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TERRY GROSS, host:

Rainn Wilson is best known for his role on "The Office" as Dwight Schrute, the power-hungry, authoritarian and very odd assistant to the regional manager. He played another odd character in "Six Feet Under," when he portrayed the intern at the Fisher family's funeral home. This year, Wilson had the starring role in the movie "The Rocker." When I spoke with him in July, I asked him to describe his character on "The Office."

(Soundbite of NPR's Fresh Air, July 30, 2008)

Mr. RAINN WILSON (Actor, "The Office"): You know, a normal half-hour sitcom would have the office dweeb, and you'd basically - you know, he'd be there to be a dweeb, you know. He would just be wearing a polyester shirt and saying dweeby things. But Dwight is so many things, you know what I mean? One of the things that Greg Daniels said to me early on...

GROSS: And he's the creator of the American version and the producer and all that.

Mr. WILSON: Yes. The show runner of our show, who's insanely brilliant and all of us on "The Office" would follow him into battle because he's such a great guy. But 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.

And 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 because if 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 know, you mentioned that, you know, Greg Daniels told you that he has this, like, almost childish love of hierarchy.

Mr. WILSON: Mm hmm.

GROSS: And at the beginning of "The Office," Dwight is the most loyal lieutenant imaginable to Michael...

Mr. WILSON: Yes

GROSS: Who's the boss of this branch. But then he senses he can have that power. And it's look 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.

Mr. WILSON: Yes.

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?

Mr. WILSON: No, it wasn't. I think that - and they're so canny, the writers on our show, because they're always creating new textures for me to play as Dwight. I mean, this last season was Dwight's heartbreak, you know, with Angela.

GROSS: Right, yes, with Angela.

Mr. WILSON: 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 wrest 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: 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 flutofone.

Mr. WILSON: Recorder.

GROSS: (Laughing) Recorder.

Mr. WILSON: Yes, part of my music nerd heritage.

GROSS: And Michael is at the door, watching. So, here's the scene.

(Soundbite of "The Office")

(Soundbite of recorder playing song "Greensleeves")

Mr. RAINN WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) That was "Greensleeves," a traditional English ballad about the beheaded Anne Boleyn. And now, a very special treat, a book my granmutta(ph) used to read me when I was a kid. This is a very special story. It's called "Streul Pieta(ph)" by Heinrich Hoffman(ph) 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. There's a photo.

Mr. STEVE CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Dwight, Dwight, what the hell are you reading?

Mr. WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) These are cautionary tales for kids. My granmutta used to read them to me.

Mr. 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...

Unidentified Child: What's a Nazi?

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) What's a Nazi?

Mr. WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) Nazi was a fascist movement from the 1930s in Germany...

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Don't! Don't! Don't - don't talk about Nazis in front of them. You know what? They're going to have nightmares, so why don't you just shut it?

Mr. WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) I was going to teach the children how to make cornhusk dolls.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Why don't you just leave, OK?

Mr. WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) OK.

Unidentified Child #2: Bye, Mr. Poop.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) All right. There goes Mr. Poop. Now, who likes Dane Cook?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Such a great scene.

Mr. WILSON: Written by the great Mindy Kaling.

GROSS: Who's also a member of the cast.

Mr. WILSON: Yes.

GROSS: And that was my guest, Rainn Wilson, in a scene from "The Office." Your character, Dwight, is always so intense and so inappropriate.

Mr. WILSON: Mm hmm.

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?

Mr. 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 Carell plays.

Mr. 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 on the original British version. Yeah.

Mr. WILSON: In the English series, yeah. 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 is - I got to get this guy. And I remember there was some monologue I was doing about how I could drink my own urine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: And I was like, oh, 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: Now, Jenna Fischer, who plays Pam, the receptionist, on the show, was recently on our show.

Mr. WILSON: Horrible woman.

GROSS: Yes, she was so dull. Oh!

Mr. WILSON: Isn't she awful? Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So I want to play you an excerpt of that interview in which she talked about you. So, here's the excerpt of the interview with Jenna Fischer.

(Soundbite of interview with Jenna Fischer)

Ms. JENNA FISCHER (Actor, "The Office"): I seem to, every year, get tickled by a new actor in a way where I just - I cannot do a scene with them. The first year 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. He - Rainn Wilson, he has this weird way that he stands where he pushes his pelvis and his gut sort of out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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?

Mr. WILSON: Yes. He's not so good at interpersonal boundaries.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right.

Mr. WILSON: And that includes standing that way. I don't know. You know, it's just like, you do - it'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.

The calculator wristwatch that I wear brings me no end of pleasure. I look - I am so close to that wristwatch. I don't want anyone to ever touch it. It really reveals his character. And also the fact that he still wears a beeper, which is about eight years after beepers have been completely discontinued because it 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: You know, maybe stand inappropriately close to someone, and it's kind of like an alpha male type of thing.

GROSS: Let's talk about your formative years growing up. You grew up in...

Mr. WILSON: Seattle, Washington, for the most part.

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah.

GROSS: And I read that you described your parents as hippies? Would that be fair?

Mr. WILSON: Yeah. I think - you know, I say hippies for lack of a better term, but they were more like beatnik Bohemians than hippies. Because you say hippies and people are like, oh, were they tripping all the time, dude? So, no, they were - they lived on a house boat, and my dad painted murals and wanted to be an abstract artist. And my mom, at the time, was actually an actress in, like, experimental theater in Seattle, and she was painting her chest blue and running around topless doing Bertolt Brecht and stuff. They were kind of, in that kind of world. And my mom wanted to name me Thucydides.

GROSS: No.

