Actor Rainn Wilson

Emmy-nominated actor discusses growing up as a geek, playing offbeat characters, being a man of faith and how he got his unique name.

Emmy-nominated actor Rainn Wilson has been described as "one of the most effortlessly eccentric performers of his generation." Known most recently as the resident oddball on NBC's The Office, he has numerous TV and film credits. He's also spent years doing theater on and off Broadway, regionally and in touring companies. Wilson is the author of SoulPancake, based on the successful Web site he co-created and hosts that tries to help people find answers to important questions in life. His charitable works include fund-raising for The Mona Foundation.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Rainn Wilson stars on the popular NBC series “The Office,” where I think it’s fair to say he plays one of the more offbeat characters on television. Acceptable?
Rainn Wilson: I’ll go with that.
Tavis: Okay. (Laughter) He’s been active in raising money and awareness for the people of Haiti. More on that in a moment. He’s also the author of the new book, “Soul Pancake,” which may become the basis for a project with Oprah’s new network, OWN. Rainn, good to have you on this program, sir.
Wilson: Hey, great to see you.
Tavis: You doing okay?
Wilson: I’m doing great.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Wilson: Yeah.
Tavis: You didn’t hesitate when I called you an “offbeat character.”
Wilson: I love it.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Wilson: That’s my thing.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Wilson: Yeah.
Tavis: What do you love about being such an offbeat character?
Wilson: I am an offbeat guy, Tavis, I am. This is who I am. I was this weird misfit guy from suburban Seattle, I never really fit in, and then I became a drama geek, among all the other different kinds of geek that I was growing up, and I found I was pretty good at it. I found that I could make the girls laugh and get some girlfriends by being goofy and running into walls and stuff like that.
Tavis: Is that all I’ve got to do?
Wilson: Yeah, exactly.
Tavis: Act goofy and run into walls?
Wilson: Yeah.
Tavis: Now you tell me, 40-some years later.
Wilson: Yeah. (Laughter) You should give it a try. We may have a spot for you on “The Office.”
Tavis: Oh, okay, okay, okay.
Wilson: So then I kind of made this career playing these crazy, misfit, oddball characters and I love it.
Tavis: How cool is that, though? You think about this town and all the people, seriously, who are in this town who are hoping one day to have their Rainn moment – pun intended – to have a Rainn on their career, and you get a chance not just to be the guy but to play these characters that really aren’t, by your own admission, so far removed from who you really are. How cool is it to be in that zone, so to speak?
Wilson: It’s a blessing. I’m just – my whole goal was I just wanted to become a better and better actor and I just wanted to work. Then I just found this kind of sweet spot of these characters that are right in my wheelhouse, and so I’m just blessed.
Tavis: What is it about “The Office” that obviously works, the quirkiness of the way this thing is laid out that seems to connect to the audience, obviously?
Wilson: That is a great question. It’s a really hard thing, to put your finger on what makes it work. I think any time you have a show business creation, there’s just a certain alchemy of – because they try and recreate it. Why did “Friends” work? Why did “Seinfeld” work? Why were they never after that able to have a sitcom like those shows?
I think it’s how specific the show is. I think it’s about specific characters and specific behaviors that we can all relate to. It’s not a very broad show. It’s about what you drink in your mug and the way that you tie your tie and how you sit in your swivel chair. It’s all those little details and all the reactions to those details that makes the show come alive.
Tavis: For those who have not seen – for the two or three Americans (laughter) who have not seen “The Office -”
Wilson: Or on an airplane. It’s always on an airplane. If you’re flying anywhere, “The Office” is playing.
Tavis: I can say amen to that. I see you guys on airplanes all the time. You’ve just done some of this, but how would you describe the show, and more expressly, your character on the show?
