HEAT VISION

Rainn Wilson on 'Utopia' Real-Life Parallels and Avoiding More Dwight Schrute-Like Characters

Rainn Wilson Blackbird Toronto Film Festival
GEOFF ROBINS/AFP via Getty Images
The actor recalls his surprise when 'The Office' experienced a revival on Netflix and also looks back on his career-making role on 'Six Feet Under.'

Rainn Wilson still can’t believe how much life has imitated art in the case of Gillian Flynn’s Amazon Prime series, Utopia. Less than three months after wrapping the pandemic-driven conspiracy thriller series, he quickly took notice of the pandemic that was taking shape on the other side of the world, in China. And given its direct parallels to Utopia, Wilson and Flynn had some rather animated text message exchanges that only intensified once the novel coronavirus pandemic officially reached the United States in March.

On Utopia, Wilson plays Dr. Michael Stearns, a basement-dwelling virologist who tries to stop a deadly pandemic involving a lethal flu he discovered years earlier. Dr. Stearns is forced to deal with various threats including underfunding, undermining and corporate subterfuge in an effort to cure the virus that preys on children.

Wilson is keenly aware of how eerie the show’s real-life parallels are, and that’s enough of a reason for him to worry about whether people are ready for a series that hits this close to home.

“Yeah, it’s really uncanny. I have no idea how people are going to react,” Wilson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Are people going to say, ‘Wait a minute, people are still dying by the thousands every day and you’re doing a show about this?’ Is it too soon for people to be watching this as a kind of science-fiction conspiracy version of what’s happening in the real world? Is it too soon? Are the wounds too fresh? Or is it going to kind of hit that sweet spot and be right in the zeitgeist?”

Seven years removed from The Office’s final episode, Wilson is still reminded of the show’s global impact on viewers, young and old, thanks to Netflix and social media. While many actors from hit television series struggle with typecasting, Wilson considers himself to be one of the lucky ones given his wide variety of post-Dwight Schrute roles.

“Yeah, I have been very fortunate. I’ve gotten to play a whole bunch of really cool, awesome roles that are very, very different from Dwight over the last seven years,” Wilson shares. “Whether it was Backstrom, which was my failed show on Fox, or my indie films that no one has seen, I’m very proud of my work as an actor; it’s been great. I’ve been really astounded and happy about that.”

Shortly before the Utopia’s Sep. 25 release on Amazon, Wilson also spoke to THR about his Six Feet Under role that kick-started his career, his YouTube docuseries, An Idiot’s Guide to Climate Change, and his latest film, Blackbird, with Kate Winslet and Susan Sarandon.

When Tom Hanks revealed his COVID diagnosis on Mar. 11 and a series of dominoes began to fall from there, did the Utopia cast and crew start blowing up each other phones given the direct parallels?

Absolutely. I remember texting Gillian Flynn and being like, “WTF!” over and over and over again. Like how is this possible? (Laughs.) We wrapped shooting in September of 2019 and by December, there’s a mysterious virus in China. And then, in March, we’re in a pandemic. I mean, it’s crazy that we spent five months just talking about viruses, pandemics, vaccines and conspiracies. Maybe it’s some giant marketing ploy by the Amazon corporation. Maybe these conspiracies are right. Maybe Jeff Bezos is behind this in order to, in a just gruesome way, promote his television show. (Laughs.) That sounds like an episode of Black Mirror.

Because of your role as a virologist, have people in your life — at least the ones who knew about the role — tried to learn as much as they can from you? “Rainn, what can you tell me about fomites?”

(Laughs.) No one has done that because no one had seen the show yet, but it will be interesting now that the show is about to come out. People, for years, still thought that I was Dwight Schrute and would ask me about beet farming and paper selling. So now, maybe we can add viruses to the mix.

We’ll get into this later, but I’ll always think of you as [Six Feet Under’s] Arthur Martin first.

Oh nice! No one’s really asked me about mortician’s advice, like corpse preparation or anything like that.

During the introduction of your character, Dr. Michael Stearns, he pleads for a piece of equipment just so he can “do some science,” and his frustration probably reflects how much of our scientific community feels right now. Is it easy for you to imagine real-life scientists hitting similar roadblocks as they try to solve our various crises?

