Call it “Revenge of the Nerd.” Rainn Wilson was, by his own admission, a hopeless misfit in high school. And for the past three years he has made his living portraying Dwight Schrute on NBC’s smash sitcom The Office—perhaps the world’s most recognizable geek. But when he made a recent appearance at a Kane Hall event sponsored by the ASUW and the UWAA, the adoring undergrads had to be turned away by the hundreds. So much for being a social outcast.
A Seattle native, Wilson attended the UW for a year before transferring to NYU to study acting. He returned to the UW campus for the first time in early November to promote his favorite charity, the Mona Foundation. Wilson spoke to Columns from central Oregon, where he and his wife, writer Holiday Reinhorn, ’88, have a cabin.
It’s clear that The Office is a hit with students. Why does the show resonate so well with people who have never experienced the inanities of office culture?
Well that’s the surprising thing. We’re a top-10 show among 18-34-year-olds. Some of our biggest and most loyal fans are the 11-15-year-olds. They’re the ones who have memorized entire episodes and dress up like Dwight for Halloween. I think the comedy goes much deeper than just the fact that it’s set in an office. I think it has to do with the intelligence of the humor.
Dwight is such a memorable character. Do you worry about the risk of being type-cast in the future?
You always run that risk. It really has to do with range, I think. If you have range as an actor and you make smart choices, you’ll never get pigeonholed. You also have to be willing to not take a paycheck. A lot of big paychecks come your way—TV movies or sequels. I’ll never forget seeing French Stewart’s face on the poster for Inspector Gadget II, replacing Matthew Broderick, and thinking, “Well, there goes his career.” And you know, that’s not going to be me. I think in the world of theater and independent film I can always make a living, and that’s probably the direction I’ll head in after The Office.
It sounds like you have a number of writing projects under way right now.
That’s one of the reasons I’m up here in Oregon. I’m working on this script called Bonzai Shadowhands. It’s about a down-and-out ninja living in the San Fernando Valley.
You’ve hosted Saturday Night Live, which is sort of the “cover of the Rolling Stone” for a comedic performer. And you’ve been nominated for an Emmy. Did that feel like a milestone?
Next to the birth of my son and my marriage to my wife, hosting Saturday Night Live was probably the greatest event of my life. And getting nominated for an Emmy was pretty great as well. You know, I’ve been working for a long time at this. I graduated from college in 1990 and I lived at the poverty level for the first 10 years of working as an actor. So I try to enjoy the success as much as I can, but at the same time not let it go to my head, because success comes and goes.
You went to Shorecrest High School for a couple of years, and you’ve said before that you ran with a Dungeons & Dragons crowd and were kind of a socially marginal figure.
It wasn’t that bad. It’s not like I was tortured and humiliated. I just ran with a geeky crowd. I was in the marching band, Dungeons & Dragons and Model United Nations. But you know, those kids, it seems to me, are becoming the cool kids now. That’s what these movies are about, like Superbad and Knocked Up. They’re more about the slackers and geeks and losers and misfits. You’ve got rock stars like Beck. I think the landscape has changed since the days of Van Halen when I was growing up.
You were only at the UW for a year before going off to NYU. In retrospect, was it an important year?
I had some really great professors and directors. A woman named Sue-Ellen Case was very instrumental in helping me along as an actor. And it was in her class, over there in Hutchinson Hall, that I met my wife. And the other thing about the University of Washington, which I still really remember and love, is that I took some English classes there that really rocked my world. I took 20th-century poetry, and it was, like, the greatest class I’ve ever taken. I had an absolute blast reading James Joyce and Yeats and all these great writers. And I also took karate at U-Dub, and got my yellow belt in Shorin-Ryu karate—for all you Dwight fans looking for trivia.
Are you drawing on that experience to write Bonzai Shadowhands?
Of course. I draw on that experience in everything I do. I have my certificate of yellow belt framed in my office. [Laughter.] You get it after, like, three or four months. It’s one of my greatest accomplishments.