Interview: Rainn Wilson Talks ‘Backstrom’: “I’ve never worked as hard in my life”

"To get a role this interesting for an actor such as myself was just a Godsend" - Rainn Wilson

Rainn Wilson Backstrom Interview

After nine season of playing Dwight in The Office, Rainn Wilson returned to TV last week in FOX’s Backstrom, about a brilliant and offensive detective who sees the worst in everyone, and it turns out, he’s usually right.

The show, which also stars Dennis Haysbert, Genevieve Angelson (House of Lies) and Sarah Chalke (Scrubs) as a recurring guest star, is a subversive take on a crime procedural from the mind of Bones‘ creator, Hart Hanson.

Wilson recently did a press call where he talked about the show, playing a new character and the difference in preparing as a lead in a 60-minute procedural versus a 30-minute sitcom.

Backstrom airs on Thursdays at 9 p.m. on FOX

What would you consider Backstrom’s best quality and what would you consider his worst quality?

Rainn Wilson: I think that Backstrom’s best quality is sensitivity. I think that anyone who is outwardly so insensitive, that has to come from somewhere; and it comes from a history of abuse, abandonment and neglect that he has gone through. Not trying to get all psychobabble on you; but he truly is a deeply, deeply sensitive person. He’s just been twisted and worked so much that it comes out sideways. What’s his worst quality? He’s selfish and puts himself first.

This is your first TV starring role since The Office. And after so many people are used to seeing you play Dwight for nine seasons on that show, how did it feel for you now to step in to playing this new character, a very different one than you had played for many years?

Rainn Wilson: Yes, well it was really—doing another TV show was kind of the last thing I wanted to do right away after The Office, after working so hard and for so long on that character. But when I read the character of Backstrom it was kind of like, oh, darn it, this is too good, this is too rich, it’s too interesting and it just drew me in incredibly. I couldn’t say no. It’s such a rich, multi-faceted character that I had to take it; and they don’t come along very often, especially for weird looking middle-aged character guys like myself. So, to get a role this interesting for an actor such as myself was just a Godsend and Hart Hanson is an incredible writer who can balance the drama and the humor, the absurdity at the same time so effortlessly so it all fits in into one tone.

The show was developed first at CBS and did you make any changes to the character when it moved to Fox, or are you essentially playing the same guy that you signed on for?

Rainn Wilson: Well, we always knew it was going to be very tricky at CBS. CBS is not really known for its likeable characters. It really is known for its ensemble procedurals where characters are not as important on the CBS shows. This is a show all about character. Everyone in the ensemble has a very strong point of view and is very quirky in their own way.

So the adjustment really was going goodie, yippee, we’re on Fox, now we can do something a lot more interesting, and take a lot more risks. It’s still network television – it’s not like a show that we could do if we were on FX or AMC, but for network television I think we’re trying to push the envelope in some really interesting ways. We have some very [indiscernible] episodes and we have some really comic episodes, too, but Hart Hanson walks that tightrope in his writing very well.

Is there any either person or character, something specifically that you took inspiration for in creating Backstrom.

Rainn Wilson: I would say the only inspiration that I had is growing up watching Columbo and watching The Rockford Files is I was really excited about the kind of old school nature of the show. There’s nothing slick about this show. Well, you know, I have a few little montages here and there, but it really is an old school, it’s kind of cut from the 70s kind of detective show. You know, a quirky character that is not a leading man; who is struggling to get by in the world, kind of an anti-hero and with some really major flaws who happens to be pretty brilliant at solving crimes. So that would be my only inspiration, my main inspiration.

Other than that, it was really figuring out who this guy was; doing the acting work, the rich, detailed acting work. I’m not saying that I was very good at it. I tried to do the rich, detailed acting work that was exploring who this guy is, how he sees the world, how he sees the world through his particular work lens and his choices accordingly – where does that come from? What’s it like to really be in his shoes and see the world the way he does? There’s a lot of pain there, but there’s also a lot of humor.

This show comes from Hart Hanson, the mind behind Bones. I was wondering if there was any discussion of maybe doing a crossover type episode with that.

Rainn Wilson: You know, I highly doubt that that would ever happen. I think that they inhabit such different worlds. Bones is much more silly than Backstrom. [Indiscernible] it’s much broader and I don’t see how the characters would jive. I don’t see how they would get along in the same world, but maybe so, maybe there will be such tremendous clamor for that; I mean Bones fans are really loyal and Hart Hanson fans are super, super loyal so that would be interesting to see.

Can you talk a little bit about the difference in preparation between the 60-minute procedural where you’re the lead versus the 30-minute sitcom with more episodes?

Rainn Wilson: Yes, in the 30-minute sitcom, no preparation, so it’s a huge difference. The Office was usually short scenes, largely improvised, if you messed up your lines it’s okay. And then we made sure that we always got it as scripted at least once, but it was much more freewheeling and it was more about finding the comedy in the moment. Yes, there were through lines in the episodes, but it was just being open and spontaneous to find those little gems.

In Backstrom there is a lot of drama in the show, and there’s a lot of through lines, you have to be very aware what’s going on scene to scene and I’ve never had to do as much preparation as I have in Backstrom. I’ve never worked as hard in my life; 7 to 8 pages of dialogue a day, usually 13 to 14 hour shoot days and it’s not like he’s just passive in the scenes. He’s very active driving scenes, and digging and exploring and emoting and hitting the jokes. So you have to be really, really on at the same time. So it was really night and day.

Just for fun, if you were interviewing your character on Backstrom what would you ask him?

Rainn Wilson: I would ask him, oh, that is an excellent question. Really excellent question. I guess I would ask him about his super power of how does seeing the very worse in humans allow him to see so deeply into the criminal mind. [Indiscernible] the criminal mind, [indiscernible] the criminal heart. [Indiscernible] the criminal element must be feeling.

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