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Revenge of the nerd

Special to The Times

RAINN WILSON -- perhaps better known to you as sycophantic, promotion-obsessed paper salesman Dwight Schrute on NBC’s “The Office” -- has a dream for his deluded character. Dwight will marry his love interest Angela (Angela Kinsey), procreate feverishly and create, in Baron Von Trapp fashion, a dynasty of singing Schrutes. “They could sing Amish war anthems, if such a thing exists,” says Wilson. “The two of them would be such a fun train wreck to watch,” says Kinsey.

As train wrecks go, Dwight Schrute is among the most enjoyably cringe-worthy TV has produced. “I love that the writers keep throwing me different things to do,” says Wilson. “I can be a crypto-fascist nerd, but show a lot of colors and textures.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 24, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 24, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Rainn Wilson: An article about Rainn Wilson in Thursday’s Calendar Weekend section said that the actor was writing a film called “Banzai Shadowhands” with Ivan Reitman. The film’s title is “Bonzai Shadowhands,” and Wilson’s writing partner is Jason Reitman.

It was another nerd -- Arthur on HBO’s “Six Feet Under” -- who got Wilson an audition for the lead in “The Office.” The part of Michael ultimately went to Steve Carell, but Wilson nailed Dwight, drawn, as he told one reporter, on “a whole slew of white trash middle managers and gun enthusiasts in my family.”

Two years and a Dwight bobblehead doll later, Wilson, 41, is putting on his sunglasses outside Shutters in Santa Monica in anticipation of a walk on the beach. He apologizes for the shades: “Minor TV celebrity.”

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Make that “minor movie celebrity” after this weekend. Wilson takes a turn for the serious in the new film “The Last Mimzy,” in which he plays a likable science teacher named Larry White who is drawn into a mystical, E.T.-like spiritual quest. “I was moved to tears reading it,” says Wilson of the script, co-written by Bruce Joel Rubin (“Ghost,” “Jacob’s Ladder”). Rubin “always tries to bring a deep current of mysticism to his work that I really respond to.” Better yet, says Wilson, “the character was very, very different from Dwight.”

Larry came late to “Mimzy,” which was in development for 12 years. “His character arose when I realized I needed a counterpoint and an offset to this central fantasy story,” says director Bob Shaye, “one that would be grounded in a character that audiences could relate to. I used Whoopi Goldberg in ‘Ghost’ as an archetype for Bruce. I said, give me a character -- it turned out to be two characters with Larry’s fiancee [Kathryn Hahn] added in -- that are a little bit more for the dating crowd, not just parents and kids.”

Wilson as lure to young lovers. That’s a first. Yet Shaye sought to cast the actor almost from the start -- only to be brought up short by Wilson during their first interview. “Rainn’s really, really smart, very questioning. When I offhandedly said, ‘Just trust me’ on something, he swung around, looked at me and said, ‘You have to earn my trust.’ ”

THAT sort of Schrute-ian fervor developed after some notably geeky formative years. Among Wilson’s childhood pursuits: “collecting fantasy and sci-fi novels [500 or so from the 1970s], which led to my glory years as a pimply adolescent playing Dungeons and Dragons in weekend-long sessions in Seattle.”

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He was given his first name by my “pretty weird” parents who were “not very well off. My dad was a sewer truck dispatcher and an obscure science-fiction novelist. We didn’t have much, but my dad would always say, ‘Whatever books you want, I’ll buy.’ So we’d go to the university bookstore in Seattle and I’d come home with 15 science books and he wouldn’t blink an eye.”

Midway through his high school years in the early ‘80s, the family moved from Seattle to Chicago so Wilson’s parents could work at the national center for the Bahai religion -- a faith that Wilson left for a while before embracing it again eight years ago. “It’s hard to describe a whole faith in a nutshell,” says Wilson of Bahai, which was founded in Iran in 1844 and forbids alcohol and drugs. “Basically Bahais believe there’s only one god and one religion that’s constantly refreshed by prophets throughout the ages. So I believe in all the great religious prophets -- Buddha, Christ and Muhammad. It’s pretty open-minded.”

Chicago was where Wilson discovered acting, via a high school drama class. There was the usual baptism of embarrassment in the school play, and then a move to New York after graduation to study in NYU’s Graduate Acting Program. He filled the next decade with theater work, including Shakespeare and off-Broadway, but he found that world even phonier than Hollywood.

