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Rainn Wilson, From 'Office' Drone To 'Rocker' Star

Twitchy undertaker, cubicle fiend, sassy convenience-store clerk — Rainn Wilson has long gravitated toward eccentric characters. But is The Office actor attempting the leap to sex symbol through his titular role in The Rocker? Given the hair-metal coif and the still-goofy humor, probably not.

37:42

Other segments from the episode on July 30, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 30, 2008: Interview with Rainn Wilson; Review of the new Sloan album " Parallel play;" Review of Mark Epstine's new book "The Lincolns."

Transcript

DATE July 30, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Rainn Wilson discusses his childhood, "The Office" and
his new movie "The Rocker"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Rainn Wilson, is best known for his role on NBC's "The Office" as
Dwight Schrute, the arrogant, authoritarian and really 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. Wilson has the
starring role in the new movie "The Rocker." It opens August 20th.

The movie begins in the 1980s, when his character, Fish, is a drummer in a
heavy metal band and gets replaced just before the band makes it big. Fish
spends the next 20 years in an office job, seething with resentment. He picks
up his sticks again when his nephew's band, ADD, needs a drummer and out of
desperation they ask Fish to sit in for one night at their gig playing their
high school prom. Eventually Fish joins the band and tries to teach the
members how to perform and how to behave as crudely as his old band did. But
these antics seem hopelessly out of date to these young would-be indy rockers.
Early in the film, Fish promises that he'll be able to get his nephew's band a
gig. In this scene, he walks into the garage where the other three band
members are rehearsing.

(Soundbite of "The Rocker")

Mr. RAINN WILSON: (As Robert "Fish" Fishman) I have news, but you know what?
Before I reveal said news, we need to work on some things, including stage
presence. Why? Because ADD has a gig.

Unidentified Actor #1: (In character) What?

Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) What?

Unidentified Actor #3: (In character) A gig?

Actor #2: (In character) Yeah!

Actor #1: (In character) Yes!

(soundbite of hands slapping)

Mr. WILSON: (As Robert "Fish" Fishman") We are playing the Tiger Room in
Fort Wayne, Indiana, Saturday night.

Unidentified Actor #4: (In character) Oh, Indiana.

Actor #2: (In character) Oh.

Actor #1: (In character) My mom's not going to let me go to Indiana.

Actor #4: No. My mom's not going to let me go.

Mr. WILSON: (As Robert "Fish" Fishman) Listen up, kiddies.

Actor #4: Me, either.

Mr. WILSON: (As Robert "Fish" Fishman) You think The Beatles went to their
moms and dads and went, `Oh, 'ello, Mum. 'Ello, Dad. May I please have
permission to go with my mates to a little pub called Shay Stadium and rock
the world for the rest of eternity?' No.

Actor #1: (In character) They were adults. You're an--they were adults.

Mr. WILSON: (As Robert "Fish" Fishman) You don't ask your parents for
permission to rock.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Rainn Wilson, welcome to FRESH AIR. So did you ever had any like
heavy metal aspirations when you were younger?

Mr. WILSON: Well, growing up in suburban Seattle, we were force fed classic
rock. That's all anyone listened to. If you didn't listen to classic rock,
you were pummeled. I was pummeled, but I still listened to classic rock. So,
you know, I was into early, I guess you would call it classic metal, you know,
Sabbath and Zeppelin and AC/DC. As soon as things started to get to poodle
metal, hair metal, in the mid-'80s, it completely lost me. By that point, I
had discovered punk rock and new wave and I was gone off that tangent, so I
skipped that whole era in rock 'n' roll.

GROSS: Did you do the heavy metal moves in front of the mirror? Did you have
that period?

Mr. WILSON: Not heavy metal moves. You know, I was a geek in every way,
shape and form, and even when listening to classic rock, you know, I was drawn
to like even the geekiest classic rock bands like ELO and Queen. Those were
my favorite ones. And I did a lot of Freddie Mercury moves. I saw--there was
some kind of Freddie Mercury concert broadcast in the '70s or something. I
just thought he was just a remarkable force of nature and I would prance
around like Freddie Mercury in my, you know, in our condo in Lake Forest Park,
Washington.

