TELEVISION

For 'Backstrom's Rainn Wilson, oddball roles just come naturally

Quirkiness is nothing new for Rainn Wilson, an actor with a pronounced affinity for oddball roles

From a car parked near his home in Agoura Hills, Rainn Wilson is musing about Everett Backstrom, the misanthropic detective he plays in the new Fox series "Backstrom," when he stops midsentence.

"OK, this is crazy. Hold on a second," he says via cellphone. "My entire family is walking down the street with our zonkey and our mini-horse and our dogs."

The actor, squeezing in an interview on his way home from the airport, is pleasantly surprised to see his wife, author and horse trainer Holiday Reinhorn, and their son, Walter, out for a stroll. Wilson says that in addition to the two pit bulls, the mini-horse and the zonkey — a zebra crossed with a donkey, in case you were wondering — their household includes three horses, several guinea pigs and a dozen or so fish.

"It's very eccentric," he says. No kidding.

But then quirkiness is nothing new for Wilson, an actor with a pronounced affinity for oddball roles and an earnest, spiritual side in an industry more prone to cynicism. The 48-year-old, a devout Bahai, first broke through as Arthur Martin, a wonderfully creepy mortuary intern on the HBO drama "Six Feet Under." But he is best known as Dwight Schrute, the aggressively nerdy paper salesman, beet farmer and karate enthusiast he portrayed for nine seasons on NBC's "The Office."

Wilson's weirdo streak continues in "Backstrom," which premiered Thursday. Based on a series of novels by Swedish author Leif G.W. Persson and adapted for television by "Bones" creator Hart Hanson, the procedural centers on Everett Backstrom, a Portland, Ore., detective whose bleak view of humanity gives him unusual insight into the criminal mind.

Though both characters lack in certain social graces, Backstrom is anything but a Dwight redux; for starters, he has a much better haircut; he's also the lead character in a one-hour drama rather than a wacky supporting player in an ensemble sitcom.

The project came to Wilson just days before he wrapped production on the final episode of "The Office" in spring 2013. "It really was the perfect run, which is a very rare thing in television," he says of the much-loved mockumentary.

NBC had passed on a perhaps too out-there Dwight spin-off called "The Farm," news that came as both a disappointment and a relief to Wilson, who was ready for a break from the grind of a network series. When his agents called to tell him about the "Backstrom" pilot, he says he "almost hung up on them," but the script was "was too good for me to let go."

"Parts with this much richness to them and this much complexity just don't come along very often for anybody, let alone old weird-looking guys like myself," he added.

A hard-drinking lonerwith a disastrous diet and a penchant for politically incorrect insults, Backstrom is both brilliant and difficult, as is seemingly required of all television detectives. But prickly as he is, Backstrom has been toned down considerably from the character in Persson's novels; there, he "has absolutely no redeeming qualities," Hanson says. "That might be OK for a cable show, but on a network show, he had to be actually good at his job if nothing else."

Hanson, who'd been impressed by Wilson's performance as a bereaved, pill-popping father in the 2011 indie movie "Hesher," says the actor was on his short list from the beginning. The writer-producer met with Wilson the day he finished "The Office"; within two weeks, they were filming the pilot in Vancouver, Canada, which stood in for Portland.

Fox picked up the project after CBS declined to order it to series, and Wilson spent much of last year filming 13 episodes in Canada. Being away from his family was terrible, he says. "If the show continues, we will all have to become Vancouverites — acting super duper friendly and helpful, following hockey and eating doughnuts at Tim Hortons."

In addition to his comedic skills, which help soften some of Backstrom's rougher edges, Wilson brings a much-needed vulnerability to the part, says Hanson. "Every once in a while, if you squint and look the right way at Rainn Wilson, you can see an 11-year-old boy. There's just something unformed about him."

Unformed, maybe, but Wilson also elevates his performances with a delightful specificity. In an email, "Office" show runner Greg Daniels noted how Wilson made Dwight "more than a nerd" by combining distinct and seemingly contradictory traits. "There was this strong farmer strain, mixed with the Amish and the Asian enthusiast and the heavy metal enthusiast," Daniels wrote in his email. "Rainn turned it all into a unique portrayal."

By his own account, Wilson also understands what it's like to be something of a misfit. In the introduction to his book, "SoulPancake," an offshoot of the popular spirituality website he co-founded, Wilson shares memories of an early childhood spent in a coastal village in Nicaragua, where he had a sloth and a monkey for pets. His bohemian parents were adherents of the Bahai faith, which teaches unity among world religions; they eventually relocated to suburban Seattle, by which point Wilson was "used to being the odd duck."

Wilson was a chess-loving, triangle-playing member of the high school marching band when he discovered acting; he moved east at age 20 to pursue theater at New York University. After a decade or so of debauched agnosticism, Wilson drifted back to the religion he grew up in and is now one of the most visible members of the Bahai faith. On Twitter, where he has 4 million-plus followers, Wilson shares links about Bahai beliefs in between lighthearted quips about "The Hobbit" and the Seattle Seahawks.

Wilson sees his work as a performer as an extension of his spirituality. Paraphrasing a Bahai teaching, he says, "The making of art is the same as prayer; that is to say that when you put your paintbrush to the paper, it is the same as if you were at prayer in the temple.... A great song or a great performance or a great story is as moving as any prayer, and as important."

That's not to say Wilson is humorless or overly reverent about his work; quite the opposite, according to Daniels, who says the actor is "very mischievous and profane" on set. ButWilsondraws the line at participating in projects that "make the world a worse place," such as the (unnamed) "coarsely, grossly cynical" comedy in which he was recently offered a role. "Literally, my eyes began to bleed as I was reading," he says. "I don't think positive entertainment needs to be treacly or sentimental or syrupy or wishy-washy; I think it can just be freaking awesome."

That's where his website and media company, SoulPancake, comes into play. Though not affiliated with any religion, SoulPancake, which has 1.4 million subscribers on YouTube, is a reliable destination for inspirational content, such as videos starring the adorable Kid President character and a clip about a cancer-stricken teenage musician.

One might wonder how Wilson reconciles his beliefs with a character like Backstrom, a nihilist who asks his Indian doctor, "If you Hindus are so smart, how come 98% of you live at the dump?"

"Who I attempt to be, and often fail at, is very different than the characters that I play," says Wilson. "I don't see any conflict in that at all, because I'm an artist and an actor."

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'Backstrom'

Where: Fox

When: 9 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)

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