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The Untold Truth Of Rainn Wilson

Rainn Wilson was probably destined to become one of his generation's greatest character actors. An intense performer with a memorable face who disappears into his roles, he brings depth and nuance no matter what he's working on. Some of his most notable projects include Galaxy Quest (where he plays a wide-eyed alien), Super (portraying a self-proclaimed superhero), and Mom (showing up as a sad-sack therapist). But Wilson truly belongs to the ages thanks to his nine-season stint as one of the greatest sitcom characters of all-time — the beet-farming, paper-shilling, prank victim Dwight Schrute on the American version of The Office.

Great actors bring as much life experience as they can to their roles in order to imbue characters with emotional realism, and Wilson can definitely do that. The man has led (and continues to lead) an interesting life, and he's built a career on his own terms. Here's a look into the unique world of Rainn Wilson.

How Rainn Wilson got his name

Rainn Wilson has a built-in conservation starter that goes everywhere he does — his non-traditional first name. It's pronounced like "rain," but it contains a second and seemingly unnecessary "n." It's just a coincidence that he sort of shares a name with the form of precipitation for which his hometown of Seattle is famous, as is the similarity to Mount Rainier, the large peak situated not far from Seattle. 

The actor's moniker actually has earnest literary origins. Wilson was born in 1966, right after the Beatnik movement and on the cusp of the hippie counterculture movement. "My parents were like Bohemian living in the late 1960s, and my dad wanted to name me Rainier after the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke," Wilson told Seattle radio station KIRO. "And then everyone thought, 'Oh, everyone will think it's after Mount Rainier.'" Wilson's parents ultimately decided on Rain, but as the actor explained, "Then, 'Rain' was too hippie-ish for them so they arted it up with an extra 'n.'" The actor could've been saddled with an even more unique name. "My mom wanted to name me Thucydides," he revealed.

Rainn Wilson grew up in a haunted house in Nicaragua

Rainn Wilson was born in Seattle, attended college at the city's University of Washington, and considers it his hometown, but he didn't live the entire first two decades of his life uninterrupted in the Pacific Northwest metropolis. According to his book, The Bassoon King, when Wilson was about two years old, his mother divorced his father and left town. That prompted Wilson's dad to take his toddler son and move out of the country. First, the two settled in Mexico City, where the elder Wilson married a fellow Seattle exile before uprooting again in favor of Nicaragua, specifically the remote coastal town of Bluefields, founded by Dutch pirates. 

Therein, the newly blended family lived in a hilltop Victorian mansion, which according to local lore, was famously and thoroughly haunted. Supposedly, the ghost of a ship captain stalked around the attic, turning on a lamp late at night, forever mourning his dead wife. Wilson also said his father reported hearing scraping sounds at odd hours and would wake up to find the kitchen furniture rearranged. The only thing that got the ghosts to scram, Wilson said, was when his father said some prayers for the dead. The family moved back to Washington state shortly after Rainn Wilson turned five.

He could've played a different role on The Office

By the mid-2000s, Rainn Wilson had co-starred in the well-received sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest and enjoyed a 13-episode stint as reserved mortician Arthur on Six Feet Under, but he was nearing the age of 40 and still looking for that big breakthrough role. And it could've been portraying the overconfident and woefully incompetent magician Gob Bluth on Arrested Development. In his memoir, The Bassoon King, Wilson says that he was one of the finalists for the part and waited for his final audition for hours and didn't figure out he was no longer in the running — Will Arnett crushed his try-out and nailed the role virtually on the spot — until someone started locking up the office building. 

Undeterred, Wilson soon secured an audition on another show — an American version of The Office, originally a popular British comedy about the day-to-day workings of a dreary paper company. Casting directors had Wilson read for the part of obnoxious branch manager Michael Scott. "I was terrible. It was awful. It was never meant to be," Wilson told NPR's Fresh Air. However, a different character in the script called out to him. "I was hungering for Dwight. And I knew Dwight was the one that was right in my wheelhouse." He asked if he could read for that part, and he got the job.