Well, this speaks to a much deeper and greater problem, and that is how science is funded. Science is only funded if there’s a profit to be made, and grants are only given out by academic institutions if it fits within their agenda. So, underfunded science is literally killing us — and scientists have been saying this for 20 years — because we should have been figuring out a vaccine against the coronavirus starting in the 1980s. If we put even 10 percent less into our military budget and put it into our pandemic budget, we would have saved over 100,000 lives right now, maybe 200,000 lives. So many things are broken in the system; education, healthcare, climate, food, you name it. But science and how science funding works is really colossally broken in our culture as well.

Even in your first scene with John Cusack, his character wants to rush a vaccine without proper trials, and that’s exactly what some parties have pushed for lately. The show already had plenty of parallels to real life, but more of them keep popping up.

Absolutely. Yeah, it’s really uncanny. I have no idea how people are going to react. Are people going to say, “Wait a minute, people are still dying by the thousands every day and you’re doing a show about this?” Is it too soon for people to be watching this as a kind of science-fiction conspiracy version of what’s happening in the real world? Is it too soon? Are the wounds too fresh? Or is it going to kind of hit that sweet spot and be right in the zeitgeist? Are people going to be really ready to experience this as entertainment? I don’t know. It’s a little bit scary. There could be tremendous backlash against Utopia.

Have you watched any pandemic-related material during quarantine? Some people find it to be oddly comforting.

Yeah, I watched Contagion and I did find it to be oddly comforting, even though there were people dying and thousands of body bags. It just allowed me a greater understanding of what might be happening behind the scenes, but that is a very different movie than Utopia. Utopia has some basis in science, but it’s pure science-fiction. It’s completely made-up.

Whenever your character would object on the basis of science, I felt somewhat reassured since there are real Dr. Michael Stearns who are trying to do the same thing for our own world.

Yeah, I think most scientists are Michael Stearns; I really do. I think there are very few rockstar scientists. I think most scientists are devoted to the science; they’re devoted to data. They want to make a positive effect in the world. They are underfunded and under-listened to, but they have a great deal of integrity. So yeah, I think Michael Stearns is the science everyman.

Have you re-contextualized the entirety of the show given what we’re dealing with right now?

No, not so much. It’s just underfunded basement scientist stumbles into international conspiracy. Being an actor, maybe I’m more able than some to kind of differentiate what’s fiction, what’s real life and what’s pretend. But the parallels are truly uncanny. I’m really happy with what we shot, the way we shot it and I wouldn’t change a thing. Looking back in time, it’s not like I go, “Oh, I wish we had done x, y and z,” or wish I had played it a certain way. I think I took his journey very seriously and that’s what’s important. What’s interesting to me about Michael Stearns is that he is the most unlikely hero in any television show ever. He’s a basement-dwelling scientist at the equivalent of some kind of community college — who happens to have a vaccine that works on Peruvian pygmy bats from 20 years earlier — and all of a sudden, he’s put at the center of the world and a giant conflagration that has millions of lives at stake. It’s an amazing journey, and I think it’s handled well in the writing, the directing, and I’m happy with how we played it.

When he’s pleading for that sequencer equipment, I loved that business with the door he fails to slam due to the automatic door closer. It’s not only a great way to illustrate the frustration that Stearns feels at the start of the story, but it’s a moment that most of us have experienced.

(Laughs.) Yeah, he tried to slam an un-slammable door.

As I referenced earlier, I associate you with Six Feet Under above all else, and that’s partially because I haven’t actually seen The Office. But I know how things go for actors coming off of hit shows and the adjustment period that follows as you strive to create a new impression through another character. So what’s that been like for you in the seven years since The Office ended? Has it gone like you expected?

