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Rainn Wilson: In Defense of the Anti-Hero and Cracking Offensive Jokes

12 minute read

After more than 200 episodes playing iconic bear, beet and Battlestar Gallactica-loving Dwight Schrute on The Office, Rainn Wilson has returned to the Thursday 9 p.m. timeslot as the brilliant but hard-living cop Everett Backstrom. Though Dwight and Backstrom don’t have much in common, they’re both initially reviled by their colleagues — and perhaps even the audience.

Some critics have already begun to identify Fox’s Backstrom an even more offensive version of the anti-heroic male characters that already dominate primetime. Rainn Wilson talks to TIME about why we shouldn’t dismiss the anti-hero, and how both The Office and Backstrom deal with racism.

TIME: As you were wrapping up The Office, you got the Backstrom script and thought it was too good to pass up. Was there a specific aspect of the character that convinced you you had to play Backstrom?

Rainn Wilson: I like playing characters that are hard to like, that are difficult. Roles like this just don’t come along very often for guys like me. I’m a 49-year-old, weird-looking character guy. And to get offered a lead role that’s complex was really exciting. I was thrilled to jump at it.

Why do you like playing unlikable characters?

I think it’s a challenge. I think that a lot of times in TV and film, the number one thing that people are always concerned with is: “Is the character going to be likable and relatable?” There are a lot of actors being very charming and saying, “Like me, like me.” And I’m just not interested in that. I’m drawn to playing outsiders, freaks and misfits.

Backstrom is nothing like Dwight, but they both just don’t fit in. I think it’s a challenge to make a part like that relatable, and the way you make it relatable is by making the character really specific in how they pick up a cigar, how they sit at their desk, the way they listen to someone. At first you can kind of dismiss him, like, “Oh this guy is just an a—hole.” But then you get to know him a little bit, and you’re like, “Oh, I actually know guys like this,” and you kind of want to go on the ride with him.

In the first season of The Office some of the characters — especially Michael and Dwight — were not likable. But as the show went on, you grew to really love them. Similarly, people may not love Backstrom now, but how much time do you think it takes for people to connect with a character who is initially unlikable?

I don’t know. I mean, obviously, you don’t have a whole lot of time. You don’t want to say, “It’s going to take you watching 12 episodes before you really understand and relate to Backstrom.” But I do think you watch two or three episodes and you get sucked in, which is a lot to ask in today’s TV environment when you have to make a big pop right away.

People compare the show to House, and to me, yes, there is a conceit that’s similar, in that there is an “unlikable” character at the center of the action, who is difficult and self-destructive, who is the hero. But that character has existed way before House. In fact, I was just thinking the other day how much this is like NYPD Blue. Sipowicz was the same thing. He was an alcoholic, self-destructive, difficult police detective. That’s a much more valid comparison than House. But all those difficult, prickly, larger-than-life personalities from all the ’70s cop shows — Mannix and Baretta and Hunter and Columbo and Rockford — there’s a long history of this.

Plus, I think the thing about House is Hugh Laurie is prickly but very charming. He always had that little smile. Backstrom has no interest in being charming. He doesn’t give a f— if he alienates people around him. And that’s a very different thing. He’s about, “I hate you. I will tolerate working with you until I solve this crime and put this guy away. And if you don’t like me, I don’t care.”

One thing I thought was really interesting about the first episode is while we’ve had this long history of difficult or self-destructive cops, it turns out that when Backstrom is faced with an actual gunman, he’s not as brave as the guys we usually see.

Oh, he’s a coward. He’s a total coward.

What did you think when you first read that in the script?

That was something that early on I talked to Hart Hanson, the creator, about. He said, “Listen, Backstrom needs to be a coward. He hates using guns. He’s not brave. He doesn’t want a showdown. He doesn’t want to get his hands dirty.” The thing that drives him to get criminals is he hates the thought of anyone outsmarting him. It’s pride and ego.

A lot of critics have been saying, “Oh no, another anti-hero show.” How is Backstrom different from other anti-heroes we’ve seen on TV?

We’ve gotten some really good reviews and some critical reviews. But a lot of what they’re criticizing is that he’s really difficult and brilliant, and we’ve seen that before. Let me say one thing: Any single lead of any television show is brilliant in what they do. So let’s stop being surprised about brilliance. You can’t have a show about someone who is mediocre at what they do. You just can’t do it. You can’t have a cop show or a doctor show or a lawyer show or a teacher show or a political show like that.

This is an ancient formula for making television because it creates conflict. Backstrom is not the first, and it will not be the last. You have 42 minutes to make drama and comedy, and you want to make 22 of those a year and you want to be on for five or eight years — that’s what you do. Had Backstrom been a handsome, charming guy solving crimes, people would have been like, “Oh, great. Here’s another cop show with a handsome, charming guy solving crimes.” It’s like there’s no way to escape the snark.

