Rainn Wilson on Spirituality, Learning from Failure, and Forever Being Dwight Schrute
Rainn Wilson comes to the Orpheum Theatre Tuesday, November 17, to read from and sign his new memoir "The Bassoon King."
Celebrity memoirs tend to be a carefully curated exercise in name-dropping and selective memory, chronicling a rise to stardom but rarely acknowledging the pitfalls (save for certain addictions).
Tend to, but not always.
Such is the case with The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith, and Idiocy, a breath of fresh air in a genre desperately gasping for some. This is not to say Rainn Wilson's forthcoming memoir doesn't have the aspects one comes to expect from actor autobiographies. There are appearances by Hank Azaria and Al Pacino. There are stories from the set of The Office, NBC's Emmy-award winning series about, well, you saw it. Wilson called the show home for nearly a decade while he played office oddball Dwight K. Schrute, the eccentric Assistant to the Regional Manager at Dunder Mifflin. There are bouts of bizarre hippie parenting and unconventional wedding ceremonies. There are hard-knock lessons about being broke in New York City, a brief cocaine addiction, and a bit of crying.
But the 320-page book is more than just a who's who or a Hollywood how-to: It's a deeply personal recollection of Wilson's journey from bassoon player to Emmy-nominated beet farmer. It's an story that doesn't shy away from the role spirituality and religion — Wilson is a member of the Bahá'í faith — play throughout his life, including a stint of atheism and a life-long quest for spiritual guidance. It's a piece that addresses familial abandonment and the pain that initially came with being a true nerd, offering insight into a comedic voice fostered in basements during Dungeons & Dragons tournaments, in band rooms and chess matches, and through science fiction novels and a preference for the sidekicks of sitcoms. It's outlandish and unexpected, but it reads real.
The Bassoon King will be released online and in stores on Tuesday, November 10, prompting a book tour that will bring Wilson out West the following Tuesday, November 17, courtesy of Changing Hands Bookstore. The actor-author will read from, discuss, and sign his new memoir at the Orpheum Theatre.
Wilson, 49, called New Times from the set of his next film, Shimmer Lake, in Toronto, Canada, to talk about The Bassoon King, his short-lived detective series, Backstrom, spirituality, and why he's okay with always being known as a paper salesman with questionable social skills. Oh, and the newest Star Wars trailer. Once a nerd, always a nerd — even in Hollywood.
I want to start by asking the same question that Dwight asks in his introduction of your book — albeit a little nicer. Why write a memoir, and why now? Particularly when you're still in this upswing in the second half of your career?
When I wrote the introduction to the SoulPancake book, I just kind of dashed it off. I didn't know what I was going to write and I just kind of vomited out some stuff. And I was like you know, there's a book here. There's a story here that kind of needs to be told. I know I have all The Office stories and the stories from my childhood and strange upbringing and being a nerd in high school, and I know that I've got good stories of being broke in New York City and stuff like that, but I thought there's a spiritual story here too and an artistic story of that journey toward being an actor, gaining faith and leaving faith, coming back into it and the spiritual journey that we all go on in some form or another — that is also the inspiration for SoulPancake, the company. It's such a huge part of my life, and I don't think we've seen it before in a celebrity memoir. One of the things that inspired me too is I read a lot of celebrity memoirs, and when you're done, you know you read 300 pages, a lot of them you don't know anything more about the person than when you started. And I definitely didn't want that to be the case with mine. I wanted people to really get to know who I was and what I was about.
That's why I started writing it. I was done with The Office; I was waiting to see what would happen with Backstrom, I had some time. I thought, "Well, this is a time for me to do some new things." I'd been on one TV show for nine years. It was time to mix it up.
Unless the celebrity in question is a Scientologist, or thanking God for their Grammy win, you don't hear an awful lot about faith within Hollywood. I thought that aspect — the details of the Baha'i religion, your introduction to the faith as a child and again as an adult — was very unique. I think it introduced a lot of people to a faith that maybe they'd heard of, but never really knew much about.
I've gotten a lot of flack for talking about spirituality.
Yeah, I remember Howard Stern making fun of it once — which I thought was really funny because Howard Stern practices transcendental mediation, but he never talks about it. Very rarely talks about it. But that he does that and then makes fun of somebody else for talking about their spiritual life.
A lot of people roll their eyes at it. You know, spirituality and religion are two different words. What I'm talking about — I guess I am a member of a faith. I have a strong faith in a religion; I believe in that religion; I believe what that religion says is true. But more importantly in my book and my work and on SoulPancake I'm trying to encourage people to think about spirituality and look at it in new ways. To go on a spiritual journey and do it for themselves. You know, it used to be cool to talk about spirituality — back in the days of The Beatles. And now it's like an anathema.