Well, it’s been a very strange rollercoaster because we went from on the verge of cancellation in the first year that we existed and really thinking like, “Oh, this will be one of those shows where we did 13 episodes, it’ll be a cult favorite, but no one’s going to watch it. We’ll go on, we’ll get some cache and we’ll be able to go do a big dumb network sitcom that sticks around for a longer amount of time.” Then, all of a sudden, it became hugely popular in 2007-2008 right out of the gate, and seasons two, three and four were super popular. Then, we started to wane, and people were kind of like, “Been there, done that.” They were on to the next thing, and we really waned by the time Steve (Carell) had left the show. So, no one was really paying attention to us anymore, even though we were still very highly rated in our time slot, back when they had actual time slots for shows. And then, no one really thought about The Office for many years after we ended in 2013. We just weren’t on anybody’s radar whatsoever. It was like, “Oh, remember that old show?”

All of a sudden, I just noticed like, “This is getting recognized. I’m getting recognized more and more. What is happening? It’s not going away. There’s more memes. There’s more pictures. There’s more videos. There’s more YouTube content being shared.” And it was the Netflix effect. I kind of think we were the show that launched Netflix in a weird way. Obviously, they had some other good shows, but I think The Office has been the anchor for Netflix the last five years. The popularity of the show, especially with young people, is ridiculous; I’m talking 10-11 year olds. It’s preposterous. So I don’t know what’s going to happen when it leaves Netflix and goes to another streaming service that people don’t necessarily want to subscribe to, but it’s been an incredible ride. I’m just grateful because I think we made a terrific show that’s got a lot of heart. It also moves people and makes them laugh. It’s been a great balm for people during some really trying times and I hear that all the time. I get messages on my social media — hundreds a day — just like, “Thank you for this show. It’s helped me so much during this time.” And the other oddity is that The Office has gone hand in hand with binge-watching and watching shows over and over again. Although, I don’t know if people watch other shows over and over again. I don’t know if people are like, “Oh, I need to watch Bones for the fourth time,” or something like that, but they’re watching The Office again and again. So that’s weird, but I’m glad people are enjoying it. It’s every actor’s dream to be part of a show that is (a) funny and (b) socially relevant.

Hollywood loves to double down on what they’ve already seen an actor do, but it seems like you’ve been able to avoid playing more Dwight-like characters.

Yeah, I have been very fortunate. I’ve gotten to play a whole bunch of really cool, awesome roles that are very, very different from Dwight over the last seven years. Whether it was Backstrom, which was my failed show on Fox, or my indie films that no one has seen, I’m very proud of my work as an actor; it’s been great. I’ve been really astounded and happy about that.

Six Feet Under is one of the greatest shows ever made. What comes to mind when you think back to that experience?

Well, I was a recurring character. I did 13 episodes, and it was debuting right when this “Golden Age” of television was beginning. So we were on at the same time as The Sopranos, The Wire and Entourage; HBO was really having its moment. There was The Shield, Nip/Tuck and a couple of other great shows out there that had people saying, “Oh wow, you can make television that’s true art, that has as much heft, beauty and complexity as movies.” So I was just so lucky to be a part of it. The casting agents really liked me and would bring me in for a lot of stuff back then when I was tooling around L.A. in my beat-up Volvo, auditioning right and left for little guest stars, co-stars and little spots in movies. They kept trying to get me on the show, I kept auditioning for small roles and I kept not getting cast; I was really bummed out. I knew Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall because we had all gone to NYU together, NYU grad acting. And I just wanted anything, a fun little character role. And then, I actually went in to audition for something like “Gay Choir Member #3” — literally. For a while, Michael Hall’s character was a member of the gay chorus in Pasadena or something like that. But on my way out, I looked on the breakdown sheet and they were introducing this role of Arthur Martin. So I went back to the casting person and was like, “Hey, can I audition for this?” And she went to get approval from the producer, and she said, “Go take a couple of hours and come back to audition.” So as soon as I read the description of the character as Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardner from Being There, I was like, “Oh, I can do this. I can do this blindfolded. I know how to do this character. I know exactly who this strange, creepy mortician is.” Then, I did a camera test, a screen test with Frances Conroy and I got on the show. And it really changed everything. All of a sudden, people knew who I was as an actor. It opened a lot of doors and got me a lot of work, and I’m thrilled to have been part of that. It was an epic, a great American show. I’m surprised there’s no clamor to bring back Six Feet Under. It would be really fun to bring that back somehow.

