This interview was originally broadcast on July 30, 2008.
While his Office character always took himself seriously, actor Rainn Wilson seems to be all about the laughs. For the entirety of the series, Wilson has played beet-farming, archery-loving middle-management kook Dwight Schrute on the NBC hit television series.
While working on The Office, Wilson explored film opportunities as well. In the 2008 film The Rocker, Wilson played a failed hair-metal musician. After he's kicked out of his band, the group goes on to achieve great success. But when he joins his nephew's garage band, he gets a second chance at fame.
Wilson made his breakthrough as an actor playing an eccentric mortician on the HBO series Six Feet Under. He has also appeared in the films Almost Famous, Galaxy Quest and Juno.
DAVE BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli back with more of our salute to NBC's "The Office." Rainn Wilson is another cast member who was around for every episode since "The Office" began on NBC in 2005. He plays Dwight Schrute, who started as a funky to Steve Carell's Michael Scott, but eventually ended up running the Scranton office himself. Terry spoke with Rainn Wilson in 2008.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Let me ask you to describe Dwight.
RAINN WILSON. ACTOR: OK. That's a good one. Dwight is hard to put your finger on, and I've spent years trying to describe him in interviews. One of the things that Greg Daniels said to me early on...
GROSS: And he's the creator of the American version.
GROSS: And the producer at all of that.
ACTOR: The show runner of our show who is insanely brilliant, and all of us on "The Office" would follow him into battle because he such a great guy. Greg said, Dwight has an adolescent love of hierarchies, and to me that phrase sums it all up. It's kind of all you need to know. The other thing, so Dwight is a militant dweeb ass-kisser. Can you say ass-kisser on FRESH AIR? All right. Good. And then I love the fact that he's, we discover later on that he's a beet farmer and that makes total sense, 'cause you ever meet a farmer, they can't quite ever fit in, in society. They may try as hard as they want. They can play it cool, they can do whatever they want, they can't really fit into city life no matter how much they try. They're just more in tune with the dirt and the tides and the seasons and the wolves than, you know, human interaction.
GROSS: Well, you mentioned that, you know, Greg Daniels told you that he has this like almost childish love of hierarchy.
GROSS: And at the beginning of "The Office," Dwight is the most loyal lieutenant imaginable to Michael...
GROSS: ...the boss of this branch. But then he senses he can have that power, and it looks like Michael's going to leave and he can become the new Michael. And then, you know, all bets are off, like you want that power for yourself.
GROSS: And you just become like such the commander, as opposed to the lieutenant. Was that a change in character for you when that change happened to Dwight?
ACTOR: No. It wasn't. I think that - and they're so canny, the writers on our show, because they're always creating textures for me to play, as Dwight. I mean this last season was Dwight's heartbreak, you know...
GROSS: Right. Yes, with Angela.
ACTOR: ...with Angela, and that was a whole other side of Dwight that got to come out. You know, in season four, sides of Dwight that no one had ever seen before. And that was what you're referring to is a period of time when Dwight was potentially trying to rest control of the office from Michael, and I think it was a deadly combination. It wasn't in Dwight's nature to do that. He only did it when encouraged by his little Lady Macbeth, Angela. So when Angela, the head accountant, whispered those thoughts of power into his ear, you know, much like Macbeth, Dwight tried to rise to the challenge.
GROSS: They always blame the woman.
ACTOR: But as Pam on the show said, you know, I have a vacuum cleaner that could also run this office pretty well.
GROSS: Well, I have to play a clip from "The Office." This is a classic scene. It's Take Your Daughter to Work Day, and you're like at the head of what's almost like a little classroom, like all the daughters are sitting in chairs, and you're in front, reading to them and playing your recorder or flute-a-phone.
ACTOR: Yes. Part of my music nerd heritage.
GROSS: And Michael is at the door watching. So here's the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")
ACTOR: (as Dwight Schrute) That was "Greensleeves." A traditional English ballad about the beheaded Anne Boleyn. And now, a very special treat, a book my Grandmutter used to read me when I was a kid. This is a very special story, it's called "Struwwelpeter", by Heinrich Hoffman from 1864. The great tall tailor always comes to little girls that suck their thumbs - are you listening, Sasha? Right? And 'ere they dream when he's about, he takes his great sharp scissors out, and then cuts their thumbs clean off.
STEVE CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Dwight. Dwight.
ACTOR: (as Dwight Schrute) There's a photo...
CARELL: (as Michael Scott) What the hell are you reading to them?
ACTOR: (as Dwight Schrute) These are cautionary tales for kids, my Grandmata used to read these...
CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Yeah, you know what? No, no no no no. They, no. The kids don't want to hear some weirdo book that your Nazi war criminal grandmother gave you.
DELANEY RUTH FARRELL: (Sasha) What's a Nazi?
CARELL: (as Michael Scott) What's a Nazi?
ACTOR: (as Dwight Schrute) Nazi was a fascist movement...
CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Don't.
ACTOR: (as Dwight Schrute) ...from the 1930's...
CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Don't! Don't! Don't talk about Nazis in front of - you know what? They're going to have nightmares, so why don't you just shut it?