SoulPancake's mantra is about making "stuff that matters." How do you qualify that? What is "stuff that matters?"
"Stuff that matters" is anything that has to do with being a human being. In the book I do a thing where I talk about what is spirituality: anything humans do that monkeys don't do. I'm kind of proud of myself for that definition. [laughs] Because, what humans do that monkeys don't, what do they do? We love, we try to create things of beauty, we tell stories, we try to connect, we ponder our lives, we ponder the end of our lives, we try to do altruistic deeds that make the world a better place, and we seek to understand why we're here. A purpose. We long for a God and wrestle with the questions of faith. These are all things humans do that monkeys don't. There's a ton of stuff we have in common with monkeys: We groom ourselves, we have social hierarchies, we like to collect things, sometimes we throw poop at each other — especially the Arizona Cardinals fans — but it's the other stuff that is important and that's what I like to focus on.
Along that same line, I think one of the things I liked the most about your book was that it dealt with failure. A lot of memoirs, particularly celebrity memoirs, don't. You talk about your experiences crying on stage, or in your car after The Rocker was released to little success. I think it's really important that you addressed that.
We learn from our failures. People ask me, "What have you learned writing this book?" and one of the main things I've learned, looking back on my life, all of my greatest failures — "failures" — all of my greatest tests were actually kind of the deepest learning experiences. They were transition points that helped me move forward to a new place. So, that was very much exciting for me to find that out.
Like I said about celebrities writing books, so many of them don't talk about their failures or their struggles. It's crucial! That's how you learn. That's how you grow. You know, I always say everything I do I do for young Office fans. Like pimply, 14-year-old boy Office fans and I'm writing this for them. What can they get the most out of? And I think, saying, like, "I went for it. I swung for the fence and a lot of times I missed, but I had a pretty good run and I keep learning as I go."
You finished The Bassoon King right after Fox announced they were canceling Backstrom, and you write in the book that you attribute that to difficulty finding an audience: It was too edgy for prime-time network TV, but maybe also to accessible for the AMCs and FXs of the cable world. Do you think it could have found a home on an emerging platform, like Netflix?
Yeah, you know. We were trying to push the envelope with network shows. An irredeemably bad character, kind of like how Breaking Bad had an irredeemably bad character at the center. A real dark underbelly underneath it, and at the same time it's a procedural show — like Castle or Law & Order. You solve a crime a week. We lost both audiences: I think the network audiences we were a little too dark and edgy for them, and I think for the cable audiences, because we were solving a crime each week it was too kind of sewed up and nice-and-neat for them.
If I had to do it all over from the very beginning, I would have tried to not set it up at Fox as a studio, and be limited by who would take it. Originally Fox’s studio sold it to CBS, then they dropped it and then Fox the network wanted it. Then we were kind of limited at that point. But I think it would have been a really good show for Hulu or Netflix.
What do you think of those two as competitors in the television market? Do you tend to watch a lot of those streaming-only shows?
Yeah, I watch a lot of those. I really like what HBO does and AMC, absolutely. That's the stuff I watch. I don’t even know what's on network these days. It doesn’t reflect my life.
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Are you planning to do television again any time soon?
I’m taking some time. I’m doing the book now, I’m doing some indie films, I’m going to do a play this winter. Just taking the time to do some other stuff. But I’m definitely coming back to TV at some point in time — I’m just not exactly sure how.
The other tough thing about network TV is you’ve got to do 22 to 24 episodes a year. It just takes up your whole year; it’s your whole life. That cable shows you’re doing 10 or 13 episodes, you know, you work six or seven months a year and then take the time to do other projects and travel and stuff.
I have a lot of other projects going on. My wife and I have a non-profit in Haiti, and I have SoulPancake that was a very busy business venture.
You've done theater, television, and film, and are known for each. What do you get out of each one? How is each different for you, as an artist?
What's really fun about a film is you go in for a very intense amount of time. You go in for three weeks or six weeks or whatever it is and it's just one story you're telling. You shoot it out of order; you dive into this character and create kind of this one-time character. Television, it's a really long-form story that's unfolding. It's like a Charles Dickens novel told over many different episodes. If you're working with the same people week-in and week-out it's much more like a family. Much more like clocking-in, like a nine-to-five job. Which is great — that was one of my favorite things about The Office: coming in every day and seeing my best friends. Getting to work with them, you know? With Jenna [Fischer] and Angela [Kinsey] and Brian [Baumgartner] and Creed [Bratton] and Oscar [Nuñez] and you know, these wonderful people [and] I get to come in in the morning and see their faces and laugh and we had so much fun together.
