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Rainn Wilson on Backstrom and Why It’s Not Just House As a Cop

Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Rainn Wilson already entrenched himself in pop-culture history books as The Office’s Dwight K. Schrute, everybody’s favorite survivalist, Über-nerdy beet farmer. After more than 200 episodes as a quirky supporting role, however, the self-proclaimed “weird-looking character actor” is getting slighty more serious as he shifts into the lead role in a dark dramedy. Wilson is set to star in Backstrom as the eponymous protagonist, a self-destructive but brilliant detective with a Spidey-like sense for rooting out the worst in everyone. With Backstrom premiering tonight on Fox, Vulture spoke with Wilson about the show, why it’s not House, and if he has any advice for the cast of Parks and Recreation.

This is obviously a much different role from Dwight. But after spending years in that character, how is Backstrom making you flex different acting muscles?
There are a couple different challenges. One would be going from a supporting role who was designed to be a supporting role. Dwight was a foil to Michael and Jim, and going from that and having some scenes in some really good episodes and throwing in funny lines here and there, to driving a show really gave me a newfound appreciation for Steve Carell. Although a one-hour show is way harder than a half-hour show, you have to, in the lead, drive the scenes. Besides memorizing all the lines and the long hours, it’s a very different responsibility. You’re looked to as a leader on the set. There are a lot of things that change when all [of a] sudden you become the guy that the show was named after. You become Columbo or Rockford or … Backstrom.

Do you think the Backstrom character has the potential to be a cult-classic character the same way Dwight was?
I hope that I can walk the same tightrope as Dwight, which is creating an essentially unlikable character, and then as you get to know him and you see how specific he is, you start to relate in a certain way and ultimately embrace him. Dwight went from being hated and annoying early on to really loved by Office fans starting [in] season three or four. I hope it doesn’t take as long with Backstrom.

Right off the bat, it will probably be easy for viewers to draw comparisons from similarly troubled TV characters (like House) to Backstrom. Do you think there’s a risk of critics or detractors asking, Why do we need another show like this now?
Critics have already said, Oh, it’s House as a cop. Been there, done that. That’s TV critics’ jobs, to be generally dismissive and snarky, especially to network shows. It’s easy to laud the really obscure Danish show on Netflix that has 200,000 viewers and to dis ones that are going for larger audiences. Before House, there were a lot of acerbic, self-destructive antiheroes. There’s certainly Tony Soprano and Don Draper. Actually, I love this analogy: Backstrom is more like if Walter Matthau’s character from The Bad News Bears was a police detective. The difference with House is that his way of being in the world was working for him, and it worked for him for eight seasons. Backstrom is falling apart more and more, and by the end of the first season, he’s really losing his shit. We will have to figure out how to sustain that over many different seasons, but his way of being in the world is not working for him.

So, why this show and this role now?
I had joked about firing my agent, but truly the last thing I wanted to do after wrapping 200 episodes of The Office was start shooting another television show. But when they begged me to read the script, I was like, God dammit, this is too good. I can’t stand it. Oh no, they’ve got me! It was like Al Pacino and The Godfather, they’re pulling me back into the television! I am a 49-year-old, pasty, weird-looking character actor. There are not that many amazing parts for guys like me. There are sometimes some good parts or decent parts or interesting parts, but amazing roles are very few and far between. And for a lead part that has as many different facets and complexities and mysteries that Everett Backstrom has, plus some comedy sauce on top, I couldn’t turn it down.

The Parks and Rec cast members are probably going to be facing that decision soon, too. Any advice for them after this season wraps? 
I think immediately every cast member on Parks and Rec should play a cop. I want ‘em all as cops. I want Nick Offerman as a cop, Aziz Ansari as a cop, Amy Poehler, Chris Pratt — he can do cop movies. All of ‘em. Even Retta should play a cop. Get on a cop show. That’s my advice.

Rainn Wilson on Backstrom