GROSS: So what did you look at? What did you like really study for your role
as the drummer in "The Rocker"?

Mr. WILSON: Well, the first thing that happened when the movie got green lit
is a drum set showed up at my house and was moved into my garage. And the
very next day, a drum coach showed up, this great guy named Stuart Johnson.
He's a former heavy metal drummer himself. The art of heavy metal drumming is
very different than any other kind of drumming. I mean, it's the showmanship.
It's stick tricks and, you know, finding the hottest girls to set up with the
lead singer and queueing pyrotechnics and spinning around on your throne and
adding flames and sparks to the mix. So we worked on a lot of that stuff, and
I quickly realized, like, wait a minute here. Stick tricks is actually going
to make me look much more like a drummer than actual drumming in the movie,
too. So I really worked on that. For weeks I worked on that spin, you know,
spinning the stick in between your fingers.

GROSS: And throwing the stick into the audience?

Mr. WILSON: Yes. You've got to do the stick tosses as well, and it's like
juggling.

GROSS: And every move has to be like 17 times larger than it really needs to
be to make the sound you need.

Mr. WILSON: Absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WILSON: I say that heavy metal drummers are like the Las Vegas magicians
of drumming.

GROSS: Part of what the movie is about is how what's really cool when you're
a teenager kind of ceases to be cool by the time you're in your 40s.

Mr. WILSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And so like the music that you thought was so cool kind of isn't now;
the music's changed. But you're still kind of caught in what was cool when
you were a teenager. Has that kind of thing ever really happened to you where
something that you really kind of worshipped and thought was like the best
thing in the world when you were a teenager just got really dated?

Mr. WILSON: That's funny. Well, the first thing that just popped into my
head was the whole world of Dungeons & Dragons. In my teenage years, I loved,
you know, those kind of role playing games and war games and Dungeons &
Dragons and multisided dice and just that whole world of the imagination.
And, you know, nowadays, you know, I still know some people that--and some of
my old friends still play, and I still hear about games like, you know,
someone will come up to me in Hollywood at a party and they'll be like, `Hey,
you know, I hear you used to be a gamer, because we got a Thursday night D&D
game. You got to come join us.' And it's just like there's not enough hours
in the week. You know what I mean? It's a perfect thing for adolescents to
do, but now, you know, I got a wife and a kid and the career and I'm trying to
write and play some music and stuff like that. It's like, I just don't have
those 17 and a half hours per week to pretend that I'm a monk with a magic
staff.

GROSS: But the same kind of thing happens on the Internet now.

Mr. WILSON: That's true. Yeah. I have friends that play that, all those
online games. So.

GROSS: And so does your character Dwight Schrute.

Mr. WILSON: Yes.

GROSS: In "The Office."

Mr. WILSON: The massive multiplayer online gaming.

GROSS: You have 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.

Mr. WILSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: 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 remember I did
the same thing with "Singing in the Rain" that was on. And I learned all the
songs and the comedy bits from "Singing 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 for word from beginning to end. So I guess what I'm saying is that I
always had a deep love of weird comedy. And physical comedy's 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 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.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WILSON: Bring it. How about this?

GROSS: What's the whole list?

Mr. WILSON: Sample this, Terry Gross.

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. WILSON: Model United Nations nerd.

GROSS: Really? You were a member?

Mr. WILSON: International relations nerd. That was one of my passions. I
loved that. I discovered Model United Nations, and 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. Mr. WILSON: It's like, `I'm going to be from Ghana.
What would the guy from Ghana want to do?' You know, and we'd pass
resolutions, and I was Nicaragua and I was even the US. And I loved being the
Arab countries. We would go to the University of Washington, to the
conferences, you know, over in the local Seattle, all the Model United Nations
geeks. I swear there's a good movie in here. 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 pretending to be an Arab nation and sticking it
to the US. 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. Some people don't even know what a bassoon sounds
like. It's a great instrument.