Rainn Wilson tried to bring clowning to TV

In between his memorable role as a goofy alien in Galaxy Quest and his career-making stint as Dwight Schrute on The Office, Rainn Wilson starred in a couple of promising TV pilots that were nevertheless unceremoniously rejected by big networks. In 2002, ABC signed comedian Janeane Garofalo to star in Slice O'Life, a sitcom about a producer of human interest stories for a newsmagazine show. Wilson played her quirky sound guy in the pilot, which is as far as the show went. According to an interview with Marc Maron (who co-starred on Slice O'Life) on his podcast WTF (via Yahoo! Entertainment), the table read "went terrible," and things didn't go further than that.

Wilson also nearly starred in what could've been one of the most provocative and unlikely comedy shows in TV history. In the 1990s, the actor was a member of a bizarre clowning troupe called the New Bozena, which Wilson described on WTF as "a really f*****-up Pee-wee Herman" and "slacker vaudeville on acid." A production company signed the troupe, and 20th Century Fox ordered a TV pilot. "It was about these weird, almost nonverbal clowns — a lot of physical comedy," Wilson explained. Executives interfered and wanted to make it into a more traditional sitcom, but the group walked away from the deal instead.

He wrote Dwight Schrute's blog

As the world moved irretrievably online in the mid-2000s, television networks embraced the notion that official show websites could be used to enhance the fan experience by offering supplemental material. NBC and The Office were pioneers in this burgeoning media landscape, offering limited series of "minisodes" about side characters and hosting a consistently updated blog that was "written" by Dwight Schrute. Rainn Wilson played that role on The Office, and he also took responsibility for composing Dwight's online missives — mostly because it was all his idea to do it in the first place.

During The Office, the computers on Dunder Mifflin employee desks were actually hooked up to the internet. Actors could then pretend to look hard at work, like their character, when they were really just messing around online. Wilson was writing an entry on his personal blog one day, and as the actor told The Morning Call, "The producers saw it when they walked by and thought it was funny." He went on to say, "Then NBC wrote to me later to ask if I wanted to do a behind-the-scenes blog, and I said no, but that I would do one as Dwight." And so, he wrote it in character and often while on the set during spare moments of the day when he wasn't filming scenes that required him to speak.

Rainn Wilson caused a lot of mayhem on the set of The Office

Dwight Schrute claims to be a master of karate and weapons-based combat, but footage captured by the in-universe film crew of The Office showed that he usually just resorted to brute force when trying to subdue or overpower his co-workers. But in real life, the actor who portrayed Dwight, Rainn Wilson, didn't know his own strength. In his book, The Bassoon King, Wilson wrote that one of the main things he was known for around the set of The Office was "hurting people." Through various displays of physical comedy that got far too physical, Wilson claimed to have violently struck John Krasinski (Dwight's nemesis, Jim Halpert) in both the eye and the nose with a snowball and with "various other desktop objects." 

Wilson also recalled punching on more than one occasion — and completely by accident — co-stars Phyllis Smith (Phyllis Vance) and Brian Baumgartner (Kevin Malone). While shooting a football game scene, Wilson tackled the much older Creed Bratton (Creed), who he says then toppled into Leslie David Baker (Stanley Hudson), who in turn "fell on top of" Angela Kinsey (Angela Martin). There's also the time he tossed a five-pound dumbbell into the air, which landed on the head of Craig Robinson (Darryl Philbin), and that other time he kicked sand at Baker with such unplanned severity that the actor had to be rushed to a hospital so doctors could treat his scratched cornea.

He could've been vice president (sort of)

In 2008, The Office was at the peak of its first wave of popularity. As the Emmy Award winner for Outstanding Comedy Series and a vital part of NBC's Thursday night schedule, the show made Rainn Wilson into a star, what with his relentless and intense performance as Dunder Mifflin assistant-to-the-regional-manager Dwight Schrute. At the time, Wilson's character was probably the most famous fictional second-in-command in the world, and a powerful real-life politician saw something in the guy that he liked. 

In an interview with The Daily Show, Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain said that he'd selected his running mate — Dwight. Had McCain followed through with the probably illegal selection and won the 2008 presidential election, Wilson's character would've been the first fictional entity to serve as vice president of the United States. Of course, McCain didn't win, and he also officially selected real person and Alaska governor Sarah Palin, instead. 

Still, during an appearance on The Tonight Show, Wilson read a letter purportedly written by Dwight, laying out the terms that would have to be met were he to become the veep. Among those demands, he was to be gifted a flamethrower and Iron Man suit, the right to pilot Air Force One, and the ability to appoint another fictional character, Jack Bauer of 24, as secretary of defense.

