Ever since his arc on Six Feet Under as creepy tenant Arthur, Rainn Wilson has made a fine living playing intense oddballs and weirdos, whether — most notably — as Dwight Schrute on The Office, or in such films as House of 1000 Corpses and Juno. His most recent indie, Super, just got picked up by IFC and stars Wilson as a short-order cook who becomes a superhero to win back his wife (Liv Tyler) after she leaves him for a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). And now Wilson will showcase his more earnest side: On November 2, he’ll release a book, Soul Pancake, that’s tied into his online community of the same name (“A place to speak your mind, unload your questions, and figure out what it means to be human.”), which is sincere enough to be spotlighted by Oprah Winfrey. Vulture had a personal and sometimes prickly discussion with Wilson (who co-wrote his book with three others) about the comfort and pitfalls that come with writing a celebrity spiritual guides, and how the box-office failure of The Rocker only made him stronger (after making him weep).
You made a superhero movie for director James Gunn (Slither) called Super starring yourself and Ellen Page. Both of you have ironic and detached onscreen personae. It’s a very sweet movie and I wondered if it worried you that your irony baggage might upset the balance of the film?
Most comedy today comes from ironic detachment: Vince Vaughn, Jack Black, Ben Stiller. I’m not comparing myself to them, but that’s the way of being in comedy these days. There’s no more Jimmy Stewart doing heartfelt, everyman comedies.
You cry a lot in Super and it’s really painful-looking. In fact, it looks horrible. Is that how you cry in real life?
Yeah, when I cry in real life it’s really embarrassing. I look like a complete jackass.
A lot of people have fantasies about wearing a superhero suit, but you’ve actually worn one. How was it?
I got so sick of that suit. It was just so uncomfortable and sweaty and miserable and it was not warm at all. I was running around cold fields in Shreveport, Louisiana, in what was essentially spandex. That suit was just a colossal pain in the ass.
Your book Soul Pancake is about creativity, spirituality, and, as you say, “chewing on life’s big questions.” What is your goal for the book? What do you want it to be?
A tool used for the revolution.
The spiritual and creative revolution that’s coming. I was a wee lad in the early seventies, but in that whole countercultural movement in the sixties, people were out to find the truth for themselves, going to India, trying new artistic practices. My mom was doing experimental theater and painting her body blue and running around naked and my dad became Bahá’i. I think that’s just around the corner again. Now, though, you can’t just say, “We smoke pot and don’t bathe and we’re changing the world with thoughts of love.” But a spiritual revolution is in the cards. It has to be, because the world is grinding to a halt. That sounds lofty, but it’s really about getting young people talking about life’s big questions and getting them to expand their minds. Hopefully we’ll be a small, healthy tool in a larger movement.
In the introduction to Soul Pancake, you say your faith is a feeling that can’t be debated or intellectualized. How is that different from the hippies?
The comparison would be to love. If there’s an angry, cynical scientist who says that love is just a biochemical reflex to keep us breeding, they have a point. No amount of intellectual rigor on my part could convince someone like that that love exists in my heart. And I can never convince them that a god or a creative force drives all things, so why have an intellectual conversation? The way to God is through art, it’s through love and creativity, things that allow us to transcend the mere material. I don’t think it’s intellectual laziness or an inability to talk with rigor about what and why you believe. The debate is pointless. Things like faith and love are not amorphous, they’re very real, but they don’t necessarily have the kind of reality that one can debate in a magazine.
You returned to the faith of your parents, Bahá’i, after a long period spent as a self-described atheist and agnostic. Why did you decide to return to your parents’ religion?
It’s hard to put my finger on the moment. In Soul Pancake, I talk about how I couldn’t find the answers I was looking for in Buddhism or Christianity or Islam. The Bahá’i faith really does have a blueprint laid out by its founder, Bahá’u’lláh, and for me it contains the keys for making the world a better place. That’s the answer I came up with for myself. Human life has one truth: What do you think happens when you die? You ask people and they say, “We can never know.” And I say, “But don’t you want to go on the journey to figure out what life is all about? So that you have some answer when you come to the point that comes for all of us?” Wrangling with that question is what it means to be alive, rather than beer bongs and hot-tub parties and car accidents and what we see on TV all day long.
You seem to be running the risk of becoming a Bahá’i spokesman. But as you can see from Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson, being the public face of an organized religion can come back and bite you. Does that worry you?