Wilson: “The Office” is a mockumentary about a typical American workplace. It takes place in a paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and it follows around – the characters are aware that there are cameras following them around and documenting their every move, kind of like contestants on a reality show, and my character is assistant regional manager, Dwight Schrute. (Laughter)
A very officious, sometimes fascistic uber-nerd, micromanager type and he wants total control. He’s very much into power, very much into systems, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. That was pretty good, by the way.
Wilson: Yeah.
Tavis: That was very good.
Wilson: Did you like that?
Tavis: You did that very nicely.
Wilson: Yeah.
Tavis: (Laughs) This name, Rainn, R-A-I-N-N.
Wilson: Yeah.
Tavis: Tell me more.
Wilson: Well, my parents were going to name me Tavis, but (laughter) they were like, “No way, because he’ll just get the crap beat out of him, so we’ll go with Rainn. No one will touch him then.” (Laughter) No, not true.
I had hippie parents, man. Hippies is the wrong word. I had bohemian parents in Seattle in the last ’60s living in a houseboat. My dad wrote science fiction novels and painted big murals and oil paintings. My mom was an actress in the local Seattle theater doing experimental plays. She would take her top off and paint herself blue and run around doing Bertolt Brecht – I swear to God. (Laughter)
I came out lucky, because my mom wanted to name me Thucydides, after the famous Greek historian. (Laughter)
Tavis: Wow.
Wilson: I’m not making this up.
Tavis: I will give you $50 right now if you can spell that, Thucydides.
Wilson: Really, me, right now?
Tavis: Yeah, if you can spell that?
Wilson: The – uh – you win.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Wilson: Yeah.
Tavis: How does a kid learn to spell that if that’s his name, anyway?
Wilson: No, it’s terrible. It’s a terrible idea.
Tavis: Tell me about “Soul Pancake,” the book, first.
Wilson: “Soul Pancake,” the book, was inspired by SoulPancake.com, our website, and when I started getting well known for doing “The Office,” I really wanted to do something different, I wanted to do something positive, I wanted to share something that I was really passionate about with “Office” fans and with young people everywhere, and that was talking about life.
It’s what you do professionally – talking about life’s big questions, what it is to be a human being. Those questions and those kind of conversations happen so rarely these days, and when they do, they kind of clear the room.
I’m not talking about politics, I’m talking about do we have a soul, do we have free will, what happens to us when we die? I talked about being a geek, I was every kind of geek but I was also, growing up, I grew up in a – my family were Baha’is and I grew up a member of the Baha’i faith, and we had a very widespread beliefs of all different kind of religious systems and ways of thinking and stuff like that, and I loved philosophy and spirituality and talking about creativity and being an artist. That was all the inspiration of how Soul Pancake came about.
Tavis: One of the things I love about – well, not one of; the primary thing I love about the website, which was just checking out last night, as a matter of fact, is what you said earlier – it allows young people, and others, but young people to have these kinds of conversations.
So I’m on last night checking this out and I’m thinking about Socrates and “Plato’s Republic,” this notion that the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined life not worth living, and I’m trying to figure out whether or not, or how you even thought that there was an audience that would be interested in being Socratic and having these kinds of drill-down conversations.
Because you look at the world we live today and there’s not overwhelming evidence that something like that would even be of interest to people, much less work.
Wilson: Yeah. How do I put this? Recently I was thinking about, like, what unites everyone in humanity? One of the many things that I think unites us all is the phenomenon of heartbreak. Everyone has had heartbreak.
Tavis: If you haven’t, keep living. It’s coming. (Laughter)
Wilson: Exactly, it’s coming, it’s right around the corner. I knew there was an audience for Soul Pancake because everyone’s experienced heartbreak, because everyone has experienced death in their family. Everyone’s experienced life. Everyone – everyone – loves to create. Everyone loves to create.
We separate – that was the one thing that Soul Pancake is about, too, is in our culture right now the arts are very separate from faith. It’s like, oh, there’s the artists and there’s the people of faith, and they’re very different. It never used to be that way. Through human history, an artistic expression was the same as a faith-filled expression, and I believe it’s part of the same process.
