For someone with such a unique place in the vast celebrity galaxy, Rainn Wilson often operates with what he admits is a rather clichéd approach: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
But there’s no arguing with the results.
Over the last several years, Wilson has created one of the most iconic characters on television as the preening, center-parted, paper salesman Dwight Schrute on the American version of The Office. He’s also launched a very successful online media company with the delightfully whimsical name of SoulPancake. And today he’s publishing a memoir called The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith, and Idiocy.
“You just keep pounding away,” Wilson tells Fast Company, “and eventually you accidentally stumble into something great that opens a lot of doors.”
Doors didn’t always open for the actor, and that’s one reason why Wilson, who turns 50 next year, decided to give the readers of his book a look at all his failures on the road to making it, as well as the lucky turns of fate.
When talking about his career, he’s philosophical and funny. He also doesn’t always answer questions immediately. He pauses a lot, first thinking through what he wants to say about the creative and business challenges that come with something like launching and growing SoulPancake or making his mark as an actor.
The Bassoon King offers plenty of nostalgic treats for Office fans, who’ll delight in Wilson’s memory of some of his favorite improvised lines–“Have you ever SEEN a burn victim, Phyllis?!”–and a collection of other behind-the-scenes memories.
And in the book, Wilson also discusses falling in love with acting while attending New Trier High School, which served as the model for schools in classic John Hughes flicks The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles.
Wilson’s memoir, though, is also a stealth self-help manual, a warts-and-all chronicle of performances that got cut, shows that were canceled, the almost-but-not-quite brushes with success, and bouts with depression and alcohol. That all serves as a prelude to what came next: Incremental success and, finally, that one part, Dwight Kurt Schrute, that changed everything.
“One of the things I really wanted to show is what a huge part failure has played in my life,” Wilson tells Fast Company.
Wilson survived the rough years in part through a combination of spirituality (he’s a member of the Baha’i faith) and an idiosyncratic sense of humor that can careen off at any moment into a twisted realm.
This is evident, in fact, from the opening pages of his book, when Wilson dusts off the character of Dwight Schrute, and channels him for the book’s introduction:
“Let me be perfectly clear,” he writes, as Dwight. “I don’t like this book. I don’t care about “funny stories” regarding some stupid actor. Other than Charles Bronson and anyone from the cast of Game of Thrones. And Bruce Lee. And Lackawanna County honorary deputy sheriffs Paul and Mira Sorvino. And Alexander Godunov from the movie Witness. And I love Sam Neill from Jurassic Park and Omen III: The Final Conflict.
How come he’s not in more stuff? He’s got such a long, thin mouth. I would definitely read his book.”
Wilson developed his comedic chops over the course of a rich, textured life that included stints as a security guard, a dishwasher, and a newspaper courier, among other jobs. This backstory informs his pop-culture consumption, which is grounded in an appreciation for the misfits who exist in the shadow of the leading men and women.
“For me,” he writes in The Bassoon King, “it was all about the sidekicks, the disjointed men of mayhem who provided the comic relief.”
And then there is luck. It’s an idea Wilson comes back to often in his book.
“I wanted to show people how it’s all such a crapshoot,” Wilson tells Fast Company. “There are plenty of people out there way more talented than me that just haven’t had the cards fall right, you know? I always think about Steve Carrell and Bryan Cranston, how they got famous in their 40s and 50s. They were just as talented in their 30s, but they didn’t have the doors open for them.”
For his part, Wilson can be considered a late bloomer in more than one industry.
Now he splits his time between acting and helping run SoulPancake, a website and content production company that aims to “make stuff that matters.” This includes a YouTube channel that’s hosted videos like the viral Kid President series.
The recipe has been a success. This year Inc. (which shares a publisher with Fast Company) named SoulPancake one of the fastest growing small companies in the U.S., and landed on our list of the 10 Most Innovative Companies in Video. Its YouTube channel now has close to 1.6 million subscribers. A video-making partnership with the Oprah Winfrey Network sure doesn’t hurt, and today, thanks in large part to an active branded content department, Wilson says SoulPanacake is profitable.
“My vision for SoulPancake has shifted a number of times,” Wilson says. “To use the parlance of Silicon Valley, we’ve pivoted several times. When it started, it was more overtly spiritual. I wanted a kind of social networking hub where people were discussing life’s big questions around philosophy and creativity. The website was fine but didn’t have a lot of traction. Then we started making videos for OWN and started having a great deal of success. And we realized our vision is much better expressed through being a media company than being an Internet or technology company. So we pivoted to creating inspiring and uplifting media that deals with the human experience.”
Wilson says he’d love it to be even more profitable and to be able to pay employees better and to hire more great filmmakers. At the same time, he’s sensitive to what companies do to chase profits.
“We do a lot of branded content, and it’s kind of our bread and butter and we love doing it,” Wilson says. “We really do. We love figuring out how to get the heart of their message out in an entertaining way that doesn’t feel like a commercial. But a lot of ad agencies are still old school, thinking that it’s still about holding a bag of Wonder Bread and biting into that sandwich and smiling and then that equals sales. We just are not in that world.
“You know, when we started, people laughed at us. People laughed and rolled their eyes–you’re making inspiring content? Who’s going to watch that? Back in the day, when we were starting to do this four or five years ago, this wasn’t done. Now there’s places like Upworthy. This is some of the most shared stuff on the web.”
In a way, that work is part of the through line of Wilson’s life. Never mind the other things he’s known for, the characters like Dwight Schrute. No matter what it is these days–videos, his media company, his life, his work – Wilson’s compass remains his commitment to a life well lived, to a journey informed by a passion for finding good in the world, for pursuing it and living it and sharing it with others.
For him, that means slowing down and reaching higher. It’s an idea he explores a bit towards the end of his book:
“There’s always been this strange kind of disconnect between playing oddball, mostly comedic characters and being a person who views himself as on a spiritual journey through life. As time goes on, I am finding new ways to greater link these two seemingly disparate sides of myself.”
“The spiritual journey is tough for everybody, whether you’re in Hollywood, whether you’re a truck driver,” Wilson says. “We live in a society that doesn’t value a lot of things that the great spiritual traditions value. Contemplation. Prayer. Humility. Acts of extreme kindness.”
He thinks for a minute.
“Life is a struggle. We want comfort, and we want status. And as we seek comfort and status, those impulses are oftentimes contrary to the spiritual ones. For me, meditation is a great tool that I use in my daily life to ground me, to get me more connected to my soul. To the part of myself that’s beyond my thoughts. To God and to a higher purpose.”