So I didn’t have any wind at my back before I landed Arthur on Six Feet Under. I got the movie Sahara out of that. I also did this movie Baadasssss!, this independent film with Mario Van Peebles, and then I got The Office. A bunch of other things came down the pipe from that which were really exciting. So I’m super grateful to that role and that experience.

James Cromwell’s Six Feet Under character would fit right in on Utopia, I think. Was your kitchen table showdown over formica and yogurt a terrifying day for you at that point in your career?

(Laughs.) Well, he’s such an incredible actor, but that was really fun. It was such a daring plotline — a love story between a 30-year-old mortician intern and a 60-something year old woman. It had a little Harold and Maude kind of thing going. Fortunately, by the time I was doing those scenes, I had done many episodes. So that was towards the end of my run, and I had more confidence in what I was doing.

An Idiot’s Guide to Climate Change is a docuseries you recently released on SoulPancake’s YouTube channel. You traveled to Iceland and Greenland to learn about climate change firsthand; you even met Greta Thunberg. When I first learned about climate change in the ‘90s, my first question was, “Why would anyone deny scientific consensus?” So when you’re asked that very question, what do you usually say to people?

Well, I don’t want to get political, but I will say that it’s very clear. Al Gore called his movie An Inconvenient Truth because the wholesale changes that humanity needs to make to address climate change is going to require a tremendous amount of inconvenience. It’s going to require fuel emissions standards that are going to make cars more expensive. It’s going to require more electric cars that you have to plug in, that you can’t just gas up everywhere. It’s probably going to require slightly higher, for a limited amount of time, electricity bills as we switch to solar and wind and reusable resources and wean ourselves off of coal, which powers a big third of the country. So these economic issues become big red flags to oil companies, coal companies and power companies, and to certain political elements that want to make unchecked profit quarter after quarter. And then, there was one of the biggest disinformation campaigns ever made. You can trace it; it’s fascinating. In the early ‘90s, the Republicans were on the same page as the Democrats around climate change. You even had George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush saying, “Hey, this is a big issue. We’ve got to look at this.” They were looking at the science and it’s undeniable. And then, with pressure from lobbyists and the oil companies, there’s this about-face, like, “Well, is the planet actually warming?” So then, there was 5-10 years of that. “Is the climate actually warming?” and denial that it’s warming was the big misinformation. Or: “Oh no, it’s actually cooling,” or “It’s not warming that much” or “The scientists are wrong.” Then, it’s like, “Okay it’s warming, but man isn’t causing it. It’s just natural causes.” And then, it switched to, “Okay yes, it is man-made, but how much is it man-made? It may only be 10 percent man-made and 90 percent natural.” And now, it has switched to, “It’s changing and it’s man-made, but everyone is just way overreacting. It’s not going to be nearly as bad as everyone says it’s going to be. Calm down.” It’s that kind of eye-rolling naysaying. So you can trace the disinformation marketing campaign from the ‘90s through now and it’s really fascinating. It’s essentially because people don’t want to change, they don’t want to have to make sacrifices and they don’t want to have to pay more money. But that being said, the changes that we can make — and we can meet the trajectory of The Paris Agreement pretty easily — will make our planet better. They’re ultimately not going to be that much more expensive, and there’s some really easy fixes. So I’m really positive that we can turn things around.

Lastly, can you tell me a bit about Blackbird which recently released on digital?

Yeah, Blackbird is a really risky film. We shot it a year and a half ago in England, and it’s a film about death. I don’t know who the audience is for a film about death. That being said, it’s a beautiful celebration of life. The performances by Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet and so many of the other great actors in it are really indelible. It’s a beautiful film based on a Danish film of the same premise, which is: what happens when the matriarch of a family has ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and decides to take her own life — instead of going through a long, suffering, gruesome death — and brings the family together for a celebration? It was just a joy to film. I do provide some nice, much-needed comic relief to the film, and I just had a wonderful time playing the role. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I hope it finds an audience.

***
Utopia is now available on Amazon Prime.

LATEST NEWS