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Rainn Wilson Talks Hart Hanson’s Brilliant and Ballsy Backstrom

BY Jennifer Griffin

Published 7 years ago

From Bones creator Hart Hanson, Backstrom about to make a splash on FOX this Thursday.

The series stars Rainn Wilson as Everett Backstrom, an unhealthy, offensive, irascible – albeit brilliant – detective who is brought back from disgrace to run the Portland Police Bureau’s Special Crimes Unit (S.C.U.).

Tasked with navigating the city’s most sensitive and serious cases, he must solve each crime as he tries, and fails, to change his own self-destructive behavior.

ScreenSpy sat down with Wilson this week to discuss the show’s often outrageous tone, why audiences may warm to this damaged character, despite his many flaws, Hanson’s pitch perfect balance of drama and humor, and how Thomas Dekker’s character Valentine will surprise us all over the course of the first season.

Full highlights from our call follow below.

Having played Dwight on The Office for nine years, how did it feel to step into the shoes of a very different character like Everett Backstrom?

Rainn Wilson: Doing another TV show was kind of the last thing I wanted to do right away after The Office, after working so hard and for so long on that character. But when I read the character of Backstrom it was kind of like, oh, darn it, this is too good, this is too rich, it’s too interesting and it just drew me in incredibly. I couldn’t say no. It’s such a rich, multi-faceted character that I had to take it; and they don’t come along very often, especially for weird looking middle-aged character guys like myself. So, to get a role this interesting for an actor such as myself was just a Godsend and Hart Hanson is an incredible writer who can balance the drama and the humor, the absurdity at the same time so effortlessly so it all fits in into one tone.

Backstrom was originally developed at CBS. Did FOX make any changes to the original brief? 

Rainn Wilson: Well, we always knew it was going to be very tricky at CBS. CBS is not really known for its likeable characters. It really is known for its ensemble procedurals where characters are not as important on the CBS shows. This is a show all about character. Everyone in the ensemble has a very strong point of view and is very quirky in their own way.

So the adjustment really was going ‘Goodie! Yippee! We’re on FOX! Now we can do something a lot more interesting, and take a lot more risks. It’s still network television – it’s not like a show that we could do if we were on FX or AMC, but for network television I think we’re trying to push the envelope in some really interesting ways. We have some very weighty episodes and we have some really comic episodes, too, but Hart Hanson walks that tightrope in his writing very well.

Rainn Wilson as Detective Everett Backstrom (R) and Dennis Haysbert as Detective Sergeant John Almond (L). Co. Cr: Frank Ockenfels/FOX

Rainn Wilson as Detective Everett Backstrom (R) and Dennis Haysbert as Detective Sergeant John Almond (L). Co. Cr: Frank Ockenfels/FOX

Backstrom has faced some criticism for being offensive to just about every minority out there. What’s your take on his attitude? 

Rainn Wilson: Once you get to know Backstrom you’ll see that it’s really not racism like you think of it. He hates himself more than anyone. So he’s racist against whites and blacks and any other race; and he is sexist against men as he is sexist against women. He just is an all purpose hater.

Did you draw inspiration from any particular source for this role?

Rainn Wilson: I would say the only inspiration that I had is growing up watching Columbo and watching The Rockford Files. I was really excited about the kind of old school nature of the show. There’s nothing slick about this show. Well, you know, I have a few little montages here and there, but it really is an old school, it’s kind of cut from the 70s kind of detective show. You know, a quirky character that is not a leading man, who is struggling to get by in the world, kind of an anti-hero and with some really major flaws who happens to be pretty brilliant at solving crimes. So that would be my only inspiriation, my main inspiration.

Other than that, it was really figuring out who this guy was; doing the acting work, the rich, detailed acting work. I’m not saying that I was very good at it. I tried to do the rich, detailed acting work that was exploring who this guy is, how he sees the world, how he sees the world through his particular work lens and his choices accordingly – where does that come from? What’s it like to really be in his shoes and see the world the way he does? There’s a lot of pain there, but there’s also a lot of humor.

What’s Backstrom’s best quality?

Rainn Wilson: I think that Backstrom’s best quality is sensitivity. I think that anyone who is outwardly so insensitive, that has to come from somewhere; and it comes from a history of abuse, abandonment and neglect that he has gone through. Not trying to get all psychobabble on you; but he truly is a deeply, deeply sensitive person. He’s just been twisted and worked so much that it comes out sideways. What’s his worst quality? He’s selfish and puts himself first.

Are we going to learn more about Backstrom’s unique relationship with Valentine (Thomas Dekker)?

Thomas Dekker as Gregory Valentine. Co. Cr: Chris Helcermanas-Benge/FOX

Thomas Dekker as Gregory Valentine. Co. Cr: Chris Helcermanas-Benge/FOX

Rainn Wilson: Yes, there’s definitely something going on there. There is some juicy connection between those two; between Thomas Dekker’s character, Valentine, and Backstrom. You will definitely find that out. That’s one of the great things about what Hart has done on this show is you go on a wonderful little story arc for the first 13 episodes. You get to know Backstrom’s father [Robert Forster] you get to know his ex-fiancée, and these kind of mysteries of who he is and why he is the way he is are revealed and that’s one of the interesting mysteries of it.

Thomas Dekker is truly one of the very best actors I have ever worked with in my life. He’s astonishingly good. He’s so quick and he can go from high comedy to deep tragedy on the drop of a dime and he’s just a fascinating person and he creates fascinating characters. And so it just was this rich world of this relationship between the two of them. We always knew that it was there, but it just really blossomed and grew over the episodes. So you’ll see more and more of Valentine as this series goes along.

Do you remember Angel from Rockford Files? He always had this like kind of weaselly guy that was really funny that was always giving choice tidbits of information. You were always really excited when you saw Angel on the screen because you knew it was going to be really interesting. That’s kind of the role that he originally was meant to be and then he just became much, much more than that as we went along. I can’t say enough good things. I can’t wait to talk again to you after the mystery is revealed, and then we can really kind of talk deeper about that relationship.

Give us three reasons to tune into Backstrom on Thursday.

Rainn Wilson: Three reasons why they should tune in to the show? One, they get to see me almost naked a lot. Two, I think I’ve rarely seen a network show that balances humor and the dark edge of the underbelly of the human condition so nicely. And, three, what else can I tell you about three? Every episode is surprising in some way that you haven’t seen before. So there is a nice surprising aspect. Four, which you can actually substitute for one, would be it’s a terrific ensemble of actors.

Backstrom premieres Thursday January 22nd at 9 p.m. on FOX.

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