Thinking outside the cubicle

Special to The Times

RAINN WILSON is standing on the rooftop of a low-rise loft building downtown on an unseasonably cold summer night. The wind is whipping the long hair of his wig onto his face, and that, combined with his slacker ensemble of an untucked blue shirt, jeans and sneakers, gives the impression that Wilson is a relic of the late ‘80s.

The look, of course, is part of the joke. Wilson, who is best known as the uptight Dwight Schrute from the NBC comedy series “The Office,” is on the set of “The Rocker” (opening Aug. 1), where he’s playing washed-up drummer Robert “Fish” Fishman, who was unceremoniously dumped 20 years earlier from a rock band that went on to superstardom. Now, Fish is back with a shot at redemption as the drummer for a teen band.

On this night, the film crew is wrapped in thick sweaters and jackets, but Wilson perseveres without those layers. He’s working out a climactic scene: Fish is incensed that his new band is slated to open for his old supergroup and launches into a tirade until a bandmate’s mother, played by Christina Applegate, gives him a passionate kiss.

“Keep the pace up,” yells director Peter Cattaneo, who wants Applegate and Wilson to repeat the scene immediately. “Almost without breath!” For the next hour, the two work over the same lines. It’s past midnight, but Wilson’s energy is still high despite the grueling six-days-a-week shooting schedule and the late-night start times.


Similar to Fish, Wilson is also having a late coming-of-age -- it’s the 42-year-old actor’s first lead role on a feature film. “It’s a bigger jump than I thought,” Wilson says during the 1 a.m. “lunch” break. “As a lead, you are driving the story. For ‘The Office,’ Dwight is a response to Michael Scott, but here . . . my role is the motivating story. I had to adjust.”

So far, his costars -- who include comedians Will Arnett, Jason Sudeikis and Demetri Martin as well as teen idols Emma Stone and Teddy Geiger -- think he’s adjusting well. “He’s a thoughtful actor, and that’s very important,” says Applegate. “He doesn’t just do things for laughs. He’s an actor first, funnyman second.”

And while Wilson is adjusting, so is Hollywood to the idea of him as a veritable star. The studios were at first reluctant to allow him to play the part. Producer Tom McNulty took the script, with Wilson attached as the lead, to Fox Atomic. “They’ve always said they wanted to break new comedic talent, and we told them they should go with this guy.” As it happens, the day before he was to meet with the studio, an episode of “The Office” aired in which Wilson throws watermelons off a roof. McNulty showed the Fox executives the scene and they were sold. “They loved it,” McNulty says.