Mr. WILSON: It sounds a little like this. (imitates bassoon) 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.

GROSS: The reeds are hard. Yeah.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah. And it's also a girl repellent. So all you aspiring
bassoonists out there, throw down your bassoons and pick of electric guitars.

GROSS: You have to suck on the reed for a while, right?

Mr. WILSON: That's what she said. Not now. You're on FRESH AIR. Yeah.

GROSS: My guest is Rainn Wilson. He's starring in the new film "The Rocker."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rainn Wilson, and he stars in
the new movie "The Rocker" as a rock drummer. And he is also Dwight Schrute
in "The Office." He was the intern Arthur in "Six Feet Under." He was the
drugstore owner or manager in "Juno."

Owner or manager?

Mr. WILSON: I don't really know.

GROSS: Who knows? Who knows?

Mr. WILSON: Yeah. Rollo was his name. Yeah.

GROSS: OK. Let's talk about "The Office" a little bit.

Mr. WILSON: OK.

GROSS: And let me ask you to describe Dwight.

Mr. WILSON: 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. And that's one of
the great things about our show and what the writers have done on our show, is
that, 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 the polyester shirt and saying his 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.

Mr. WILSON: Yes. The show runner of our show...

GROSS: And the head producer and all of that.

Mr. WILSON: ...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 we discover later on that he's a beet
farmer, and that makes total sense. Because 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. Now 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.

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.

GROSS: Right. Yes. With Angela.

Mr. WILSON: With Angela. And that was a whole 'nother 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.

Mr. WILSON: 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
flutophone.

Mr. WILSON: Recorder.

GROSS: 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)

Mr. 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 grandma used to read me when I was a kid. This is a very special
story. It's called "Struwwel Peter," by Heinrich Hoffmann from 1864. "The
great tall tailor always comes to little girls that suck their thumbs." Are
you listening, Sasha? Right? "And here they dream what 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.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Yeah, you know what? No.

Mr. WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) My grandma used to read these to me.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) No, no, no, no. They--no.

Mr. WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) All right.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Kids don't want to hear some weirdo book that
your Nazi war criminal grandmother gave you.

Unidentified Actor #5: (In character) 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 talk about Nazis in front
of--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 corn husk dolls.

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

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) OK.

Unidentified Actor #6: (In character) Bye, Mr. Poop.

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

Unidentified Actors: (In unison) I do! I do!

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's such a great scene.

Mr. WILSON: Written by the great Mindy Kaling.

GROSS: Who is also a member of the cast.

Mr. WILSON: Yes.

GROSS: And that was my guest, Rainn Wilson, in a scene from "The Office." And
Rainn Wilson is now starring in the movie "The Rocker."

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 Gervaise
impersonation, because I really didn't know what to do with the character.

GROSS: And Ricky Gervaise played the boss in the original British version.

Mr. WILSON: In the English series.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah. And I knew I was hungering for Dwight, and I knew Dwight
was the one that was right in my wheelhouse. I was like all, `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. 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: So what did you have to do as either?

Mr. 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 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 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.

Mr. WILSON: Horrible woman.

GROSS: Yes, she was so dull.

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

GROSS: So I want to play you an excerpt of that interview in which she talked
about you.

Mr. WILSON: Oh.

GROSS: So here's the excerpt of the interview with Jenna Fischer.

(Soundbite of previous FRESH AIR)

GROSS: Are there any scenes from "The Office" that were too funny to get
through without laughing and you had to keep re-shooting them?

Ms. 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 was Rainn Wilson. You know, Pam and
Dwight did not have a lot of interaction, and 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.

(End of soundbite)

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.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. WILSON: And that includes standing that way. I don't know, you know.
It's just like, 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 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 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? And maybe stand inappropriately close to someone, and
it's kind of like an alpha male type of thing.

