, insightful, witty and a downright nice guy.

How is filming The Office in a “docu-reality” manner different than the mechanics of a regular TV show?

I think what’s really interesting about it is the show we’re doing is a “mockumentary” – where this documentary crew has shown up in this completely average, banal Scranton paper office.  The characters’ awareness of what the camera is capturing, or their obliviousness to what the camera is capturing just adds a whole other element to the comedy. It also allows poignant moments because the camera can catch really private moments through the blinds or through a window or something like that you can’t normally play in a straight show.

Rainn Wilson in "The Office."

Rainn Wilson in “The Office.”

What’s interesting is the show allows for the awkward pauses to be captured, which makes it stylistically unique, especially for American audiences.

I think we’re the only jokeless show on television. I mean really, we have no setups and no punch lines. It’s not a joke show. There are funny lines and funny moments but again the comedy is born of the human experience and awkward pauses are a great (laughing) part of what it is to be human.

Have you ever worked in an office yourself?

I’ve worked in many offices myself, yes. I get paid a little bit more than the six dollars and twenty five cents an hour I got when I worked at the Multiple Sclerosis Society of New York …  first as a receptionist, then an assistant office manager, then an assistant in events coordination.  But I was let go.  I was fired by my boss because he literally said to me, “I want someone to work for me who when I say ‘jump’ says ‘how high.’’’ He literally said that cliché with a straight face. And the ironic thing is so many of the people that worked there went around in those little wheelie carts, so they couldn’t jump at all.

You excel at playing these offbeat and wholly distinctive characters like Arthur from Six Feet Under and now Dwight Schrute on The Office. What’s the appeal of playing a character like Dwight?

Well, it’s funny because I grew up a kind of sad, nerdy individual. There was one point in high school actually when I was on the chess team, marching band, model United Nations and debate club all at the same time. And I would spend time with the computer club after school. And I had just quit pottery club, which I was in junior high, but I let that go. I also played bassoon in the orchestra … so you can imagine. I was kind of pimply. I was a pimply youth.  So I really understand what it is to be an outsider and I think that the nerds are kind of taking over now. I don’t know if you noticed this, but I saw a girl walking through a mall and she was kind of hot and she had a T-shirt that said ‘I Love Nerds’ on it. That wasn’t the case when I was young. Now you’ve got these nerd rock bands and these nerdy actors.  Even the leading men of today, Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal, they kind of have a nerdy side to them.  So I guess I understand that and it’s just what’s interesting to me. I just find that I like to play characters. I like to transform as an actor into a character. I don’t want to just play a normal guy going through a tough time. I’m just drawn to the extreme elements, I guess.

Who is Dwight Schrute?  Is he a misunderstood person?

Dwight is a sad clown. You’ve seen those paintings of sad clown … Pagliacci weeping, beating the bass drum. Dwight is hard to categorize. You can’t quite say … which is one thing I really enjoy about him. People say ‘Oh, he’s the dorky one.’ Well, he’s kind of dorky but he’s not really dorky. The only thing you can say about Dwight Schrute is that he is annoying. I will give him that. He is definitely annoying. But is he a loser? No. He’s good at his job and he’s focused. He’s intense. Is he dumb? Yeah. About a lot of things, yeah, he’s an idiot. But about a lot of things too, he’s really smart. He’s an excellent paper salesman. He takes his job very seriously. He takes himself very seriously. The best summary I ever read [was] when someone wrote about him on the Internet that he was a fascist nerd. I think that kind of sums up Dwight perfectly.

He doesn’t seem to care about being liked.

Yeah. I think ultimately he does care about being liked. But he thinks that the way for him to get liked is to get approval in the hierarchy and to do things the best possible way they can get done. The fact that a couple of circuits have been fused in his head doesn’t help matters but that’s his way towards being accepted.

Rainn Wilson and Steve Carell in "The Office."

Rainn Wilson and Steve Carell in “The Office.”

Dwight has a unique relationship with his boss, Michael Scott.

I think Dwight loves being number two. I don’t think he has any desire to be number one. He wants to be number two no matter where he goes. It’s like Avis. ‘We try harder.’ That’s Dwight. He has a complex relationship with Michael. In one way they really are friends. They hang out. They go to movies. Dwight goes with him to buy his condo. But Dwight annoys Michael, the boss, to no end. But he needs him at the same time. They really need each other yet resent each other at the same time. It’s kinda like my marriage (laughs).

How about Dwight’s fractious relationship with his office mate, Jim?