Rainn Wilson had a tough time moving on from The Office

Despite his work on the forever popular The Office, Rainn Wilson initially had a hard time getting audiences to accept him in any role that wasn't an order-obsessed paper company cog named Dwight Schrute. In the summer of 2008, Wilson headlined a major motion picture for the first time. In The Rocker, he played a hair metal drummer whose former band goes on to success, but he finds redemption years later as a member of a teenager's garage band. In its opening weekend, it took in $2.6 million, which at the time gave The Rocker the worst financial take ever by a widely released film.

The following Monday morning, Wilson drove to The Office set, listening to L.A. radio show Kevin and Bean, where the hosts discussed the film's historically poor reception. "I started to cry, tears sliding down my cheeks," Wilson wrote in The Bassoon King (via the Los Angeles Times). "Thank God I had a pretty good day job." Unfortunately, that day job wouldn't help with his continuing TV career. When The Office planned to wrap up its nine-season run in 2013, producers put together a Dwight-at-home spinoff called The Farm. Surprisingly, NBC didn't order it to series, and its pilot aired as an episode of The Office. Wilson's first big post-Office job, the darkly comic detective drama Backstrom, didn't fare well, either, running for just one short season on Fox in early 2015.

He's had trouble getting passion projects made

While the American entertainment industry churns out a couple of hundred movies each year, countless others with completed screenplays and production deals that have been announced to the public wind up falling through the cracks and never make it to the big screen. Unfortunately, Rainn Wilson has fallen victim to this harsh side of filmmaking on more than one occasion. 

In 2007, Universal Pictures bought the rights to Renaissance Man, a movie about two presumed murderers who hide out in a Renaissance fair. At the time, Wilson was writing the script with Matt Ross, a buddy of his from the University of Washington and who's best known for portraying tech tycoon Gavin Belson on Silicon Valley. Also in 2007, MTV Films announced it would make Kanan Rhodes: Unkillable Servant of Justice, an action comedy starring Wilson about a deluded process server who thinks he's a James Bond-esque super agent. About a year later, Wilson told The A.V. Club that he'd written Bonzai Shadowhands, a comedy for Juno director Jason Reitman about a ninja who lives in Southern California. Unfortunately, none of these movies were ever produced.

Rainn Wilson is a man of many passions

Rainn Wilson's most famous role is that of Dwight Schrute on The Office, whose job as a salesman at a paper company funds his many eccentric and borderline dangerous interests, such as weapons, martial arts, survivalism, and serving as a volunteer with the local sheriff's office. Similarly, Wilson himself has had a lot of hobbies and passions throughout his life, many of which wouldn't be characterized as broadly popular.

In 2015, he released his memoirThe Bassoon King, and the title reflects the fact that as a child and teen, Wilson played the large and unwieldy orchestral wind instrument for five years. According to an interview with NPR, Wilson also wiled away his high school days playing Dungeons and Dragons, competing as a member of his chess team, and pretending to be a diplomat in the Model United Nations. And as an adult, Wilson took up exotic pet ownership. As of 2015, he and his wife owned a pet zonkey — a zebra crossbred with a donkey — named Derek.

Rainn Wilson started an uplifting media company

While Rainn Wilson couldn't make much headway with his future-forward feature film projects in the late 2000s, he did find an entry into the then-exploding world of short-form online video content. With collaborators Devon Gundry and Joshua Homnick, Wilson launched SoulPancake in 2008, aiming to inject some unabashed positivity into the internet. "[The web] was an extremely negative place, kind of the worst of humanity, and to be quite honest, it kind of p***** me off," Wilson told Forbes. "Everyone thought I was crazy. They'd say, 'The web!? What are you kidding? The web is about porn, auto sales, credit score checks, gossip, and rumors.'" 

Fortunately, SoulPancake quickly blossomed from a quiet YouTube channel with few followers into a full-fledged multimedia operation with more than 4 million subscribers across all platforms who've watched SoulPancake's joyful, fun, and inspiring videos more than 500 million times. Among its most popular features, there's Tell My Story, My Last Days, and the viral Kid President. The operation expanded into publishing with the 2010 spirituality book SoulPancake: Chew on Life's Big Questions, and in 2016, Wilson scored a nice payday when Participant Media (producer of films such as Spotlight and An Inconvenient Truth) bought the company.