Look at yourself. You’re part of the media and you’re asking me that question. So you’re part of your own question. I’ve got Soul Pancake coming out that has all this different stuff in it, all these challenges like Reverse Pickpocket [a game in which one surreptitiously gives, rather than steals] and all these ideas about creativity, and your questions are all about Rainn Wilson and his faith. The last thing I want to do is become the Tom Cruise for Bahá’i. For one thing, I’m not Tom Cruise, I’m just a goofy character actor on the seventh season of a TV show. I just want to be a spokesperson for thinking outside the box. If I have a legacy besides playing weird, creepy goofballs, it would be to try to get the ball rolling for taking philosophy out of academia and reclaiming it for 17-year-olds so they can make it their own.
But everyone’s fascinated by celebrity, and you’re a celebrity who’s talking about faith and religion. So that’s going to be of interest to people like me.
I understand where it’s coming from. I mean, what I’m doing is very odd. “Why is this TV celebrity talking about spirituality?” I have very little desire … okay, I have some desire but very little actual desire to be a celebrity. Or even a movie star, as is evidenced by The Rocker. But I will always be an actor and artist. I’ll always be able to do plays back in New York and make enough money. As long as I’m allowed to express myself, I’m happy. A lot of people in the public eye have their public selves, and their spiritual interests, their family, their creativity, their hobbies, and they’re all these compartments. I want Rainn Wilson to be the person who’s talking to you on the phone on the way to his weekly doubles-tennis game, talking about hearts, and his career, and his faith, and fantasy-football league, and his wife and son, all in equal measures. I want to erase those lines between all those compartments and be the whole person. Maybe it’s stupid on my part to share this stuff publicly, but I have to be myself. I gotta be me, babe.
Are you worried that people will look at this as yet another actor talking about spirituality and you might do more harm to Soul Pancake than good?
Yeah, I’m worried. I probably will get a lot of reviews saying, “This idiot jackass with that weird haircut, what does he think he knows? Fuck off!” And sure, that would hurt my feelings. But at the same time, if a few thousand people in their teens and 20s pick it up and expand their minds a little bit — mission accomplished.
I hate to ask you this question, but you did bring up The Rocker. What was it like to have such a failure? That must be difficult to work on something really hard and then to have it all fall apart.
That’s a perfect Soul Pancake question — getting to the root of being a human being. Failure and disappointment are a huge part of life on this planet, and The Rocker was a huge failure and a huge disappointment. Artistically, it was only a very little failure and I still believe that it holds up. I have people come up to me and say they saw it — not in the theater, because no one saw it in the theater — but on DVD and they say, “It was so sweet. I watched it with my kids and they loved it.” And that is really nice. But it’s one of the biggest bombs ever. I went out for three months doing nothing but promoting the movie, and then it opens to $2.8 million over the weekend. That’s on 2,000 and 3,000 screens, and if you do the math that’s like two people in every theater.
I remember driving in to work at some ungodly hour, and Kevin & Bean are on — they’re two local D.J.’s — and I’d been on their show promoting the movie. And they’re going over the weekend box office and they go, “Wait a minute, where’s Rainn’s movie? Oh, it’s at No. 12. That’s brutal. The poor guy must be hurting.” I was literally in my car at five-thirty in the morning and I started to weep — that embarrassing weeping you saw in Super — as I drove down the 105 Freeway. They said, “It’s just like Kelsey Grammer when he did Down Periscope.” And I was sobbing, thinking my movie career was dead. The Rocker put me out into the world as a star, maybe prematurely — actually, obviously prematurely — and after it flopped, I had six months of a lot of heartache and a lot of soul-searching, and I really thought I was never going to work again. And then I came out on the other side, and I was really grateful to The Rocker, because I had been wanting approval from the studio system. The studio system in Los Angeles is run by the most dysfunctional people on God’s green earth, and for them it’s all about box office. But it’s a business, and you can’t really fault them for that. I wanted their approval so badly, and I wanted so much to fit into that world. And then the movie came out and after a while I said, “Fuck them. I don’t give a shit about that.” It’d sure be nice to be paid really handsomely to be in a movie, but I don’t think about it anymore, and I do my own projects. I did three indie movies last year that’ll be coming out; I’m working on my own screenplays; I’m starting to write a book about the Bahá’i faith. I want to do more travel stuff, more charity stuff, and my life is better than it’s ever been. I’m so glad The Rocker bombed, because it taught me one of life’s big lessons: You can’t control the results. You just have to take care of your work. Your life is a gift and you have to make it your own. I don’t know any other way to sum it up that doesn’t sound completely corny. I learned that lesson, and I learned it by being in one of the biggest box-office flops in Hollywood history.