GROSS: Rainn Wilson will be back in the second half of the show. His new
film, "The Rocker," opens August 20th. Here's a song from the soundtrack,
sung by Teddy Geiger, who plays the lead singer in the nephew's band.

(Soundbite of "Coming Through in Stereo")

Mr. TEDDY GEIGER: (singing) Say you're going to go far
With your new tattoo and an old guitar
Why waste another lonely night
When you could live your life
Like a rock 'n' roll star?

Turn up that radio song
Keep it on while it's coming in strong
We're coming from your stereo
Don't look back 'cause here we go

Now you wake up in a brand-new town
And play that song to a brand-new crowd...

(End of soundbite)

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Rainn Wilson. He plays
Dwight Schrute on the NBC series "The Office." And he stars in the new movie,
"The Rocker" as an '80s heavy metal drummer making a comeback in his nephew's
band. "The Rocker" opens August 20th.

I first saw you on "Six Feet Under," and it was such a great role and such a
great performance. You played this intern who's very odd and kind of lonely,
like you're not like other people.

Mr. WILSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You kind of live in the past, through books, through classics, and you
don't even fit in into this like funeral home that you're working in.
Describe the character a little bit.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah. Arthur Martin is a mortician intern who is home schooled
and moves in with the Fisher family of "Six Feet Under" and develops a romance
with the mother, played by Frances Conroy; and, yeah, I think you described
him perfectly. I always fancied Arthur to be completely guileless, that his
heart was completely open and he didn't know irony or sarcasm, and I played
him--I really wanted him to just be a child in the world, in a way. But the
only way he could function as a child was living in this kind of cocooned,
safe world of the mortician's home. And people found that really creepy. I
still run into people, like, `You were so creepy on that show, man.' And I
never thought of him as creepy at all, and maybe that's the key to playing a
good creep, is I just thought of him as just so pure-hearted that it hurt.

GROSS: And you're also very formal in that character in a way that people
aren't anymore, like very good posture, very proper speech, you know,
cordiality and everything. So I want to play a scene from "Six Feet Under,"
and this is a scene, the family's preparing a funeral for a guy who is kind of
like the head of a cult group or something, a polygamous cult group.

Mr. WILSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And so you walk into the kitchen, and Ruth, who's the mother of the
two grown sons who run the funeral home, she's preparing something in the
kitchen, and you are very close to her. She's the only one who seems to
understand you at all or be interested. And you've had this slightly
flirtatious relationship, to which she's responded by giving you this big
kiss. And this is like shortly after that. You walk into the kitchen, and
the first thing you do is talk to her about the relatives of the cult leader
who's being buried.

(Soundbite of "Six Feet Under")

Mr. WILSON: (As Arthur Martin) I've been talking with a couple of the
people. They have some interesting beliefs.

Ms. FRANCES CONROY: (As Ruth Fisher) They certainly believe in dairy. All
the little ones begged for cheese.

Mr. WILSON: (As Arthur Martin) Yes. Cows are sacred to them. Did you know
they only recognize the love of God? They don't believe in romance.

Ms. CONROY: (As Ruth Fisher) Where did all those children come from?

Mr. WILSON: (As Arthur Martin) We didn't get into it. But after all,
romantic love wasn't even invented until the 14th century.

Ms. CONROY: (As Ruth Fisher) I never heard that.

Mr. WILSON: (As Arthur Martin) Petrarch. He was Italian.

Ms. CONROY: (As Ruth Fisher) Arthur, the things you know.

Mr. WILSON: (As Arthur Martin) This morning...

Ms. CONROY: (As Ruth Fisher) We don't have to talk about it.

Mr. WILSON: (As Arthur Martin) Yes, we do.

Ms. CONROY: (As Ruth Fisher) We can pretend it never happened.

Mr. WILSON: (As Arthur Martin) That would be a lie.

