Ryan Wilson: “I’ve had clients, like: You need to fix your teeth, build a lot of muscle” | Movie
sActors associated with the signature role will get tired of talking about it. No value like that from Ryan Wilson, who appeared on camera from his Los Angeles home wearing a gray Scranton T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Scranton.” That city in Pennsylvania provided the setting for the American version of the satirical sitcom the desk, which ran for nine award-winning series. Wilson received three Emmy Award nominations for his role as Dwight’s Angry Abominable, the Rust Belt equivalent of Gareth Mackenzie Crook. His beard and baseball cap today, as well as his sassy demeanor, cancel every memory of the sticky face, DIY haircut and amazing expression he wore on that show.
Wilson has starred in everything from Juno to Transformers revenge of the fallen Shark, Jason Statham Meg, but he knows that any conversation will inevitably lead to the office. “Dwight is the part that I’m most famous for and always will be,” says the 55-year-old. “And that’s good for me.” First, though, there’s his new movie to be discussing. In Don’t Tell a Soul, a cross between A Simple Plan and Paranoid Park, he plays a humble security guard who goes on a hunt after encountering two teenage brothers (Fionn Whitehead and Jack Dylan Grazer) who rob a home in rural Kentucky. During the chase, he sinks into a hole in the forest floor, leaving the boys with absolute power over him. The question is not whether they will use it, but how.
This isn’t the first time Wilson has been under six feet – he’s got a big break Alan Ball hit the HBO series with that name In the early 2000s, he played Arthur the dreaded The Undertaker. But when I ask what it was like spending most of the “don’t tell the soul” period at an underground level, he shyly admits that the “manhole” was actually a room built above the ground, with a door in the side and a platform at the top to which the other actors could climb to look at him. “I get a little claustrophobic,” he says.
The segment presented its own challenges, even if overcoming claustrophobia isn’t one of them. “We see a lot of different sides of my character over the course of the movie. He’s lovable, pitiful, despicable. He has some real dark sides to him.” Moral ambiguity is one area in which Wilson excels: he feels comfortable when the audience isn’t. In black comedy الكوميدي Excellent, he played a superhero who is actually nothing greater than an evil bodyguard in a cloak. In the psychological thriller The Boy, an insurance con artist is hiding in a hotel after his wife’s death.
On screen, he can be eerily reserved and inaccessible, cranky and goofy, as he’s like a naive alien in Galaxy Quest or a failed drummer in The Rocker. His ability to embody these disparate traits is believed in part to be an accident in physiognomy. “When you put a camera on someone, you see a lot of what is already there,” he says. “To me, it’s like – I don’t even want to go straight to ‘weird’ – but I’m a gay-looking guy who probably has a comedic side, just because I have that big, weird face. I’ll never be Josh Brolin no matter how I want to.”
This was a lesson he learned in his early days as an actor. “I’ve had clients, like: ‘You need to get your teeth fixed, build a lot of muscle and lose weight.’ But I realized early on that I was in imitation of the character actor. Also, wise, I’m weird! I play chess, I play bassoon, I read science fiction. I’m not out hunting, or driving a truck or…” He raises his hands in mock exasperation. “What are men even doing in their spare time? Trout gut?”
Wilson grew up mainly in the suburbs of Seattle and Chicago. However, he spent nearly three years of his young life in Nicaragua with his father and stepmother, who were adherents of the Baha’i faith (as Wilson is still). In his autobiography The Bassoon King, he recounts the Mesoamerican period of his childhood in shimmering and sometimes disgusting detail. No one reading the book will easily forget the scene in which young Wilson spews a 10-inch round worm out of his body (“I had a curious sensation about the little wind chimney…”)
Under his drab, suburban exterior, he writes, there will always be a “treasury of hidden memories that includes monkeys, woodland, worms, and glowing beetles.” He smiles appreciatively when I read that line to him. “It gives you a different perspective when you live abroad,” he says. “You may grow up getting Slurpees on 7/11 or going trick-or-treating, but you carry with you the knowledge that the world is a bigger, more mysterious place.”
As a wandering Bohemian, Wilson’s father and stepmother were role models he felt he should live up to, and perhaps even compete with. “They had strong personalities, but I wanted to set myself apart.” His son, who is 16, is going through something similar. “A celebrity baby is a weird situation you have to be in,” he said. “How can he achieve his identity?”
Wilson’s father, who died last year, published a science fiction novel, Dawn sensors, in 1978, and has always yearned to make a living as an artist. “He was a great illustrator and writer, but he always had to work a bad day job. I paid attention to what he was has not been Verb: He wasn’t training or throwing himself into it. I said, “I’m going to move to New York, get the best training possible, and go all pig.” The irony is that he did all of that and still in an “office job” he supposedly didn’t get away with.
Once Wilson read the demo script for this show, he knew it was the guy who plays Dwight Schrute. “I have the Stranger. I’ve got a dead end. I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons. Who could do this better than me?” He found an enigmatic trait in the character. “You can never really put your finger on him. Is he an idiot or a bully? A simple farmer or a cliché? He is kind of all of those things.”
A proposed sub-series by Dwight called The Farm never came to fruition, but hardly a day goes by without The Office being lauded. Take his first encounter with Grazer, the naughty 18-year-old actor with whom he shares most of his scenes in Don’t Tell a Soul. “Jack was fussy and confused, he didn’t know what to say,” Wilson recalls. His mother told me, ‘It was never like this! The problem has never been more complex than hero-worship. As with other young celebrities, including Timothée Chalamet and Billie Eilish (which Wilson refers to affectionately during an online audition with the singer as “William Eyelash”), Grazer is obsessed with The Office.
This demographic skew continues to confuse Wilson. “When we were doing the show, we always thought: ‘Anyone who works in an office and has a bad boss is going to really relate to this.’ Then we found out that we are especially liked by people between the ages of 12 and 17.” Teens helped save The Office from cancellation when its ratings were nearly as low as the network’s confidence in the show. Outside circumstances, including the box office success of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which made a huge star out of Wilson’s office co-worker Steve Carell, also prolonged her life, giving her time to thrive.
“People come back to it over and over again,” he notes. For many viewers, it was a salve during lockdown. “It is relaxing, calming, and it releases anxiety. It has helped people through difficult times.” How very unbritish. Well, the British did I’ve always looked for comedy to push boundaries: not just The Office but The Mighty Boosh, Alan Partridge. Is it Sir Steve Coogan, by the way? I’ll go with Sir Steve. I’m very impressed.” In fact, Wilson can be heard on his podcast, Dark Air, as talk-radio celebrity Terry Carnation, who he hopes will become his partridge.” These things are rare in America. Our comedy is a lot like what you turn on after dinner to relax and have a chuckle. We really don’t want to prick the beehive too much.”