Jim … It’s interesting. I was thinking about this the other day. The relationship between Jim and Dwight is very different than the English series where they definitely were more combative. More of the combativeness is coming now between Dwight and Michael and more of the tension. I think Jim certainly loves to pull pranks on Dwight and pull the wool over his eyes and Jim can run circles around him. He’s so much more intelligent than Dwight. But in some ways I think they respect each other and I think Jim really needs Dwight to be there. I think Dwight really likes having Jim there at the same time. In an odd way there’s thin kind of uneasy truce between the two of them as different as they are.

Before taking on the role of Dwight, had you seen the British version of The Office?

Absolutely. As soon as it started playing in the United States a friend of mine, one of the first who I knew that had TiVo, told me I had to see this new show on BBC America. I think he had the first two or three recorded on his TiVo and I went over one night and watched them and it absolutely blew me away. I’d never seen anything like it before.

The UK series of The Office was viewed by many as a milestone in TV, and the idea of it being redone in the US was thought of by its fan base as blasphemous. But to the show’s credit, it works and captures its own distinctive aesthetic slant…

It’s interesting. That thought never crossed my mind how blasphemous it would be to do an American major network recreation.

The nerds were saying that.

Oh, of course, I did this movie, Sahara, and all the Clive Cussler nerds were on the boards for months beforehand talking about how wrong the casting was. And how sure they were gonna mess up Clive Cussler’s masterpiece. Well, you read Sahara and it is a piece of crap action movie. They just tried to take some action sequences and get some good actors in there and have a little fun with it. You can’t listen to them.

THE OFFICE -- NBC Series --  Pictured: (l-r) Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute, Jenna Fischer as Pam Beesly, John Krasinksi as Jim Halpert, BJ Novak as Ryan Howard, (center) Steve Carrell as Michael Scott  -- NBC Universal Photo: Justin Lubin FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY -- DO NOT RE-SELL/DO NOT ARCHIVE

THE OFFICE — NBC Series — Pictured: (l-r) Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute, Jenna Fischer as Pam Beesly, John Krasinksi as Jim Halpert, BJ Novak as Ryan Howard, (center) Steve Carrell as Michael Scott — NBC Universal Photo: Justin Lubin

So how did you get the role of Dwight?

I was slated to do this show with Janeane Garofalo for ABC when I heard that NBC Universal had gotten the rights to do an American version of The Office. I was really bummed thinking that I would love to be a part of that, oh my God! The Janeane Garofalo show was canceled even before we started shooting – although I did get paid. Thank you ABC. I was actually the first person to audition for the show. I was literally the firstperson on the call sheet. Then I had to wait several months and I knew that they were interested. Then I had the test process and got to do the pilot. Doing this show is like a dream come true. What we’re doing is exactly what I thought could happen and was hoping would happen with the show. I wanted to make it more American. It needed to be a little bit faster paced because it’s twenty-two minutes long as opposed to the BBC show, which is thirty minutes long. So we’re eight minutes shorter per episode.  I knew the humor would have to work in a different way and they’d have to be writing for whatever actors they got. But the setup is so brilliant. The English show will always be there. You can buy those DVDs and you can watch them over and over again. But the comedic environment that it created – this boss who thinks he’s everybody’s best friend and the underlings just trying to get by day in and day out and the things they do to survive in the work place, with a documentary crew capturing it the whole time – is just brilliant. As we can see, now we’re making twenty-two episodes this year. It just plays on and on and on. It’s such a brilliant, watertight comedic set up.

Congrats on being picked up for the rest of the year. This is a show that seems to gain popularity with each episode.

I have to hand it to NBC. They’ve done a great job sticking with this show and they really do believe in it comedically. And yes, there really is a groundswell that is growing in support for the show. It’s so funny because you read these things about our ratings and about our demographic. Our best demographic is young males, like college students and twenty-somethings love it and then rich people love it. Rich families with incomes over a hundred thousand dollars. So you’ve got rich people (laughs) and young guys especially watching it, and a lot of young girls too.

Discuss what it’s like to work with such a strong and talented ensemble cast.

