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Interview: Utopia’s Rainn Wilson

by Leora Heilbronn

In the Amazon Prime Video series Utopia, Rainn Wilson portrays Doctor Michael Stearns, an intelligent, mild-mannered virologist who, without giving away any spoilers, becomes dangerously entangled with Dr. Kevin Christie (John Cusack)’s maniacal plan to spread a global pandemic. To say anything more would ruin the twists and turns in the entertaining, dark humoured Utopia (penned and produced by Sharp Objects‘ Gillian Flynn). During the recent press junket day for the series, we had the opportunity to chat over Zoom video with actor-writer-podcaster-producer Rainn Wilson and the following is a condensed and edited version of that fun interview.

Brief Take: Your co-star Dan Byrd mentioned that his scariest moment on set was when his character had to give your character a strip search, which was terrifying to him as an actor because he was such a big fan of yours. What was your favourite on-set memory?

Rainn Wilson: [laughs] There’s one episode where I get tortured and I’d never been tortured before, so it was really fun to get fake tortured, believe it or not. That was a first for me as an actor.

How do you view your character? 

RW: I view him as being a little bit nerdy, kind of lost basement-dwelling research scientist, not really respected by anyone, and going on a really exciting and outrageous journey. That’s one of the things that really spoke to me – he starts so small and ends up on the world’s stage. It’s very exciting as an actor to play that kind of incredible range, it’s pretty rare, and that was thrilling to me.

How did you craft your portrayal of Dr. Michael Stearns? 

RW: What I like to do as an actor, and many actors like to do this, is look at the journey that the character is taking. So where does Michael Stearns start? He starts in the basement as a research scientist at a dismal, tiny college. He’s disrespected, he doesn’t get any funding, and as he goes along, he finds out that the virus that has erupted and caused a pandemic in Utopia was a virus that he’s very familiar with, one that he discovered. And he’s thrust onto the world stage and he’s a saviour, he’s a hero, he’s a goat, he’s blamed, he’s in the press, and he has an incredible journey to make from someone so small to someone so big. He goes on an absolute and total roller coaster, so that was what was really exciting for me as an actor – to kind of take that roller coaster ride with Dr. Michael Stearns.

Dr. Stearns and your character from The Office, Dwight Schrute, are very similar in that they don’t give up easily. Also, in recent years The Office has found new fans on Netflix and now on HBO Max. How does that make you feel? 

RW: I think there are some parallels between Dwight and Michael, I think that’s interesting. They’re both dogged, that is very true, they have strong wills, and they want to get to the bottom of things. I’m very flattered that people love The Office and have been discovering it because we were a moderate hit when we were on air and when we finished, and now it’s one of the biggest shows in the world, years after we wrapped. It’s amazing and it’s thrilling and I love that audiences all over the world are discovering The Office.

After all these years working the industry, with its many ups and downs, how has that experience shaped you as a person and as a performer?

RW: Being in show business and Hollywood is kind of crazy. It’s very business oriented, it’s very much ‘what jobs are you getting and how much are you getting paid?’ and ‘where is the next job coming from?’, etc. So my job is to kind of put that stuff aside and try and simply focus on the art of transforming into characters. It’s my job to play characters, whether I’m getting 400 dollars in the week for theatre or I’m getting forty thousand dollars a week on television, I just play characters. Goof balls and weirdos and funny guys and serious dudes and scientists and paper salesmen, that’s my job as an actor, that’s how I was trained and that’s what I believe in.

What were some of your challenges when working on this series and what is your take on the show’s resonance on current world events? 

RW: There weren’t many challenges for this show. I think the main challenge for this show was getting the acting style right because it’s kind of funny, it’s very realistic but it’s a little over the top at times, it’s got dark humour but it’s a thriller and realistic. We had no idea that months after we wrapped there would be an international global pandemic that was mirroring what was happening in our show to such a degree. It has incredible resonance, reverberation and repercussions with what’s happening in the real world, and not only that but the relationship to science, the relationship to conspiracy theories, there’s so many issues that Utopia is digging into that are really relevant in this day and age. So it’s exciting to see how an audience will respond.

This show is quite violent at times. How do you feel about the use of violence in television and film? 

RW: Well we’re not as violent as The Boys! [laughs] Listen, audiences expect a certain level of outrageous violence as a part of entertainment and I think that’s OK as long as it’s within certain boundaries. I don’t think what you want to see is a show that’s so violent that it’s out of control and overshadows the story. The violence needs to go hand in hand with the story. Quentin Tarantino’s violence is pretty exceptional but it always seems to be a part of the story. You can’t imagine the story without it in the way that he tells the story. So story is King.

You recently started your own podcast, ‘Hey there, Human!’. Tell me about that experience. 

RW: So I have a digital media company called SoulPancake that has been going strong for ten years now and we have a vital and fun YouTube channel that does a lot of cool work like Kid President and a lot of other great shows. So I wanted to do something positive and uplifting and connecting with people during this pandemic, this really dark time. I wanted to make a show that made people feel connected. I was doing it every day on the SoulPancake Instagram channel and now it’s been every week and we’re going to do a few more weeks on that, and it’s been really fun. I’ve interviewed The Office cast and a lot of really fun people, environmentalists, people who are experts in pandemics, experts in race unity issues and racial justice issues. It’s built a nice little audience and we’ve had a lot of fun with it.

What is your own personal utopia? Something that you’re very passionate about that others may find odd. 

RW: That’s a great question. I think for me, utopia is something to strive for. When I was a kid growing up, people talked about world peace, that world peace was possible. And nowadays if you talk about world peace, people roll their eyes and say, “oh you’re so naive and stupid. World peace is never going to happen.” People are cynical. I think for me, utopia is not being cynical any more but striving to make the world a better place, striving for unity and diversity at the same time. Unity doesn’t mean we’re all thinking the same and looking the same and acting the same. John Lennon said “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”, I think that there’s still some dreamers out there and we need to work hard to make the world a better place.

In the show, John Cusack’s character frequently asks others “What did you do to earn your place in this crowded world?”, so what would be your answer to that? 

RW: That’s a great question. I love that question. I think that’s a great human question and it’s a philosophical question that’s been asked since the days of Sophocles and Plato. Why are we alive and what is our place in this world? I think we all have God given talents and faculties and we have to put those to use and develop our internal resources, and at the same time, give back to others and be generous and try to make the world a better place. Not just make our lives better, but to make other people’s lives better. So that’s what I try and do. I try to make myself a better person, I don’t always succeed, and then I’m always trying to make the world a better place in some way, shape, or form.

What do you hope viewers take away from this show?

RW: I hope that viewers take away from Utopia what an amazing actor I am and how I am an international treasure. No. I want audiences to be entertained by Utopia. It’s a fun and crazy show. It’s wild and outrageous, it’s funny, it’s weird, it’s not like anything they’ve seen before, and at the same time, it has these reverberations in the real world that are pretty extraordinary. So I hope that people enjoy the social commentary that is an underbelly of the show.

Utopia is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video

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Brief Take