In the pop culture pantheon, character actor Rainn Wilson commands a status somewhere between icon, guru and field marshal -- for geeks.
Audiences know Wilson for playing cerebral weirdos such as the creepy man-child Arthur on "Six Feet Under" and his Emmy-nominated role as would-be corporate alpha male Dwight Schrute on NBC's "The Office." Even when Wilson appears as himself on talk shows or publicity tour interviews, he comes across as a soft-spoken brainiac, from his dark-rimmed glasses and hipster neckties to his knowing wisecracks about the likes of Maroon 5.
For The Rocker, Wilson enjoys the change of pace of a character who doesn't think too much. He plays Robert "Fish" Fishman, who suffers a career comparable to Pete Best. Instead of being the former percussionist for the Beatles, Fish played drums for the ridiculous, fictional '80s hair-metal act Vesuvius, whose popularity erupted just after his firing. Fish receives a second shot at rock stardom when his nephew's band needs a drummer for the prom.
I asked Wilson why drummers tend to be the unreflective wild men of rock music, and Wilson replied, "Because they're idiots. There's a very particular kind of psychology to someone who chooses, when other people are making melodies, to bang away with great ferocity, behind them. You're a big monkey-kid with ADD, which drummers kind of have to be."
ADD happens to be the name of Fish's new band, which discovers viral popularity when footage of Fish practicing in the nude leaks to the Internet. The Rocker follows along the lines of a Will Ferrell comedy and occasionally shows Wilson in tighty-whiteys or less. "It's funnier to have me not work out, to be as pale and flabby as I naturally am for the audience's enjoyment. I think people have really responded to the movie because when you see nudity in Hollywood films, it's usually really hot bodies. Even Jason Segal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall – he's got a nice bod, he works out and he's got a big dick. So they're not used to seeing a pale, flabby, normal guy naked, and it's really sent America into a tizzy."
It required a different mode of acting from Wilson's usual brand of sly scene stealing to carry an entire film. "I'm always in reaction to other actors and bouncing off other actors, but Fish drives this story. So for the first couple of days, it was me doing my first couple of takes like I'm used to doing, and the director coming in and going 'No, no, you've got to move this along and drive this forward and really try to get what you want.' So I really had to shift gears."
As a hard-partying lout who eventually learns his lesson, Fish doesn't give Wilson as many chances to display the reined-in stillness that can make his roles seem more grounded and less cartoonish, despite their absurd behavior. "I think it's an important part of acting to just 'be,' to find those moments when you can just feel and breathe and live as the character. That can really allow the audience into the character. They can project their thoughts into the world of the character."
He's surprised at the extent to which audiences project onto "The Office's" Dwight Schrute, Dunder Mifflin's tetchy assistant (to the) manager. "What's amazing to me is that Dwight is such an oddball, from how he comports himself to the fact that he's got a beet farm, but people identify with him so much. They know people in offices who are like him. I used to say that people love to hate Dwight, but it's not really true. People just love to love Dwight."
Wilson's work on "The Office" as Dwight, from delivering a fascist speech at a sales meeting to collapsing over a failed office romance, is arguably more raw and close to the punk-rock spirit than The Rocker's familiar plot. Even Wilson's script-in-progress Bonzai Shadowhands, in which he plays a down-and-out former ninja, places Wilson at the nexus of nerdy obsessions. "This is kind of the age of the geek in American culture. There's a big crossover that happened when all of a sudden, geeks were running the media, you've got geek rock stars like Beck and Weezer, Microsoft, and all of a sudden they're seen in a different way. It really is Revenge of the Nerds on a national scale, and Dwight is the poster boy for that," Wilson says.
Wilson showed his savvy with Internet culture by personally writing Schrute Space, Dwight's blog, for "The Office" for three-and-a-half years. "I think I was the first person to blog in character on the TV show. I thought it would be something that would be fun to do and reveal a different side of Dwight. That was early on in the show, and we were doing anything we could to help promote the show. The Internet was a very valuable tool. It was really the success of the show on iTunes and the fans spreading the word about it out on the Web that took it from a tiny cult show to a popular mainstream hit."
Wilson finds the downside of online popularity to be a loss of privacy. "There's literally [videos] of me on YouTube eating my lunch. Just the other day someone was filming me at baggage claim, just waiting for our suitcases to come out. What am I supposed to do? If I go over and say 'Could you not do that?' they'll probably film that, and that'll end up on the Web, and I'll be a dick. So I just try to ignore it."
Given "The Office's" Schrute Space blog and The Rocker's Naked Drummer YouTube clips, it may not be surprising that some people expect the same kind of transparency from Wilson himself. Fans can give Rainn Wilson his personal space and still, as his alter ego would say, "Join the Dwight army of champions!"