ACTOR: (as Dwight Schrute) I was gonna teach the children how to make corn-husk dolls.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEAVY SIGH)
CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Why don't you just leave? OK?
(as Dwight Schrute) OK.
SPENCER DANIELS: (as Jake) Bye, Mister. Poop.
CARELL: (as Michael Scott) All right. There goes Mister Poop. Now, who likes Dane Cook?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (as characters) I do, I do.
GROSS: That's such a great scene.
ACTOR: Written by the great Mindy Kaling.
GROSS: Oh, who's also a member of the cast.
GROSS: And that was my guest Rainn Wilson in a scene from "The Office." Your character Dwight is always so intense and so inappropriate...
GROSS: ...as he was in his choice of readings. You know, you auditioned for the part of Michael, of the boss of "The Office," right...
RAINN WILSON: Yes.
GROSS: Before getting the part of Dwight. So what was your audition for the part of Michael like? This is the part that Steve Carrell plays.
WILSON: They keep wanting to put it on the DVD of my audition as Michael. I was terrible. It was awful. It was never meant to be. It was just one of those things that I just basically did my Ricky Gervais impersonation because I really didn't know what to do with the character.
GROSS: And Ricky Gervais played the boss in the original British version.
WILSON: In the English series. Yeah.
WILSON: And I knew I was hungering for Dwight. And I knew Dwight was the one that was right in my wheelhouse. And I was like, oh, let me at this one. This one is - I've got to get this guy. And I remember there was some monologue I was doing about how I could drink my own urine.
WILSON: And I was like, aw, I want to say that. I want to say that line so bad. So my Dwight audition, needless to say, was a lot better than my Michael Scott audition.
GROSS: So what did you have to do as either?
WILSON: Oh. Well, it was a very arduous audition process. I was actually the very first person to audition for the show. Period. I had a good relationship with the casting director. And I came in and did my terrible Michael and then I really hit a home run with Dwight. And then I kept calling, like, what's happening? What's happening? They're auditioning people. They're auditioning Michaels and Jims.
And they're having a hard time finding Michaels and Jims. And it was like three or four months later finally they're like, OK, we're going to have callbacks. And the callback - normally when you audition for a television show, they have these called network tests where they bring the actors literally into, like, a conference room at NBC or wherever.
And they parade them in like show cattle one after another. And they do their little - three little scenes in front of the executives who either glower at them or laugh hyper-hysterically. But Greg, you know, because Greg created the show "King of the Hill" which was very successful and in syndication, so as soon as someone's done that on television they figure, well, this guy must know what he's doing.
And fortunately in our case Greg does know what he's doing. But he secured our location for a weekend and he brought in all the actors that were called back and he basically cycled us in and out like a giant revolving door. We had to be prepared to stay there all day long and he mixed and matched us in various ways. And we improvised with each other and we did written scenes.
And we'd get thrown new material and then we'd have to go out and wait for a few hours. So it was this kind of wonderful process of kind of digging in and exploring the characters in order for us to - for them to arrive at their final casting decision. And then they brought their favorites to the network and showed them the tape of what they had shot with them.
GROSS: Now, Jenna Fischer, who plays Pam the receptionist on the show was recently on our show.
WILSON: Horrible woman.
GROSS: Yeah. She was so dull. Ugh.
WILSON: Isn't she awful? Yeah.
GROSS: So I want to play you an excerpt of that in review in which she talked about you.
GROSS: So here's the excerpt of the interview with Jenna Fischer.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
GROSS: Are there any scenes from "The Office" that were too funny to get through without laughing and you had to keep reshooting them?
JENNA FISCHER: Oh, so many. So many. You know what happens is I seem to every year get tickled by a new actor in a way where I just, I cannot do a scene with them. And the first year it was Rainn Wilson. You know, Pam and Dwight did not have a lot of interaction so any time we did have a scene one-on-one I just couldn't get through it.
Rainn Wilson, he has this weird way that he stands where he pushes his pelvis and his gut sort of out.
GROSS: So that's Jenna Fischer talking about you on "The Office." So how did you start doing that as Dwight's way of standing? And he also - am I wrong in saying he's often standing a little too close to the person he's talking to?
WILSON: Yes. He's not so good at interpersonal boundaries.
WILSON: And that includes standing that way. I don't know. You know, it's just like you do - that's just what we do as actors, I think, you know. My haircut for Dwight was very important. It was very important to me that I have the least flattering haircut possible to my head, which I designed specifically, thank you very much. And also the fact that he still wears a beeper, which is about eight years after beepers have been completely discontinued. Because he probably has some number that someone might still have.
But all of these things put together and then it kind of comes into your body. And I think your job as the actor is to let these impulses flow through you and not stifle them. So if you have, you know, again, he has this love of hierarchies and this love of power. Well, he's going to assert his power with his pelvis. You know?
WILSON: Maybe stand inappropriately close to someone. And it's kind of like an alpha male type of thing.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
Rainn Wilson speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. The finale of NBC's "The Office" airs next Thursday. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "The Great Gatsby." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.