So I knew there were a lot of artists out there too that would like to dig into that intersection between the two things.
Tavis: Since I find myself asking you, Rainn, so much about these terms, the idea, the name, Soul Pancake?
Wilson: Honestly, I talk about it in my introduction of the book – it had to do with domain names. We were looking at spirit taco was taken, okay? (Laughter) In case anyone was interested. Transcendent enchilada is gone. (Laughter) So we wanted a food thing – we wanted something – because that’s the same thing. The main thing here, Tavis, is we wanted something fun and edgy and irreverent. I don’t want to say irrelevant – irreverent. So the name, we wanted something that could really stick.
Tavis: You are very serious, and have been some time now, about your work with Haiti.
Wilson: Mm-hmm.
Tavis: Very passionate about that. Where’s the link? Where’s the connection? How did that happen?
Wilson: Well, it happened around the same time as I was founding Soul Pancake. I started getting approached – it kind was like all of a sudden I was this celebrity. Here I was this weird kid from the suburbs, I was just acting, just trying to make a living, and then I became famous for being on this successful TV show and I started getting approached by all these different charities and causes and political parties and environmental causes and Physicians for Social Responsibility and all this stuff.
They wanted me to emcee things or raise money or do something and I really was kind of dumbfounded. I was like, before I just say yes to everything, I’d better really think about what’s really important to me. What cause in the world is the most important to me?
What I settled on was education, and right at that same time I got approached by this wonderful charity called the Mona Foundation. The Mona Foundation – and it’s like I found the perfect charity. It literally was like God just was like, here you go – here’s the perfect charity, you can get behind this with your heart and your soul.
They find grassroots educational initiatives around the globe that are already working, that sprung up locally, that weren’t for some Americans or some European country going into a country and saying, “Here’s how we think you should do things.”
They found an orphanage in the middle of the Amazon that has become a university just due to the efforts of local teachers, that has a local board. The Mona Foundation has many schools that they fund and the Mona Foundation raises the money here in the United States and then funds those initiatives.
They’ve got three or four schools in Haiti and my wife and I took a trip there just a couple months before the earthquake and spent a couple weeks visiting the schools, getting to know the kids and the teachers, seeing how things work so I could really have – we hope to go back many times, but it gave us a little bit of a first-hand taste of what was happening there on the ground and how great these schools were.
So I’ve been raising a lot of money for them and hopefully will be traveling around the world, seeing all the places that they sponsor.
Tavis: Wow, that’s a great story. So now that you have all this celebrity from “The Office,” not that you’re leaving the office – don’t want to start any rumors – but what do you want to do with this burgeoning career?
Wilson: Well, mostly I just want to be an actor. I love being an actor, and I don’t want to be a spokesman for anything, I don’t want to do anything crazy or fancy like that. I just love playing characters and getting paid for it, and that’s what I want to do till the day I die. (Laughter) I want to keel over on stage playing King Lear at age 99 or something like that.
That’s what I want to do, but being an actor for me, it’s part of a bigger picture. We talked about the intersection of art and faith and creativity, spirituality and philosophy, and I’m an artist, too, and I’m a man of faith, and I want to find a way to be of service to humanity. I think that’s crucial. So want to be an artist and a servant, a humanitarian, and I want to play goofy weirdoes.
Tavis: As long as you’re getting paid for it.
Wilson: If I’m getting paid for it.
Tavis: Okay. (Laughs)
Wilson: Yeah, caveat. Do you get paid for doing this show? (Laughter) No? You do it -
Tavis: This is public television.
Wilson: Oh, right, right, right.
Tavis: Why do you think we’re always begging you for money? (Laughter)
Wilson: Viewers like you.
Tavis: Exactly, viewers like you, you got it. The new book from Rainn Wilson is called “Soul Pancake: Chew on Life’s Big Questions.” A lot of fun here. Rainn, good to have you on the program.
Wilson: Thanks for having me.
Tavis: Honored to have you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm