Rainn Wilson opens up about life, death, "Blackbird" and being "#blessed"

The actor talks about the legacy of "The Office," Leo DiCaprio and how real life is mirroring "Utopia"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 18, 2020 5:00PM (EDT)

 Rainn Wilson as Michael and Kate Winslet as Jennifer in "Blackbird."  (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Screen Media)
Rainn Wilson as Michael and Kate Winslet as Jennifer in "Blackbird." (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Screen Media)

Rainn Wilson is one of only a handful of performers to have created a television character so iconic it's a Halloween costume. It's also a bobble head, and about a thousand memes. In real life, Wilson, who says he "lucked into" the role of Dwight Schrute in NBC's "The Office" (2005-2013), is a three-time Emmy nominee, a director, an entrepreneur and an author. 

For his latest project, Wilson costars with Academy Award winners Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet in "Blackbird," a new film about a family reunion weekend with a twist. Wilson spoke to Salon recently about what drew him to director Roger Mitchell's assisted suicide drama, why young people love "The Office" and where in the celebrity Venn diagram he and Leonardo DiCaprio overlap.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Let's talk about the "Blackbird" story. It's about a very controversial issue, a very divisive one and a very personal one — the right to die, told from the perspective of one family, one woman. You're a very philosophical guy. Is this something that you've been involved with or curious about before?

No. I simply was sent a script and they said, "They'd like to make you an offer. And in this movie you are going to be married to Kate Winslet and you are going to have a sex scene with her." I was like, "Sign me up. I don't even care what the hell this movie is about. It could be about the invention of gravy and it wouldn't even matter to me."

But in all seriousness, when I read the script, it was about this issue, assisted suicide, and it approached it with such deftness and nuance and sensitivity and humor and love that I couldn't help but be moved by it. I just teared up like crazy and laughed like crazy reading the script. I just wanted to be a part of it.

Your character, Michael, is so interesting because he's the in-law, he's the outsider to a degree. And yet in many ways watching it, I felt like he was very parallel with Susan Sarandon's character, Lily. There's a part in particular where the type of person who does this is described as very methodical and controlling, and in many ways that's also your character.

Oh, interesting. I hadn't thought of it in that way, but yeah, that could be. Susan Sarandon plays the matriarch, gathering the family around her for this time when she knows she's going to take her own life after battling ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. [There are] her daughters, played by Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska, and her husband, Sam Neill. We bring our kid, and there's a couple other partners that come to visit.

My character I loved because of his journey. Michael is a lawyer. He's pretty preppy. He's like a Volvo-driving, kind of uptight Manhattan lawyer, and kind of a doofus. But over the course of the film, he really finds himself. He finds his voice. He kind of gets to the root of his marriage with Kate Winslet's character and finds how to be a better father and is more emotionally kind of grounded.

And that's really what death does, isn't it? It provides a lens for people to grow. It allows a perspective on our lives and allows for transformation, and that's what this film does so beautifully. This isn't a film about death. This is a film about life, and this death that's at the center of the film really just highlights the amount of humor and love and connection and family that is in the story.

You used the word love, and I was thinking as you were talking about a moment near the end of the film when Susan Sarandon's character, Lily, says, "Love is all there is." In the same way that death transforms you, love transforms you.

That's why we need a film like this and stories like this more than ever in a world that's so divided, where love has kind of absented itself. This gets to the heart of that. It's not just a family loving each other. It's like life is so incredibly precious.

My father passed away in early August, not that long ago, and it was heartbreaking and grief-filled and tragic. It has gotten me thinking every day about how precious life is, how precious my family is, how precious all of humanity is and our gorgeous, glorious, troubled planet at the same time.

Again, it's a lens into our humanity. Like the Native American saying, "Today's a good day to die." Both the Native Americans used to say that and the stoic Romans used to say that. It frames life. It shows us what's important.

I'm so sorry for your loss. My condolences to you and your family. It's very meaningful to see a film like this right now at this particular moment because we are such a death-denying culture. It is still very taboo.

What did you do to prepare? Did you research the topic so you thought, "I want to have my own decisive opinion about the right to die movement"?  

Susan Sarandon certainly did a great deal of research. She met people who were suffering with ALS, and learned a lot about the symptoms of it and the trajectory of the experience of heading towards death from that particular disease. We met with nurses and hospice care workers, and we saw some very interesting videos and read some interesting articles.

But at the end of the day, it's not so much about the research on whatever it is that you do, it's about the character and it's the journey you're going on the character. How does Michael start and how does Michael end, and what does he do along the way? That's where the real research has to be done by an actor: it's in the heart, it's in the psychology, it's in the guts. I'm not saying this to sound fancy or anything like that, but that's what every actor has to do when they're doing a movie, even if it's a lighter comedy or a really heavy drama. But especially in a drama like this, a drama that has comedy, you want to see where you're going and where you're headed.

This wasn't a movie where my character was that involved in euthanasia or assisted suicide or anything like that, so it really was about who am I and what's my relationship to my wife, to my in-laws, to my son, and what needs to be explored over the storytelling, over the arc of these 100 minutes or so of the movie.