This is a very different show than any I’ve worked on before. We work sixty-hour weeks. I work 6AM to 6PM because we are all in almost every scene. Even if there’s a scene at the reception desk or there’s a scene in Michael’s office, we’re in the background or passing through, walking through. We’re creating that office environment; we’re always around so it’s very demanding. We also have very little lighting set-ups. They’ll just shift a fluorescent light or two between scenes and we just do tons of takes. So the best thing about the show is that the writers are brilliant and the writing is very sharp and very smart. All you need to do is make the writing work but because you’re doing so many takes and we have such a great ensemble, you can go anyway that you want to go with it. Once we’ve gotten it down, you can improvise and change it around and bring in stuff, and add stuff all you want. There is a lot of improvisation on the show. A lot of times we will have a scene and then just keep going. And we do it time and time again. We just keep going, and keep going and keep going and a lot of times that stuff at the end of the scene actually becomes the scene. I don’t know if you saw the Halloween episode but there’s a sequence where Michael has a fake head on his shoulder and Dwight is dressed as the evil emperor from Star Warsand the head on Michael’s shoulder is threatening to fire Dwight and Dwight gets in a whole conversation with this whole other head, pleading with the other head, ‘don’t fire Dwight’. And Dwight basically becomes the evil emperor from Star Wars talking to one of his minions. Well, that was all completely improvised. That was not part of the scene at all and that became what the scene is. And so many people are like ‘Oh my God, that’s my favorite scene that’s ever been in The Office, Dwight as the evil emperor talking to Michael’s second head.’

Jenna Fisher, John Krasinski and Rainn Wilson in "The Office."

Jenna Fischer, John Krasinski and Rainn Wilson in “The Office.”

Do you have a favorite episode?

There’s so many. Another strength of our show – as you can tell I’m a big fan – is you can have really quiet episodes, really simple episodes. And you can have ridiculous farce episodes like “The Fire” episode, running into walls and throwing water jugs around and singing crazily and jumping around like a lunatic. That’s really fun. To date my favorite one is the one called “Office Olympics” where Michael’s buying a condo. The rest of the office staff, in a gang led by Jim, decide to create a mini-Olympics in the office with ridiculous games with staplers and boxes of paper and paper clips. Michael and Dwight got to inspect his condo and everyone gets something to do. The romance between Pam and Jim and the friendship between Dwight and Michael happens as well. There’s a really sweet ending to it. It’s just a really interesting tapestry of ensemble in that episode.

What’s the greatest challenge that faces you working on the show?

Working with Steve Carell because he’s such a dick. Can I say that? No, I’m totally kidding. The great challenge working on this show for me is wearing polyester all day long and having the worst haircut known to man at the top of my head and sitting under fluorescent lights. That is America, people. Polyester, bad haircuts, under fluorescent lights.

Lastly, share the experience of working on Six Feet Under and your unforgettable portrayal as Arthur.

Playing Arthur, I’m sorry to sound sappy, but it was a gift from the Gods. I’ve always been a working actor and I’ve always made my living in acting for a long time. I’d been auditioning for that show, I knew the casting directors pretty well. Arthur was the fifth character I auditioned for on the show. They kept bringing me in for parts and not finding anything for me. I actually wasn’t supposed to audition for the part of Arthur, I was auditioning for one of the gay choir members from David’s choir. Then I read about that part and went, ‘Oh my God, that’s perfect for me.’ And I asked permission to read for it right then and there. I went in and auditioned without any preparation whatsoever and I think that probably helped me because I didn’t overthink it. It was an amazing experience. Those shows are so well written and so well acted they’re like little one-hour movies. So in a way I got to do like twelve or thirteen little one-hour movies as a very interesting and complex character. Everyone was really cool. Alan Ball, all the artists behind that show, were just so supportive and great and that really helped launch my career. I’m really grateful to the show for that.

Many fans of Six Feet Under were disappointed that the Arthur character didn’t stay on the show longer.

Well, you know, the character was doing so well for me that I actually got cast in a little pilot called The Office. So they had to write me out of the show for that. And then I did the movie, Sahara, so I had to leave the country. That was why they wrote me out. I would have stayed there but I had other work calling me, places to go, people to see, things to do. You know how it is (laughs).

Copyright ©2005  All rights reserved. Posted: November 10, 2005.

Photo Credits: #1 © 2005 Justin Lubin.  Courtesy of NBC Television.  All rights reserved.#2 © 2004 Justin Lubin.  Courtesy of NBC Television.  All rights reserved.#3 © 2005 Dean Hendler.  Courtesy of NBC Television.  All rights reserved.#4 © 2005 Justin Lubin.  Courtesy of NBC Television.  All rights reserved.#5 © 2004 Justin Lubin.  Courtesy of NBC Television.  All rights reserved.

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