Ms. CONROY: (As Ruth Fisher) It was two seconds. A second and a half. I
didn't plan it; it was an accident.

Mr. WILSON: (As Arthur Martin) Your friendship has so much value for me.
Anything more would be unprofessional.

Ms. CONROY: (As Ruth Fisher) I know. I know.

Mr. WILSON: (As Arthur Martin) Please, don't kiss me again.

Ms. CONROY: (As Ruth Fisher) I never will. Never!

(Soundbite of sigh)

Mr. WILSON: (As Arthur Martin) Friends?

Ms. CONROY: (As Ruth Fisher) Friends.

(Soundbite of footsteps, kissing, clanking, running)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: And then that ended with the sound of Ruth giving Arthur a real big
kiss.

Mr. WILSON: Awesome.

GROSS: Yeah. So what did casting people think of you, based on your
portrayal of Arthur in "Six Feet Under"?

Mr. WILSON: Well, that was really my first breakthrough role. I had been
knocking around as an actor for quite some time. I did theater in and around
New York for eight or nine years before I did any TV or film at all, and then
I was kind of kicking around LA and doing guest spots and little things like
that. And the funny thing about Arthur was that it was the fifth part I
auditioned for on "Six Feet Under," and I kept not getting cast in a lot of
very tiny roles, and I just kept kicking myself, going, `Oh, I want to be on
this show so bad.' And it all worked out for the best, but that really kind of
put me on the map. That was at the time when HBO was, you know, must-see TV
and everyone was watching all the HBO shows, and, you know, I think it opened
a lot of people's eyes to, you know, what I was capable of as an actor. And I
was so grateful for that part in, you know, one of the TV great TV series and
one of the really memorable characters on that series. And just really
grateful.

GROSS: My guest is Rainn Wilson. He stars in the new film "The Rocker" and
plays Dwight Schrute on the NBC series "The Office." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Rainn Wilson. On the NBC series "The Office," he plays
Dwight Schrute. He stars in the new movie "The Rocker."

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've 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.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILSON: Because you say hippies and people are like, `Oh, are they
tripping all the time, dude?' It's like, no, they were--they lived on a
houseboat 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. So you could almost be
talking to Thucydides Wilson, Terry. But my dad wanted to name me Ranier
after Rainer Maria Rilke, the poet. But we lived by Mount Rainier and
blee-blue-blah, 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. Yeah. 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. It seems to be a theme, doesn't it? Like a boob theme
woven in here. And I would be so embarrassed because my little friends would
come over and they'd be like, `What's that?' I'm like, `That's an abstract of
a woman's boobs, abstract oil. After de Kooning. So...

GROSS: Mr. Thucydides.

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 was a struggling science fiction writer.
And he'd pound away on his little manual typewriter writing kind of potboiler
science fiction fantasy novels.

GROSS: Were they good?

Mr. WILSON: They're pretty good, yeah. They're...

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."

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

Mr. WILSON: I was! "House of 1,000 Corpses," yes, indeed.

GROSS: Directed by Rob Zombie.

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

GROSS: So zombies run in the family?

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

GROSS: Well, if you felt different because your parents were bohemian, I
imagine what would make you feel even more different is that your parents
were--or are of the Baha'i faith.

Mr. WILSON: Yes.

GROSS: Which isn't--I mean, there's millions of people around the world who
are of the Baha'i faith, but not a lot of them in the United States, probably.

Mr. WILSON: Not a whole lot. They say there's around 100,000 Baha'is in the
United States. But, yeah, so I grew up a member of the Baha'i faith as well.
That was, you know, another thing.

GROSS: What I know about the Baha'i faith is that people who practice Baha'i
believe that all of the prophets from the different religions are all kind of
from the same--that there's basically like one religion and they're--you do it
because I'm not going to get this one right, so you do it.

Mr. WILSON: Well, it's hard to describe a major world religion in a
nutshell.

GROSS: Yeah, that's right.

Mr. WILSON: But if I...

GROSS: Give us a paragraph about a major world religion.

Mr. WILSON: If I could try, I would say that Baha'is believe there is only
one God, and this unity guides all things, that this God, God, is always
revealing his message to humankind throughout the ages through various
prophets or manifestations of God, and that all of these divine teachers kind
of always refreshing and updating God's message--Zoroaster, Buddha, Abraham,
Moses, Jesus, Muhammad--all of these men essentially have the same message
when you look at the core of the message that they're bringing to humankind at
that time. Their message is always co-opted and perverted by human interests,
and that can make religion a great force of evil in the world; but if you go
to the source, if you go to the words of God that these great men are
revealing, there's always huge spiritual truths there. And Baha'is believe
that there is a new divine teacher for this day and age, dealing with the
problems of our society right now, our world society, our global society, and
that man's name is Baha'u'llah, and his name means "the glory of God." And
Baha'u'llah lived in Persia in the 1800s, and so Baha'is are followers of
Baha'u'llah. But we're also followers of all the world's religions.

GROSS: So your parents brought you up in the Baha'i faith.

Mr. WILSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You left the faith for about eight years and then returned. Why did
you leave and why did you come back, if you don't mind my asking?

Mr. WILSON: Not a problem at all. I love talking about it. I moved to New
York City to become an actor, and went to the grad acting program at NYU; and
at that time, like so many people do in their early 20s, I was just like, the
last thing I need right now is morality. I don't need God over my head. I
don't want to live, you know, the way my parents taught me. I got to find
this for myself. And, you know, living in Greenwich Village, and my religion
in a way became theater and became acting, and it was all about kind of
pursuing that path. And I will say--here's another great thing about the
Baha'i faith, is there's a central teaching in the Baha'i faith, which is
called the independent investigation of truth, in which all Baha'is, all
people, are not only encouraged, obligated to find the truth for themselves,
not to believe anything that anyone tells them, but to find it for themselves
in their own way. So this path that I undertook was supported by the Baha'i
faith, and my parents were like, `Great,' you know, `do what you need to do.
And, you know, if you come back to Baha'i faith, great; if not, great, you
know, find your own way.'

GROSS: Now, I think like drinking and drugs is not something you do if you're
Baha'i.

Mr. WILSON: Correct.

GROSS: So on your eight-year hiatus from the religion, did you try that and
say, `Well, what is it? Where does it lead? How does it feel? Will it free
up my creativity?' You know, all those things people wonder about.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah. I mean, I definitely did, you know, just, you know, it's
like those Amish kids, you know, and they give--I don't know the whole story,
but they give them six months off and they're like, `Go for it.' You know?
`Here's some smack.' You know, `Shoot up. Go crazy.' So I definitely went
crazy for a long time there and, you know, explored all those things. And,
you know, fortunately came out the other end none the worse for wear--a little
worse for wear, but not too bad;, and, you know, gradually kind of found my
way back to my religious faith, which was a long kind of meandering journey.

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 for having me on the show. Thanks!

GROSS: Rainn Wilson plays Dwight Schrute on "The Office." He stars in the new
movie "The Rocker." It opens August 20th.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Ken Tucker on the new Sloan album, "Parallel Play"
TERRY GROSS, host:

The Toronto-based band Sloan is one of Canada's most popular bands, but 17
years on, this quartet has yet to break through in the US. In 2006, Sloan
released a 30-song album called "Never Hear the End of It" that's considered
by many of its fans as the band's magnum opus. The group has followed this up
with its shortest album to date, 13 songs gathered under the title "Parallel
Play." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(Soundbite of "Believe in Me")

Sloan: (Singing) If you believe everything has a reason
If you believe that what you've seen will unfold
If you believe that everybody needs to shake it loose
Then everyone will rock and everybody will roll, yeah

(End of soundbite)

Mr. KEN TUCKER: O, Canada. Our neighbor to the north seems to either export
superstars--Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Anne Murray--or to send over bands that
are just as good as many American acts, but which never quite break through
commercially here.

