Not Just a Paper Salesman: Rainn Wilson at The Cambridge Union

Alice Byrne 5 February 2021
Image Credits: The Cambridge Union

In November 2020, Rainn Wilson sat down with Leo Markakis at the Cambridge Union. He’s best known for playing Dwight Shrute on the NBC television series ‘The Office’, a role which earned him three consecutive Emmy nominations, but his more recent roles include a recurring appearance on ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, and the recently released Gillian Flynn adaptation of ‘Utopia’. He also founded the website and Youtube channel SoulPancake, which has over three million subscribers, and he co-wrote the New York Times bestseller ‘SoulPancake: Chew on Life’s Big Questions’.

Considering it’s a virtual interview, Wilson comes across well. He’s warm, genuine, and quick to make the interviewer feel at ease. When asked about suggestions that he wants to avoid playing another character like Dwight Shrute, he dismisses them as a fabrication of the internet. He says that he loved playing the role, yet to a 39-year old version of himself just about to start filming the show, the advice he would give would be to ‘fasten your seatbelt!’ The reception of ‘The Office’ led almost immediately to multiple offers to star in films and commercial campaigns. He stresses that the type and amount of fame that the stars of the show achieved was an intense one, especially for an actor who had been largely unemployed in the 14 or 15 years before.

With this sudden onset of fame entered dedicated and sometimes obsessive fans. Wilson states that it was a strange sensation, especially for a self-proclaimed ‘strange-looking’ and previously unknown actor. It must be depersonalising, being heckled and stared at, but Wilson remains good-humoured when talking about it, although his enthusiasm for the ability to wear a medical face-mask in the current pandemic possibly belies his reluctance to be spoken to by enthusiastic strangers. However, he’s gracious towards these avid ‘The Office’ fans and the fact that the television show has evidently helped a lot of people through difficult times.

It must be depersonalising, being heckled and stared at, but Wilson remains good-humoured when talking about it, although his enthusiasm for the ability to wear a medical face-mask in the current pandemic possibly belies his reluctance to be spoken to by enthusiastic strangers.

Wilson stars in the science fiction television drama ‘Utopia’, which was adapted from the 2013 British original of the same name. He remarks on the fact that, like The Office, this is ‘another British show that has been turned into an American show’. The latter adaptation was cancelled after one season in late November, and Wilson laments the ‘criticism and vitriol’ which apparently emerged from British audiences in response. He remarks that it reveals an ‘old-school British nationalism’, which is an interesting comment. It could also be put forward that ‘The Office’ was an exception to the rule; a rare occasion where an American adaptation was brilliant in its own right. While Wilson seems to blame the cynicism of the British, it is often the case that the original simply cannot be topped.

While Wilson’s views on this ‘acidic fandom’ of the original version of ‘Utopia’ may be influenced by his role on the American version, one can sympathise with the often damaging effects of online trolls. He describes his experience early days of acting, in the show ‘Six Feet Under’, and the first series of ‘The Office’, stating that it was ‘heartbreaking’ to receive this vicious criticism. He seems to have come out the other side of this trolling; even though this online abuse has not relented, now he ‘doesn’t give a fuck’.

Perhaps Wilson’s most significant endeavour outside of ‘The Office’ is his media company, SoulPancake. The initial idea behind the platform, which exists mainly as a Youtube Channel, was to get young people talking more about ‘life’s big questions’. He believes that the younger generations have been ‘swindled’ by society into an unquestioning attitude towards capitalism, and into ignoring fundamental issues such as human rights and social justice. The aim of this creation, therefore, is to ask big questions – ‘why are we alive? What happens after we die? What is consciousness?’. The company has also organised debates, bringing people from the political right and political left to talk about ‘human’ issues rather than partisan politics.

He believes that the younger generations have been ‘swindled’ by society into an unquestioning attitude towards capitalism, and into ignoring fundamental issues such as human rights and social justice.

At one point, Wilson describes himself as a ‘middle-aged, paunchy dad’. He said it, not me, but it’s true; for someone who starred in one of the best American sitcoms of all time, he’s remarkably down-to-earth. However, his intelligence shines through in every example: in his own words, he does seem ‘much more like a nerdy scientist than like a fascistic paper salesman beet farmer’.