The Lost Roles of Rainn Wilson

Lost Roles is a weekly column that takes a particular comedic performer or writer and dives deep into all of their movie and TV projects that came close to happening but didn’t for one reason or another. This week, we turn our attention to The Office’s Rainn Wilson.

On The Office, Rainn Wilson created one of the most beloved sitcom characters of the past decade with Dwight Schrute, a character that’s proven so popular that he’s been chosen to be the show’s Frasier Crane (and hopefully not its Joey Tribbiani). Outside of The Office, however, he’s had a tough time making his mark in the movie industry. When you embody such a well-known character as Dwight, it’s often hard to get audiences to see you in other roles, but Wilson has managed to avoid getting pigeonholed with parts in Juno and most recently, Super. Let’s take a look at all of the roles Rainn Wilson almost ended up playing, including Steve Carell’s part on The Office, everyone’s favorite Magician’s Alliance-banned illusionist, and lead roles in promising sounding movies from Bob Odenkirk, Jason Reitman, and Scott Aukerman that never got made.

The New Bozena (failed Fox pilot, late 90s)

Rainn Wilson and some friends created the New York stage show The New Bozena, a modernized vaudeville clown act that he described on Marc Maron’s show by using the terms “clowns on acid,” “a really fucked up Pee-Wee-Herman,” and “slacker vaudeville.” A chance to turn New Bozena into a TV series is actually what brought Wilson to L.A., and he and his friends impressed Fox executives so much with the show that they earned a deal for a pilot presentation. The USA network was also interested in the show before Fox bought it, but Fox execs tinkered with the show and then didn’t pick it up to series. Rainn Wilson remained in L.A. anyways and soon found success in film and TV – albeit in stuff that’s a little more conventional than a post-modern clown show.

Arrested Development (2003)

The role: GOB Bluth

Who got it: Will Arnett

The makers of Arrested Development cast a wide net when trying to find the right actor to play proud Segway owner and magician GOB Bluth. Rainn Wilson tried out for the part and was one of the finalists, but Will Arnett ended up winning the part. Arnett brought a macho energy to the role that some of the other casting choices didn’t have and freed Rainn Wilson up to take the job on The Office the following season.

Slice o’ Life (failed ABC pilot, 2003)

Wilson was cast in a supporting role in this ABC pilot that was a vehicle for Janeane Garofalo intended to be a modern day Mary Tyler Moore. The show had a pretty impressive cast of comedic heavyweights, including Bob Odenkirk and Marc Maron, but the show was canceled before a pilot was even filmed after a table read that Rainn Wilson later admitted “went terrible.” Wilson played the goofy sound guy on the show, but Slice o’ Life’s failure left him available to star in another workplace comedy, one that’s brought him his greatest success as an actor yet.

The Office (2005)

The role: Michael Scott

Who got it: Steve Carell

When Rainn Wilson originally tried out for The Office, he was also going up for the Michael Scott part in addition to the Dwight Schrute one. He later described his audition performance as a “terrible Ricky Gervais impression.” Wilson was better off in the Dwight role, which he put his own spin on instead of trying to emulate the original actor from the UK Office.

Bonzai Shadowhands (unproduced film, 2006-08)

The role: Bonzai Shadowhands

After The Office became a surprise hit in its second season, Rainn Wilson started receiving movie offers for leading roles. The first movie he signed on to star in was Bonzai Shadowhands, a dark comedy that would have seen him playing “a once-great ninja who is now living a life of mediocrity.” Wilson was writing the script himself for Jason Reitman to direct and produce, but the movie never got off the ground.  

Rainn Wilson recalled meeting Jason Reitman in this 2008 interview:

“I was sitting in a Starbucks, and a young man walks in and he goes [Affects fast voice.], ‘Hi there. I don’t know if you know me but my name’s Jason Reitman and you just worked with my dad and I want to do a movie with you where you play a ninja that lives in the San Fernando Valley.’ And I felt like I was discovered at Schwab’s, or something like that, and I was like, ‘Okay, cool.’ And then a month or two later, we met in L.A. and talked about what he had in mind and his vision for it, and then we talked about hiring writers, and I was like, ‘Jason, just give me a shot at writing this movie. I’ve never written anything like that before, and it could suck, and if it sucks, we’ll throw it away and hire a real writer, but let me do it.’ So about a year ago, I finished the first draft—I had very little time to spend writing screenplays—and I’m really happy with it. It’s really good; it definitely needs some work, it needs a new ending, so I’ve been working on the second draft. I’m getting ready to hand it in to Jason in the next month or two, and hopefully maybe in 2009, we’ll be shooting that movie.”

Kanan Rhodes: Unkillable Servant of Justice (unproduced film, 2007)

The role: Kanan Rhodes

Rainn Wilson also signed on to star in Kanan Rhodes, a comedy written by Bob Odenkirk, Scott Aukerman, and B.J. Porter that “follows the misadventures of a man who serves subpoenas with the suaveness, intensity and conviction of James Bond, though that is where the similarity ends.” The script to the movie was written by the Mr. Show trio several years earlier but sat on the shelf, because according to Odenkirk, “because we couldn’t find anyone who could pull it off. Until we got Rainn in our brain! A lot of actors would come off as dicks, but when he does it, it’s sweet and kind of sad.” Kanan Rhodes was supposed to film during Rainn Wilson’s hiatus from The Office in 2007, but he ended up filming The Rocker in that window instead, making it his first leading man role instead of this one, which sounds way more awesome..

Girlfriend Experience (unproduced film, 2007)

Ivan Reitman, who worked with Rainn Wilson on the stinker My Super Ex-Girlfriend, was producing this starring vehicle for the Office actor. Girlfriend Experience would have seen Wilson playing “a lonely geek who tries to make himself more desirable by hiring a prostitute to pose as his girlfriend.” The story was based on an idea that Rainn Wilson had himself, but the disappointing box office performance of The Rocker made it hard to get future Rainn Wilson vehicles greenlit.

Renaissance Men (unproduced film, 2007)

Rainn Wilson wrote this screenplay with fellow actor Matt Ross for Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, Austin Powers) to produce. Renaissance Men was to tell the story of “two down-and-out community theater actors who think they’ve accidentally killed a co-star. In a panic, they go on the lam and hide out in a Renaissance fair.” It sounds pretty funny and like it would have been a role that Wilson would have been able to have a lot of fun with, but Rainn Wilson can only fit so many projects into his summer hiatuses from The Office, and this didn’t end up being one of them.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

The Lost Roles of Rainn Wilson