Unless you’re doing something completely offbeat, but those shows often only survive one or two seasons.

The television critic is an interesting situation because if there’s a show about good-looking roommates, they’ll say, “Oh great. Another show about good-looking roommates.” Or: “Oh, another workplace comedy with a crazy boss. Seen that before.” There’s a limited number of ideas — you just want to do it in a fresh way.

I do believe that we do the anti-hero in a very fresh way. I mean, his ally is a minister cop, which I’ve never seen on a TV show before. I also think that Valentine’s character, too, is very fresh and original — not because he’s the gay roommate, but because he is unabashedly amoral, and has a very interesting relationship with a police lieutenant. There are certain aspects of the show that I really love. You also get to know Backstrom’s father, played by Robert Forster, and you start to see where he came from and how he got to be the way he is.

We kind of got a preview of that in the first episode when he alludes to his abusive father. I assume as we go along, we’ll find out more about why he’s so unsympathetic.

Anyone who is as difficult and self-destructive as Backstrom has a deeply wounded child in there somewhere, and that’s a really interesting thing that I wanted to explore. He’s not just a household windbag who never changes. Backstrom is a very different person, even in episode 12, as he is in episode one. Ultimately, this is a show about redemption: It’s about a person changing his addictive, racist ways.

I was curious about the character’s bigotry, too. Were you concerned that any of the racist or sexist or homophobic things that the character says might go over the line?

Did it concern me? No, I don’t really care about that. You’d be amazed at the stuff that people get offended by. We did an episode of The Office where Michael Scott pretended to hang himself and then told a suicide joke. And then we got all these calls and letters from the suicide prevention agencies being like, “You can’t make fun of suicide.” Of course, it’s a horrible tragedy: I’ve had friends who committed suicide, but I think even my friends who committed suicide wouldn’t mind people making an occasional suicide joke.

I feel like The Office did this very well. I recently watched the “Diversity Day” episode, and I thought, “Oh, look at that. There’s an episode of television that we did 10 years ago that you couldn’t put on the air right now.” It’s dealing with racism and looking at it through a comedic lens, but because there are racist jokes told in the mocking of racism, it would have been pulled. It would have been protested and pulled, and there would have been articles on Slate and The Daily Beast about how terrible it was.

Archie Bunker is a character I would compare Backstrom to. If you look at racism through a lens of entertainment, and you do it in the right [way], you can actually help heal those issues. I think All in the Family did a great job of healing America in the ’70s by bringing up issues of race and class and liberal and conservative values and sexism. Backstrom is not All in the Family — it’s not brilliant in that way. It’s ultimately just a crime show. But I do think it can be a valuable lens to look at what goes on every day in the world.

Some of the more negative reviews have said he’s racist and sexist without a purpose. How do you think the show creates positive conversation around these issues?

It’s hard out of context. That sounds like a cop-out, but you have to watch the episodes and see where Backstrom ends up at the end of the 12th episode.

This is a guy whose life is falling apart. If you just see the pilot, you’re like, “Oh, this guy’s a racist and sexist.” If you start watching a guy whose life is falling apart, then you start to get it on a deeper level: If his coping mechanism is to throw out grotesque sexism and racism and self-hatred, we’re watching a guy whose coping mechanism is no longer working. Because remember, he’s racist against whites as well as any other race. He’s an equal-opportunity hater. He does not believe white people are superior to other races. He just mocks everyone.

That’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. This show isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. The Office wasn’t for everyone as well. Remember, The Office got a lot of bad reviews in its first season. In fact, I don’t remember any good reviews in its first season. And people say now that’s because it didn’t find its voice until the second season, but that’s not true. The first season episodes —“Diversity Day,” “Basketball,” “Healthcare” — those are some of the very best episodes we did.

You are a lifelong Seahawks fan. Heading into the Super Bowl this weekend, do you have any take on deflategate? Does it matter?

I think it does matter because I read this incredible article on Slate about the Patriots’ fumble percentage at home. Their fumble percentage at home was ridiculously low, and it is statistically impossible for a team to fumble as little as they do at home playing outside in the weather over the years. And so it raises a big flag. If they’ve been deflating footballs and breaking the rules for 10 years to get an advantage, which is they get one or two less fumbles per game over 10 years, that’s a big deal.

Is it a big deal that there were a bunch of balls that were under-pumped? Nah. Not a big deal. But when you look at whether they violated these rules to gain an advantage in a systematic way over a long period of time, that’s not good.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com