Seattle native Rainn Wilson has made a career out of playing unlikeable characters, most notably the curmudgeonly Dwight Schrute on NBC’s hit series “The Office.”
After more than 200 episodes, the series came to an end. But it wasn’t long before Wilson found his next role – the caustically bitter yet brilliant police officer Everett Backstrom.
Backstrom premiered last week on Fox to mixed reviews, as some found Wilson’s sexist, bigoted character overhwhelmingly oft-putting, while others have praised the dark and troubled take on the usual cop genre.
Wilson joined KIRO Radio’s Jason Rantz Show for a wide-ranging conversation about the appeal of playing characters so many despise, political correctness, and his beloved Seahawks as they gear up for their second straight Super Bowl.
Rantz: When I originally heard there was going to be another cop show on TV I would be completely lying if I didn’t think to myself it was going to be another cliche. But I watched the first episode … it’s really, really good. This is not your typical cop show.
Wilson: It is very risky what we are trying and we’re asking a little bit from the audience. It is both comedic and very serious and the characters are very well-rounded. All the characters think differently.
(In) most cop shows, every cop in the squad speaks exactly the same and the same kind of short clipped film noir-ish talk and at the center of the show is really a kind of despicable human being whose life is falling apart … and that’s what makes it so interesting.
Rantz: What attracted you to a character that is so unlikeable?
Wilson: I like playing misfits, I like playing oddballs, I like playing characters with rough edges. That’s what I did with Dwight Schrute, that’s what I did with Arthur on Six Feet Under and many other roles, Super. People are flawed. I like peaking into their flaws. The way to humanize them is not to play them in any general way, but to make them very specific. If you make them specific, they have hopes and dreams and loves and vulnerabilities and quirks and you get to know them and you get to appreciate them.
Rantz: Is there any concern that the character is too offensive to many of the activist groups out there?
Wilson: It’s definitely going to tick some people off. He says things that are racist, he says things that are homophobic, sexist. But if you look at the show, he doesn’t think that white people are better than other races. He doesn’t think men are better than women, he doesn’t think that straight people are better than gays, he just has a lot of bile. That’s his defense. That’s his way of getting by in the world. That’s his coping mechanism, if you will. So it’s more about that.
Rantz: Are you surprised that a show like this is even able to get made, given how hypersensitive people tend to be?
Wilson: Yeah, it was pretty risky of Fox to put it on the air. I’ve had a lot of people watching the pilot who say I can’t believe you got away with saying that stuff. But it’s not like he says offensive things and then people applaud him. We see the reality of the response that people around him have and we see how it’s not working for him and this is ultimately a show about coming out on the other side. It’s a show about finding yourself. And he goes on quite a journey on these first 13 episodes that we shot.
Rantz: I wonder if you can talk about any of your own similarities to the character?
Wilson: I think we all have an inner Backstrom. I definitely have been known to be grossly insensitive in many different ways, you can ask the wife. To speak without a filter sometimes and not being able to edit myself with much sensitivity. I’ve also been through some very dark times in my life and I’ve been through those very dark times that’s affected my world view, the lens that I see people through, so I can relate to that.
Rantz: How did you survive in Seattle? We’re a very politically correct city and there’s a lot of folks out there who don’t like to be exposed to ideas that make them even the least bit uncomfortable.
Wilson: I think it’s everywhere, not just Seattle. Here’s the issue with political correctness is that underneath it there’s a very real need. We live in a really racist culture and it’s got to be addressed. We live in a really sexist culture, that’s got to be addressed. And a really homophobic one. And all those things need to be addressed and looked at. It’s how you do that then. Does that mean that there’s a kind of policing of what everyone says so the second someone says something that’s at all offensive they’re shamed, publicly humiliated and shut down? Is that how this works?
When I grew up in Seattle, by the way, in the 70’s, it was a fishing village. There were loggers and fishers and my dad had a sewer company and it wasn’t the way Seattle is now. Culturally, it was very different back then.
Rantz: How exactly did you get involved in being the face of Seahawks fandom on Fox? Every single broadcast we get so much of you proclaiming your fandom.
Wilson: You know how it is in Seattle. I went to one of the playoff games in the championship year of the Sonics … You don’t have much to root for in Seattle. The Mariners have been a disappointment, the Sonics disappeared. I went to a lot of the early Seahawks games in the Kingdome and you get excited, you get thrilled. There’s a bunch of Seattle-ites in LA who love the Seahawks. Chris Pratt and Joel McHale and Anna Ferris and a bunch of folks.
Rantz: What’s your take on Deflategate?
Wilson: I think that if there was a systematic deflation of balls that was over the last 10 or 12 years that gave them an advantage, I think that that is pretty terrible. There’s a reason that footballs are inflated at the levels that they are. It makes it a little harder. You don’t get to substitute Nerf balls.
There was an article I read online about statistically the number of fumbles that New England had at home and how it was statistically impossible for them to fumble as little as they did.
If it means that you fumble once or twice less per game than every other team, than that’s cheating. That’s called cheating.
I don’t think it’s going to matter in Glendale, Ariz. I certainly think Tom Brady could throw anything 80 yards on a dime. He’s a great quarterback. I think it’s going to be a really tough game. It’s going to be way tougher than last year.
Rantz: So will the Seahawks win?
Wilson: I do think they’re going to win because just plain and simple that boring old phrase defense wins championships. And that defense is going to clamp down super hard. It’s going to come down to some special teams play, it’s going to come down to some fourth quarter heroics, but I think we can get the job done.
Backstrom starring Rainn Wilson airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.