Rainn Wilson is not easily pegged. The actor first entered the pop culture zeitgeist in his Emmy-nominated role as Dwight Schrute on “The Office,” where he transformed from obnoxious pest to heroic underdog. He similarly surprised Hollywood with his leading man turn in the film “The Last Mimzy” and other films including “America’s Sweethearts” and “Juno,” then again as the co-creator of the inventive “SoulPancake” website and YouTube channel featuring the breakout “Kid President” series. (Among its millions of fans are President Obama himself, who made a cameo appearance.) Not bad for a former, self-confessed bassoon-playing band geek who currently stars in the Fox series “Backstrom” as an eccentric Portland detective who manages to be as endearing as he is irascible and self-destructive.
Pursuitist: Given all your odd characters you’re a difficult person to figure out. How would you describe yourself?
Rainn Wilson: “I like to consider myself a philosophical guy. I was a philosophy major before I was an acting major. I created Soul Pancake to dig into life’s big questions.”
There are a lot of big questions surrounding the inner workings of your latest character. What attracted you to the role of detective Lt. Everett Backstrom?
“What attracted me to the role was its complexity. I had been playing Dwight for years, and as great as they wrote the part for me and as many colors as they found for him, there are only a certain number of levels that Dwight works on. It’s like: he wants to run the office, he wants to sell a lot of paper, he wants to torment Jim, be liked by Michael, and wed Angela. That was it. That’s the color palette that you’re dealing with for 200 episodes.”
But now you have more colors to paint with?
“For Backstrom it’s so much more. There’s family torment, there’s fighting crime, there’s using his Sherlockian brilliance, there are potential love stories, there’s his tormented relationship with addiction – there are all these incredible things to play as an actor. When it was offered to me, I just couldn’t pass that up. It was just too great of an opportunity. Parts like that are rare. They’re just very rare.”
Who do you think would win in a battle of wits: Dwight Schrute or Everett Backstrom?
“Well, Backstrom truly is brilliant. He truly has a brilliant mind. Dwight doesn’t have much wit or brilliance. He has determination and hard work and a bizarre passion; but Everett Backstrom, 100%.”
How does the chemistry between the “Backstrom” cast members compare to the perfect chemistry of “The Office”?
“The chemistry is created by the actors, but chemistry is also, really, created by the writer. It’s the writing that creates a sense of dynamism between the characters. Both on ‘The Office’ and in ‘Backstrom,’ both Hart Hanson (creator of ‘Backstom and ‘Bones’) and Greg Daniels (creator of ‘The Office’) focused a lot of time and energy on how characters relate to one another. In standard procedurals or standard comedies, there are goofy characters, but a different chemistry is created when you match any two people together. It’s like flavors in a recipe.”
Will you be spicing up the romantic ingredients with the show’s female characters?
“Yes and no. There’s definitely a tension, there, even though Backstrom is a grotesque lump of a man at this point in his life. One character sees inside of him. She sees the real Backstrom. She knows the good hearted, warm, funny, smart, kind Backstrom that is underneath all the scar tissue that everyone else sees — the hateful, cynical, guarded, offensive Backstrom.”
What do you see underneath it all?
“He definitely wants to push people away, He’s cynical. He’s addicted to pretty much everything, and addiction does that; addiction pushes people away and causes chaos wherever you go. I wanted to be true to that, but I also know he does care. His heart is on his sleeve. People compare him to Dr. House (portrayed by Hugh Laurie) a lot, but with House you never really knew what he was feeling. Backstrom, you know what he’s feeling all the time. You can read him straight up. If he’s miserable or heartbroken or passionate about something, or vindictive or vengeful, you read his emotions. He wears them on his sleeve. He’s like a big bleeding wound. “
Despite his issues, what do you personally appreciate about him?
“I love his passion for forensics and his attempt to be almost like Backstrom, to kind of see the transcendence through his forensics. I don’t think of it in terms of what’s unlikable versus what’s likable – I just play what’s on the page and find what’s driving him.”
The show is set in Portland, rather than Scandanavia like the setting of the book on which Backstrom was based. Why Portland?
“We wanted to kind of have a place that had a Scandinavian feel where it’s mossy and cloudy and dark and there’s trees and water – we call it like Portland noir. We also wanted a city big enough that had some real crime to deal with, but also a quirkiness. Portland has that – obviously, from ‘Portlandia.’”
Behind the scenes, the Portland Police Department has been online, tweeting its support of the show, Have you tweeted back?
“Early on the only thing I wrote is – I wanted to have a beard early on and I wrote the Portland Police Department and I said ‘Do any of your detectives have beards?’ And they said ‘No.’ I thought ‘Drat, so I’ll just have to keep my regular stubble.’ But it’s been great. We follow their Twitter and their news feed and Google alerts and have been learning a lot about the world of Portland and real life cases through the Portland Police Department.”
What’s next on your bucket list?
“I’m hoping that if we get a second season that I could actually go visit the Portland Police Department, visit the detectives, maybe do a ride along, and get the lay of the land and learn some things procedurally about the inner workings of the department.”
In your pursuit of truth and knowledge, what have you learned from inhabiting the soul of Backstrom?
“That’s a very good question. I learned that I gain weight super easy in my old age. I learned what hard work it is to really do the research that you need to on the background of a character to really flesh it out and bring it to life. And I learned that if I was generally just grumpy, cantankerous, and surly, that people would just get bored with that. No, this is a tormented person and it comes out. His emotions spew out sideways, like vents out of the side of a volcano.”
The show embraces some very dark storylines. Does any of it give you the chills?
“I’d say not the chills, no. I would say that as I read some of the episodes that really dug into this family story, especially the stuff with his dad, and it got really dark. I was like wow, are we going to be able to be this funny and this dark at the same time? Because I’m very, very interested in that.”
“There’s this Russian playwright, Anton Chekov, who I did a lot of work with when I was in college and as a young actor. I love Chekov’s work because they’re both really tragic and really, absurdly funny at the same time. They really reach for both. Both live in the world of Chekov, and it’s very reflective of the human experience. That’s where I do get the chills.”
“Backstrom” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. /8 Central on Fox. The first season’s finale airs April 30.