Your character really bookends this story. You bring us into this story and you bring us out of it. We see that over the course of just the span of a few days you have become someone else and you have shown yourself to be someone else to your family.

The film begins with our family driving up to the house. You see one part of our characters in one way. And then at the very end of the movie, we're driving away from the house and you see our characters in a very different way. And you're like, "Wow, there's a real transformation that was made here." There was something turned inside. There was some internal event in these characters that caused them to mature and see the world in a slightly different way.

Can we talk about "Utopia"? This story is disturbingly of our moment right now. I'm curious what it feels like for you watching the last several months in our world unfold, having been part of this story.

"Utopia" is a conspiracy theory thriller with some science fiction elements and some dark humor. It's about these comic book nerds who are obsessed with this graphic novel that contains the secrets to the possible destruction of the Earth. And part of that destruction has to do with viruses being released into the population. My character is a virologist. I'm a doctor. I don't appear [until] a little bit later as you go along in the series.

It mirrors what's happening in the real world in an uncanny fashion. It's just crazy when this stuff started happening. We wrapped that in September, and then in Wuhan, the virus was starting to manifest itself in December just a couple months after we had wrapped. They were just starting the editing process when the virus was off.

By March, the world had shut down and I was texting Gillian Flynn, the showrunner, like, "Can you believe this?" This is insane that we've just shot this show about a global pandemic, about viruses, about vaccines being rushed to market. Who's the bad guy? Who's behind it? Conspiracies echoing out from in every which way. It's absolutely remarkable how this show has mirrored real life.

Having just gone through a fictional pandemic, what must it have been like for you to then experience a real one?

It was really trippy. It was really trippy to be shooting scenes with the hazmat suits and with body bags and people in tents, and then similar stuff happening around the globe. It was jaw-dropping. It was chilling.

That being said, our show is entertaining. It's fun, it's light, it's zany, it's crazy. It's different enough from the real world that I don't think anyone is going to watch it and have some kind of PTSD trauma response.

You are also tapped for "The Power, " another very strange, dystopian, futuristic but funny story. It seems like you are making choices that explore these big picture, life and death issues, ethical issues, moral issues, but through the prism of deep humor. What is happening now, that it feels like this path is really opening up for you?

I wish that I could say that I had some control over this, as if I met with my agents and was like, "I only want to do exciting science fiction projects that have to do with life's biggest questions and issues. Let's just go down that path, shall we?" I just lucked out and I happened into some really cool projects, including "Utopia" and "The Power," which they had shot about a third of [before] I was getting ready to jump on a plane to go shoot it and they had to pull the plug because of the pandemic. That should be picking up this winter in London. It's a terrific script and project.

I'm lucky the way that my path has gone as an actor. Any actor will tell you this: it's just such a roll of the dice. Yeah, we work hard, and you try and develop your skills, and you try and be as good an actor as possible. But there's plenty of actors just as skilled as me that didn't get a chance to play Dwight Schrute and haven't gotten a chance to do great projects like "Utopia" and "Blackbird."

I started in the theater. When you're in the theater, you play all kinds of different roles. You're not typecast. You don't only play this one thing, like, "This guy only does Molière comedies with giant shoes." You play different things as needed: drama, comedy, classics, heightened language, contemporary, experimental. I did ten years of theater in New York before I did any TV or film and then lucked into "The Office." And so I'll just continue to play character roles, continue to play drama or comedy or Shakespeare or whatever they need me to do to help tell fantastic stories.

You're also doing other projects as well, talking about climate change, writing a book. Are you planning any more of those kinds of things?

I did this show, "An Idiot's Guide to Climate Change," that's on the SoulPancake YouTube channel. You can see that about my little trip to Greenland and my trip to and trek to meet Greta Thunberg. That's a lot of fun and it's a fun introduction to climate change issues, and I still work with the groups there. Arctic Basecamp is the nonprofit that I'm on the advisory board of, and I help them fundraise and awareness-raise. We're hosting a big press conference, some virtual events this winter. It's a topic that I'm extremely passionate about.

And I'm continuing to write stuff, some screenplays and some comedy and also some spirituality. I have wide-ranging interests. I'm just #blessed — I'm telling you, #blessed — that I get to do all of this crazy stuff. Truly, truly lucky.

You mentioned Dwight, and of course he is an iconic figure. It feels like the last few months that show has meant even more to people, because maybe for the first time we actually miss our offices.

Although the people that watch the show have never even been in an office. Most of the people that watch the show are teens and tweens and college students. The show has taken on a life of its own. Young people have watched it eight, 10, 12, 15 times. It's astonishing how it's taken off, and people love it and it's brought them a lot of solace. But I think it's about family. Isn't everything really about family? "The Office" is this crazy, dysfunctional family, and people love it. The quirky characters remind them of their own families, and they want to go live with this family, and they get to do it in 22-minute increments.

It all comes back to family, which is where we are with "Blackbird." Rainn, it is such a beautiful, beautiful film. And you do get to have wild sex with Kate Winslet.

Right? It's like, me and Leo. That's where Leonardo DiCaprio and Rainn Wilson cross.

"Blackbird" is in selected theaters now and available to stream on various platforms, including Vudu.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams