Some actors associated with a signature role will tire of talking about it. No such preciousness from Rainn Wilson, who appears on camera from his Los Angeles home wearing a grey T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Scranton”. That Pennsylvania city provided the setting for the US version of the mockumentary sitcom The Office, which ran for nine widely adored, award-winning series. Wilson earned three Emmy nominations for playing the livid, disagreeable Dwight, the Rust Belt equivalent of Mackenzie Crook’s Gareth. Today’s beard and baseball cap, as well as his chipper demeanour, banishes all memory of the pasty face, DIY haircut and startled expression he wore in that show.
Wilson has starred in everything from Juno to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and the Jason Statham shark thriller The Meg, but he knows that any conversation will inevitably lead back to The Office. “Dwight is the part I’m best known for and always will be,” says the 55-year-old. “And that’s fine with me.” First, though, there is his new thriller to discuss. In Don’t Tell a Soul, a cross between A Simple Plan and Paranoid Park, he plays an unassuming security guard who gives chase after encountering two teenage brothers (Fionn Whitehead and Jack Dylan Grazer) stealing from a house in rural Kentucky. During the pursuit, he plunges into a hole in the forest floor, which leaves the boys with absolute power over him. The question is not whether they will use it, but how.
This isn’t the first time Wilson has been six feet under – he got his big break in Alan Ball’s hit HBO series of that name in the early 2000s, playing Arthur the creepy undertaker. But when I ask what it was like spending most of Don’t Tell a Soul at subterranean level, he sheepishly admits that the “hole” was in fact a chamber built above-ground, with a door in the side, and a platform at the top to which the other actors could ascend to look down at him. “I’m a little claustrophobic,” he says.
The part offered its own challenges, even if overcoming a fear of confined spaces wasn’t one of them. “We get to see a lot of different sides to my character over the course of the film. He’s likable, pitiful, despicable. He has some real dark sides to him.” Moral ambiguity is an area in which Wilson excels: he’s comfortable when the audience isn’t. In the black comedy Super, he played a would-be superhero who is in fact nothing grander than a vicious vigilante in a cape. In the psychological thriller The Boy, he was a surly insurance scammer hiding out at a motel after the death of his wife.
On screen, he can be spookily reserved and unreachable, or gauche and goofy, as he is as a credulous alien in Galaxy Quest or a failed heavy metal drummer in The Rocker. That he can embody these disparate qualities is, he thinks, partly an accident of physiognomy. “When you put a camera on someone, you’re seeing a lot of what’s already there,” he says. “With me, it’s like – I don’t even want to go directly for ‘odd’ – but I’m an offbeat-looking guy who probably has a comedic side, just because I have this big, weird face. I’m never going to be Josh Brolin no matter how much I want it.”
That was a lesson learned in his earliest days as an actor. “I had agents who were, like: ‘You need to get your teeth fixed, build loads of muscles and lose weight.’ But I realised early on that I was in the character actor tradition. Also, sensibility-wise, I’m weird! I play chess, I play the bassoon, I read science fiction. I’m not out there hunting, driving a truck or …” He throws up his hands in mock-exasperation. “What do leading men even do in their spare time? Gut trout?”
Wilson grew up mainly in suburban Seattle and Chicago. Nearly three years of his young life, however, were spent in Nicaragua with his father and stepmother, who were adherents (as Wilson still is) of the Bahá’í faith. In his autobiography The Bassoon King, he recounts that Central American period of his childhood in scintillating and occasionally repulsive detail. No one who reads the book will easily forget the scene in which the young Wilson evacuates from his body a thrashing, 10-inch roundworm (“I felt a curious sensation down around my little fart chimney …”)
Under his gawky suburban exterior, he writes, there will always be a “closet of hidden memories that includes monkeys and jungles and worms and glowing beetles.” He smiles appreciatively when I read that line back to him. “It grants you a different perspective when you’ve lived overseas,” he says. “You might grow up getting Slurpees at the 7/11 or going trick-or-treating, but you carry with you the knowledge that the world is a larger and more mysterious place.”
As wandering bohemians, Wilson’s father and stepmother were role models he felt he had to live up to, perhaps even compete with. “They had strong personalities, but I wanted to differentiate myself.” His own son, who is 16, is going through something similar. “‘Child of celebrity’ is a strange position to be in,” he reflects. “How can he achieve his own identity?”
Wilson’s father, who died last year, published a science-fiction novel, Tentacles of Dawn, in 1978, and always yearned to make a living as an artist. “He was a terrific painter and writer, but he always had to work a crappy day job. I paid attention to what he wasn’t doing: he wasn’t getting trained or throwing himself into it. I said: ‘I’m gonna move to New York, get the best training I can, go the whole hog.’” The irony that he did all that and still ended up in an “office job” has presumably not escaped him.
As soon as Wilson read that show’s pilot script, he knew he was the man to play Dwight Schrute. “I’ve got the weird. I’ve got the deadpan. I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons. Who can do this better than me?” He found in the character an inscrutable quality. “You can never really put your finger on him. Is he a dork or a bully? A simple farmer or a suck-up? He’s kind of all those things.”
A proposed Dwight spin-off series called The Farm never came to fruition, but scarcely a day goes by without him being praised for The Office. Take his first meeting with Grazer, the impish 18-year-old actor with whom he shares most of his scenes in Don’t Tell a Soul. “Jack was fumbling and awkward, and didn’t know what to say,” Wilson recalls. “His mother told me, ‘He’s never like this!’” The problem was nothing more complicated than hero worship. In common with other young celebrities, including Timothée Chalamet and Billie Eilish (whom Wilson refers to affectionately during an online quiz with the singer as “William Eyelash”), Grazer is an obsessive Office nut.
That demographic quirk still confounds Wilson. “When we were making the show, we always thought: ‘Anyone who’s worked in an office and had a bad boss will really relate to this.’ Then we found out that we were especially beloved by 12- to-17-year-olds.” Teenagers helped save The Office from cancellation when its ratings were almost as low as the network’s faith in the show. Fortuitous external circumstances, including the box-office success of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which made a megastar out of Wilson’s Office co-worker Steve Carell, also prolonged its life, giving it time to flourish.
“Now people come back to it repeatedly,” he points out. For many viewers, it was a balm during lockdown. “It’s comforting, soothing, anxiety-releasing. It’s helped people through troubled times.” How very un-British. “Well, the Brits have always looked to comedy to push boundaries: not just The Office but The Mighty Boosh, Alan Partridge. Is he Sir Steve Coogan yet, by the way? I’m going to go with ‘Sir Steve’. I’m such a fan.” Indeed, Wilson can be heard in his own podcast, Dark Air, as Terry Carnation, a pompous talk-radio celebrity, who he hopes could turn out to be his Partridge. “That stuff’s rarer in America. Our comedy is more like what you turn on after dinner to relax and have a nice chuckle. We really don’t want to poke the beehive too much.”
• Don’t Tell a Soul is available on digital download from 12 July