Rainn Wilson’s found himself in a new office. Sort of. The actor, who appeared on over 200 episodes of The Office, is moving into a police precinct thanks to Backstrom, his dark, funny new series premiering January 22 on Fox.
On the show, Wilson plays a cop with a gift for solving crimes but no interest in following the rules. His titular character’s got a foul mouth, an unpleasant demeanor and a host of health problems—which, his doctor says, might stem from friendlessness—but those don’t seem to interfere with his ability to get inside the heads of bad guys. Here, Wilson talks about what made him jump at the role, and how it’s bled into his daily life.
Backstrom seems to be made in the grand tradition of police procedural shows. Did you have those in mind?
There is a little bit of a love letter to great 1970s cop shows in Backstrom. There’s a little bit of Kojack, a little bit of Colombo, a little bit of The Rockford Files. Those are the cop shows I loved watching when I was growing up. They’re really interesting, difficult, complex characters at their center, so yes, you get the thrill of solving a crime each week, but you get to know some really fascinating people along the way.
In the pilot alone there are corpses, shootouts and heroin being injected into an eyeball posthumously. What’s the most exciting part of filming this kind of show?
The action is all great, but what’s most interesting to me about the show and about the character of Backstrom is that he’s able to intuitively get into other characters’ minds and souls because he’s so warped himself. He’s so connected to the dark side of the universe that he’s able to get a glimpse into a character’s mindset that no one else is able to. That’s his superpower. So, my favorite scenes are the ones where it’s just Backstrom and the criminal, him almost forcing his mind into understanding their kind of criminal underbelly.
The character is unusually perceptive; he’s almost able to read criminal minds. Do you share his insight?
I’m terrible at reading people.
This role is a real departure for you. What made it appealing?
You know, I got offered the role when I had just finished 200 episodes of The Office, and I almost yelled at my agents for sending it to me. I was like, “In what universe would I like to go back into another TV show right now?” But they said to just read the script, and the character spoke to me. Characters like this just don’t come along often.
He’s broken in a lot of ways.
Unfortunately, a lot of procedural crime shows have pretty one-dimensional characters, but Backstrom, as much as he hates everyone, he hates himself. He’s addicted to everything, but he has a really good heart inside. There’s a great comedy of him having no filter what so ever, so he does the first thing that comes into his head. It’s liberating and fun as an actor when you get to say what shouldn’t be said.
Can you turn him off easily or do you find yourself being overly blunt with people in your real life?
Early on I found that Backstrom has a very dark worldview. He sees the absolute worst in everyone and everything, and in shooting the pilot it kind of seeped into my life. I went through sort of a dark time, but then once I got used to playing the character and got more comfortable in his skin, I was able to let that go in the same way I was able to let Dwight Shrute go after a long week of being Dwight.
You’re playing a cop with a knack for solving mysteries. What’s the greatest mystery that you yourself have ever solved?
I would say I have solved for myself the greatest mystery of them all, which is what does it all mean.
And what’s the answer?
You know the answer is that you’ll never really know, so you try and be a service to people, and do great work, and stay in loving connection with your family and the rest will sort itself out.