I'm thinking of an excellent country band like Prairie Oyster. Now, I know,
you never heard of them. And then there's the power-pop-with-ambitions music
made by Sloan, who offer irresistible melodies and hooks that America
continues to find eminently resistible.

(Soundbite of "Burn for It")

Sloan: (Singing) I've got a way to think everyone around me's crazy
I've got a way to think everything that's bad gets worse
I've got a way to push it down deep inside me
I've got a way to fill it all up till it bursts

I've got a way...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: Sloan is almost absurdly talented. All four members of the band
each contributes individually written songs. They each play all the
instruments in the band, thus allowing them to shift lead vocals, and whoever
wants to pound the drums or play lead guitar on any given song.

Yet they also manage to maintain a signature sound. Sloan's style frequently
harkens back to the close, chiming harmonies of the Electric Light Orchestra
and the plaintiveness of Fleetwood Mac. Sloan may thus be slightly out of its
time as far as music trends go, but that doesn't make a song like this new
one, "Witch's Wand," any less disarming.

(Soundbite of "Witch's Wand")

Sloan: (Singing) Remember I've forgotten that I met you before
It was your friend, distant friend I really got to know
Before you waved your witch's wand

Climb up to the roof so we can check out the view
I think somebody spoke but I didn't have a clue
That you waved your witch's wand

Won't you start facing the dragon tonight
Won't you start counting the matches that
Never would light
Ooh!

Yeah, you waved your witch's wand
Do you know of any places...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: One reason Sloan may be dismissed as lightweights in this
country is that, well, there's very little that's heavy about them. They're
no good at sounding tough or menacing, as proven by one clinker here,
"Emergency 911," with its embarrassing attempt at a street cred refrain,
quote, "I don't want no po-lice 'round my door."

On the other hand, they sure do know how to build a nice, big, billowing power
ballad.

(Soundbite of "The Other Side")

Sloan: (Singing) There's a certain kind of feeling on the other side
It'll taunt you from a distance and it's hard to fight
I got to walk and say I'm lost,
But at least I tried

There's a certain way of dealing...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: In a way, after eight studio albums, this new one, "Parallel
Play," serves as a fine little introduction to Sloan music, an appetizer for
anyone who wants to gorge on the 30-song power-pop achievement of "Never Hear
the End of It" from three years ago.

Not to overstate cultural cliches about Canada, but there's something about
Sloan's intrinsic modesty and politeness that may have contributed to their
perceived slightness down here. But up in Toronto, they're probably holed up
in a studio even as I speak, laying down tracks that will once again dominate
their country's airwaves as I and a few other American fans wave at Sloan,
fondly, wistfully, happy in our cult of admiration.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly.

Coming up, who says you have to read beach books on the beach? Maureen
Corrigan has some more ambitious books to recommend for midsummer reading.
This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Maureen Corrigan on "The Lincolns" by Mark Epstine,
"Alfred & Emily" by Doris Lessing and "Furious Improvisation"
by Susan Quinn
TERRY GROSS, host:

Marriage, missed opportunities and miraculous art during hard times are the
subjects that book critic Maureen Corrigan has been reading about lately.
Here's her midsummer roundup of some notable works of biography and narrative
history.

Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Here are the sure signs of summer in the publishing
world: a heat rash eruption of suspense novels, a few waggish-dog tales
hoping to leash on to the continuing success of "Marley & Me," and, as
dependable as the days are long, some sweaty Bob's Big Boy-size biographies of
Lincoln and FDR. Other presidents seem more suited to the gloom of winter,
but there's something about Lincoln and FDR, their steady shining through in
adversity, that qualifies them as good company on vacation.