So, it's a little different. Like, I'm doing this movie right now [Shimmer Lake]. I hardly know anybody; I'll hardly get to know anybody over the course of the movie. It's not a very social experience. There's pluses and minuses to both. I like doing both.
Are you looking forward to getting back into theater, then?
I'm doing a play this winter at the Geffen Theater. It's a one-person show; it's very very challenging. It's an hour and 10 minutes long. Called Tom Paine at The Geffen [Playhouse in Los Angeles]. It will be very challenging. It will be … probably, at age 49, I'm taking on the most challenging project [laughs] to this point as an actor. So, I'm keeping things …. I'm challenging myself.
You seem to have a tendency to play… I don't want to say "unlikable," but yeah, maybe unlikable, outsider characters. Why are you drawn to those types of characters?
[laughs] Yeah, I like to play outsiders. Misfits. People that are challenging and difficult and sometimes they're unlikable. I don't mind that, I don’t need to be "liked" as an actor.
Were you surprised when that changed with Dwight? How he began as an unlikable guy but gained a cult following rather quickly.
Yeah, I think if you can play a character and you're playing him truthfully, so you really see his hopes and his fears and his dreams, even if he's an asshole you're gonna relate, you know? And I love those characters, and that's the kind of character I wanted to create with Dwight. I knew in the long haul, yeah okay, first few weeks he's going to be annoying, [but] I knew that in the long haul people were going to really respond to him.
A candid shot of the cast of NBC's The Office.
Courtesy Rainn Wilson
BJ Novak Tweeted this hilarious list of "post-2012 Office episodes I wish I'd written," one of which features "Beets by Dwight" and hip, online-marketing for his beet farm, à la Apple and Dr. Dre. Are there ideas that still come to you about The Office and Dwight? Like you hear a new story and are like, "Damn, this would've been perfect."
[laughs] No, I don't think about it that much. I'm so grateful for the experience and I'm also grateful that that [chapter] of my life is done.
Is it really over, though? How often do people quote "bears, beets, Battlestar Galactica" at you?
They do come up to me all the time. Usually it’s just "Dwight!" I think I'll always be known as Dwight [and that’s not something I’m running away from anymore].
Does that ever get to you, that you'll always be known as him?
You know, honestly like, 10 or 15 episodes in when I knew the show was going to take off, I talked to my wife about it and people and I was like, "I'm gonna get known as this guy for the rest of my life." And that's okay, you know? I really, I got it. The Office took off in 2005 … 2006 … I was 40. I was 40 when The Office took off. So I'd already had a whole life, you know what I mean? It's not like I was pigeonholed as a character. Like I was Screech when I was 19 and would spend his whole life as Screech. "Hey, it's Screech!" You know? [laughs] I already had 40 years of my life and then I got Dwight, so —
So, it's something you're grateful for.
I'm grateful for it. It gives me a platform to do all kinds of different things. A big fan base, a bit of money, I had a blast. I got to play a great character.
And now you get to do a book tour, which I'm sure you never thought you'd do before.
I never did! And now I get to come to Phoenix!
Have you ever been out here before?
I've been there quite a few times. I have an aunt and an uncle, and a grandma in Mesa.
I have to ask, since you mention it in the book and since Dwight was a huge Star Wars fan — and I'm going to make the leap and say that there's quite a bit of crossover between Star Wars fans and your fans. That said, what do you think of the newest trailer?
I think it's fantastic, yeah. I don’t quite understand what's going on? …But I like it. There's a bad guy who looks like Darth Vader and there are good guys who look like Luke and Leia, only that guy looks black? And that's awesome! It looks great. I'm really excited! I'm really excited for it.
Wilson takes the stage for a conversation, question-and-answer session, and book signing at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, November 17, at the Orpheum Theatre, 203 West Adams Street. Doors open at 6 p.m. Copies of The Bassoon King can be pre-ordered for $26.95 through Changing Hands Bookstore. Attendance packages, which include one copy of the book and either one or two event tickets are available for $30 and $34, respectively. Packages must be picked up at either Changing Hands location (Phoenix or Tempe) or at the venue. For tickets and details, visit www.changinghands.com or call 480-730-0205.
The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith, and Idiocy will be released everywhere Tuesday, November 10. His two most recent films, Cooties and The Boy, both horror movies, hit theaters earlier this fall.
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