Mr. WILSON: After the famous Greek historian.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: So you could almost be talking to Thucydides Wilson, Terry. But my dad wanted to name me Rainer after Rainer Maria Rilke, the poet. But we lived by Mount Rainier and blee bloo blah(ph), somehow or other I ended up with the name Rainn. But yeah, that was the late '60s in Seattle for you.

GROSS: Were most of your friends' parents bohemians, too?

Mr. WILSON: No, we moved out to the burbs, and they were mostly like insurance agents and car salesmen.

GROSS: So, did that make you weird or your family weird by comparison?

Mr. WILSON: Oh, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, I was just - I was just remembering the other day, like, I would bring friends over, and I'd be so embarrassed because my dad would have all of his huge oil paintings hung all over the house. And he always painted, like, topless women.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: There seems to be a theme, doesn't it? There's like a boob theme woven in here. And I would be so embarrassed because my little friends would come over and they would be like, what's that? And I'm like, that's an abstract of a woman's boobs - an abstract oil (Laughing) after de Kooning. So...

GROSS: Mr. Thucydides.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, so we were pretty weird. And I remember friends' parents would come over and try and sell us Amway, and we didn't really have any money or anything like that. My dad also struggled - he was a struggling science fiction writer, and he would pound away on his little manual typewriter, writing kind of potboiler science fiction, fantasy novels.

GROSS: Were they good?

Mr. WILSON: Pretty good. Yeah.

GROSS: Published?

Mr. WILSON: One of them got published, and I think there's like 11 of them in various shoeboxes around. He's even writing another one called, get this, "The Zombies of Gog(ph)."

GROSS: Oh, well, you were in a famous zombie film.

Mr. WILSON: I was - "House of 1000 Corpses." Yes, indeed.

GROSS: Directed by Rob Zombie

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: Indeed, indeed. That was my first lead in a movie. You could say I was discovered by Rob Zombie, so...

GROSS: So, zombies run in the family?

Mr. WILSON: I think so, yeah. Zombies and boobs.

GROSS: My guest is Rainn Wilson. He plays Dwight Schrute on "The Office." More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Rainn Wilson. He plays Dwight Schrute on the NBC comedy series "The Office." This year, he starred in the movie "The Rocker." You had to do a lot of pratfalls in "The Rocker." I mean there's a lot of, like, stunts and things like that - so, physical comedy is, I guess, what I mean to say. So, where did you learn to do that? Did you learn that kind of stuff in acting school?

Mr. WILSON: Well, I think among all the different kinds of geeks that I was growing up, one of them that hasn't really been explored too much is I was a comedy geek. I was the kid who would find out "Monty Python" was playing on PBS at, like, midnight on Sunday, and I would sneak out of bed with my cassette tape recorder, put a 90-minute cassette in and hold it in front of the television and record - because remember, there's no TiVo, there's no DVDs, there's none of that stuff - and record whole "Monty Python" sketches.

And I record - I remember I did the same thing with "Singin' in the Rain" that was on. And I learned all the songs and the comedy bits from "Singin' in the Rain" and Marx brothers' movies. And I had a little cassette library in my room of all of these geeky comedy things, and I had them memorized. And I could do whole - I was that annoying guy that would go to the screening of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and recite it word from word from beginning to end.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: I always had a deep love of weird comedy, and physical comedy is part of that. And nothing made me laugh more than Jerry Lewis when I was growing up. And him walking backwards into a swimming pool, I could just think about it and just chortle and chortle like a little girl.

GROSS: So, I feel that now I need to ask you for the entire list of types of nerd or geek that you were when you were young.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, bring it, bring it. How about this?

GROSS: What's the whole list?

Mr. WILSON: Sample this Terry Gross. Model United Nations nerd.

GROSS: Really, you were a member?

Mr. WILSON: International relations nerd. That's - that was one of my passions. I loved that. I discovered model United Nations and I loved - I loved news and history and, you know, I'd read the newspaper when I was young and - oh my god - I would get to go to a school model United Nations conference and pretend to be the man from Ghana.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: And it's like, I'm going to be from Ghana. What would the guy from Ghana want to do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: You know, and we'd pass resolutions. And I was Nicaragua, and I was even the U.S., and I loved being the Arab countries. We would go to the University of Washington to the conferences, you know, over in local Seattle - all the model United Nations geeks. I swear there's a good movie in here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: And we would hit on the girls - all, like, eight of them that would be at the entire conference. And it was fun, you know, running around and pretending to be an Arab nation and sticking it to the U.S. And that was fun.

GROSS: OK, so we got UN nerd, music nerd, comedy nerd...

Mr. WILSON: Yes.

GROSS: What else?

Mr. WILSON: Well, we didn't go fully into the music nerd part of things I don't think, did we?

GROSS: Well, I happen to know you played bassoon.

Mr. WILSON: Yes, I was a bassoonist.

GROSS: Which is great, I - some people don't even know what a bassoon sounds like. It's a great instrument.

Mr. WILSON: It sounds a little like this...

(Soundbite of Mr. Wilson simulating a bassoon)

Mr. WILSON: Something like that, I think.

GROSS: It's a hard instrument, isn't it? Those reeds...

Mr. WILSON: It's really hard. It's a double reed. Yeah.

GROSS: The reeds are hard, yeah.

Mr. WILSON: And nothing - it's also a girl repellant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: So, all you aspiring bassoonists out there, throw down your bassoons and pick up electric guitars.

GROSS: You have to suck on the reed for a while, right? Yeah that's...

Mr. WILSON: That's what she said. I - not now, you're on Fresh Air. Yeah.

GROSS: Rainn Wilson, it has been so great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. WILSON: What a pleasure.

GROSS: I'm a really big fan.

Mr. WILSON: Thanks, thanks for having me on the show. Thanks.

GROSS: Rainn Wilson plays Dwight Schrute on the NBC sitcom "The Office." Our interview was recorded last July. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

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