“It’s all under the auspices of, ‘We’re all artists trying to bring these great plays to life’ -- that’s pure hypocrisy,” says Wilson. “Like with movies, it’s who you know, what makes sense for the box office and if you’ve got a name that will sell tickets or drum up some publicity. There were certain theaters that wouldn’t even let me audition after working that hard and that long there -- roles that I was perfect for.”

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He met his wife-to-be, Holiday Reinhorn, in an acting class. Now together 14 years and married for 11, they scuffled in New York for much of that time, surviving, says Wilson, “on low-paying theater jobs and the government teat of unemployment.”

“He was treated like crap there,” confirms “Mimzy” costar Hahn, who began her career in New York theater as well.

When Wilson’s landlord offered him and Reinhorn $15,000 to vacate their apartment, the couple stuffed their possessions (including pit bulls Oona and Harper) in an SUV and drove west, partly because of a producer’s prediction that Wilson’s “slacker vaudeville” comedy show, “The New Bozena,” would catch hold here. Wilson and Einhorn settled in an Oakwood complex. (“The other Oakwood, in Koreatown -- kind of a cesspool area at 3rd and Vermont.”) As it turned out, an agency assistant had seen “Bozena,” and Wilson was offered the role of an android in the 1999 pilot for the NBC sitcom “The Expendables.” The show tanked, but that led to small parts in the films “Almost Famous” and “Galaxy Quest.” “Oh, man,” he recalls thinking, “I’m off and running, practically a star.” He didn’t work for a year after that.

“Six Feet Under” in 2003 was the turning point for Wilson’s career, and Reinhorn got her big break in July 2005: the publication of a well-reviewed collection of short stories, “Big Cats,” and a subsequent two-book deal with Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Their son, Walter, was born in 2004.

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WILSON is a very engaging if laid-back lunch companion. That is until his manager stops by the table with his toddler son. The actor is immediately on his feet, demanding a sequence of high-fives that make Wilson yelp in histrionic pain, to the kid’s escalating delight. Wilson keeps it up until the pain is too much. Then he sits back down with the seeming contentment of a man who has vowed to use his powers only for good.

The only time during the interview that Wilson seems even mildly uncomfortable is after the possibility of an “Office” spinoff with Dwight as the star is raised. “I can’t imagine the show without Steve,” says Wilson. But Carell is fast becoming a big-screen star; in fact, after recently shooting “The Office’s” 50th episode, the show went on hiatus for four months so that Carell could shoot “Get Smart.”

Then again, Wilson isn’t exactly idling. There’s “an indie dramedy -- or is it dromedary?” called “Laws of Motion” with Hilary Swank, who, “astonishingly enough, if that can be believed, would play my wife,” says Wilson. He’s also currently writing (under a deal with Fox Searchlight, in partnership with director Ivan Reitman) a film called “Banzai Shadowhands,” “It’s about a regular guy living in L.A. who’s a former ninja,” says Wilson, who considers “Blade Runner” and “Alien” to be examples of perfection in filmmaking.

Hahn believes Wilson’s career possibilities are endless. “Rainn radiates confidence,” she says. “I think the experience in New York fortified him in that way. You either say, ‘I’m not going to chase after this anymore,’ or you say, ‘Dammit. I’m better and smarter than the rest of them.’ And I think he chose ‘B,’ and I’m so glad he did -- he’s an unbelievable addition to our pop culture vocabulary.”

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WILSON’S confidence is also tied up in the actor’s family life and Bahai faith. (The religion doesn’t have clergy; the faithful often meet at one another’s homes. Wilson has spoken at various Bahai events around Los Angeles.) “Rainn’s holding onto his priorities. He’s got nothing to lose because he’s got this amazing other life,” observes Hahn, who reveals that she and her costar allayed the boredom of acting in front of green screens during “Mimzy” by giving each other vicious wedgies.

And as befits a man who gives wedgies, Wilson -- on his way to meet his wife and son near the Santa Monica Pier -- sizes up his career. “I think I will always be at the dorky kids’ table,” he says. “It seems like wherever I go, there’s always the cool kids that have their posse and they sit at a certain lunch table, and no matter where I went and where I’ve been, I’ve never been with the cool kids. Even now, in L.A., it’s the whole Judd Apatow, Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen crowd that are creating all the really cutting-edge comedies. And they’re fantastic. But I’ll always be sitting with the chess team and the kids from model U.N. And that’s OK with me.”

weekend@latimes.com


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