Presidential biographies are classed as boy books by the publishing industry.
That's another reason why the sagas of Lincoln and FDR often come out at the
start of summer, Father's Day. But early summer this year saw the publication
of a Lincoln book designed to appeal to both sexes, a kind of chicklit Lincoln
book, replete with shopping, sex and scandal. "The Lincolns," by Daniel Mark
Epstine, is subtitled "Portrait of a Marriage," and it excavates the character
of poor Mary Todd Lincoln and her marriage of 22 years to the great man.
Epstine is a respected biographer, and this is probably as well researched as
any account of the couple's life together could be, given the fact that so
many letters were lost or destroyed. Here's Lincoln, writing to Mary in April
1848, after he'd been elected to Congress and she had taken their two little
boys and gone back to her father's house in Kentucky.

Lincoln writes to her from Washington DC, "Dear Mary, in this troublesome
world, we are never quite satisfied. When you were here, I thought you
hindered me in attending to business. But now, having nothing but business,
no variety, it has grown exceedingly tasteless to me. I hate to sit down in
this old room by myself."

"The Lincolns" gives readers insight into Mary Todd's notorious rages, as well
as her shopping sprees and Lucy Ricardo-like schemes to borrow money from the
Treasury Department to help deck out the White House. Most poignantly,
though, Epstine's biography offers a nuanced portrait of a relatively simple
woman, unmoored by the sudden death of two young sons and by the necessary
neglect of a husband called to an appointment with destiny.

The troubled marriage at the center of Doris Lessing's
autobiography-slash-biography-slash-novel, called "Alfred & Emily," was
certainly less melodramatic than "The Lincolns," but devastating nonetheless
to the daughter who observed it. Lessing explains in a foreword to this odd,
mixed-genre book that she wanted to give her parents the lives they might have
enjoyed if World War I hadn't intervened. Lessing, who was born in 1919,
says, "That war, the great war, the war that would end all war, squatted over
my childhood. And here I still am, trying to get out from under that
monstrous legacy, trying to get free."

Part one of Lessing's book imagines her parents, Alfred and Emily, in separate
but happier lives: Alfred as a farmer in England, married to a cheery blond;
Emily as an educational pioneer. Part two of the book describes the
hardscrabble lives the couple actually led. A writer less chilly than Lessing
would've made this book a sentimental "what if?" fantasy, but her fans know
that although Lessing writes sci-fi, she never writes fairy tales.

Marriage seems to be the prevailing subject of this review roundup, so I'll
complete the theme by recommending a fascinating new book that describes a
rare happy marriage between art and government. Susan Quinn's "Furious
Improvisation" details the history of the WPA's Federal Theater Project, a
relief effort begun in the depths of the Great Depression to put thousands of
actors and playwrights back to work, and to lift the spirits of down and out
Americans by putting on high quality theater.

From its inception in 1935 to its demise as a victim of the red scare, the
Federal Theater Project helped launch the careers of Orson Welles and Arthur
Miller, defiantly integrated theater audiences and silenced naysayers who
worried about government censorship of the theater. Quinn focuses on the two
guiding spirits of the Federal Theater, Hallie Flanagan, its diminutive
46-year-old director, and blunt Harry Hopkins, one of FDR's top advisers.

And her book is stuffed with goosebump-raising anecdotes. Listen, for
instance, to how Harry Hopkins responded in 1935 to a hostile audience in Iowa
City that demanded to know who was going to foot the bill for the WPA
programs. "`You are,' Hopkins told the crowd, `and who better? Who can
better afford to pay for it? This is America, the richest country in the
world. We can afford to pay for anything we want, and we want a decent life
for all the people in this country, and we are going to pay for it.'" It's
hard to imagine that kind of tough talk from any politician on the left or
right these days.

I guess that since Quinn's book deals with the WPA, it distantly qualifies as
a Roosevelt history. Lincoln and Roosevelt, the summer reading presidents.
In a few months, we'll no doubt be turning our attention to the wintry likes
of Harding and Coolidge.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage" by Daniel Mark Epstine,
"Alfred & Emily" by Doris Lessing, and "Furious Improvisation" by Susan Quinn.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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