I first saw actor Rainn Wilson on HBO’s groundbreaking series “Six Feet Under” in his role as a dark, quirky mortician. Most of you know him as the edgy, eccentric character, Dwight Schrute on the beloved NBC sitcom “The Office.”
Rainn Wilson is appearing on stage at The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, in a one-man show by playwright Will Eno called “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” opening next week at the more intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre.
Wilson’s not just an actor, he’s a director, an author-his recent memoir is “The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith, and Idiocy”–and the mastermind behind a book, a website, a YouTube channel and a media company that creates short-form content and branded entertainment all under the umbrella “Soul Pancake” (http://soulpancake.com), featuring such catch phrases as “chew on life’s big questions” and “we make stuff that matters.”
Chewing on life’s big questions seems to be an overarching theme of Rainn Wilson’s career and his personal life.
At the heart of it all is his Bahá’í faith, which believes in a unifying vision for humanity that aspires to usher in an age of peace and justice. It was founded in the 19th century by Bab, who bore a message about humanity’s spiritual transformation and spoke about a second messenger, Bahá’u’lláh, whose writings form the framework for followers of this faith. Bahá’u’lláh was imprisoned, tortured and exiled because of his writings.
I have not had the chance to read “The Bassoon King,” but it goes into depth about Rainn’s troubled family life as he was growing up, his young and wild days, his spiritual crisis and his ultimate return to the Bahá’í faith.
I asked him how his faith guides his work. He took a long pause and said, “In this faith, art is considered the same as worship. So if you are creating something beautiful and with a pure intention, especially if it’s of service to others, you’re emulating the Creator in a way, and that is a kind of worship, a kind of devotion.”
How does the play “Thom Pain” fit into that context? Wilson says, “It’s a work of tremendous humanity. It’s really strange, dark and funny but also is about the human experience, why we’re here, why we go through what we go through. It deals with pain and life and trauma and love and the meaning of life, all the big questions, like good theatre does, and does so in a really unique and entertaining way.”
As to the plotline, he says, “There’s not much of a story, Thom’s a man in pain, who comes out into the audience to tell several stories about his life and he says at one point, ‘I’m like you, in terrible pain trying to make sense of my life.’ But it’s written in an oddly poetic language.”
Wilson has been a friend of playwright Will Eno for many years, and says that about 10 or 12 years ago, he saw a production of “Thom Pain” in New York “that just blew me away.” He’s been talking to Eno about performing it here in Los Angeles.
“It’s always hard, if you’re mostly doing TV and film, because theater requires a commitment of three or four months.” After “The Office” ended its long run, he did a few movies, and starred in a curiously fascinating TV detective show called “Backstrom” that got cancelled.
“So I had time to spare, and I called [artistic director] Randall Arney at The Geffen and said, ‘We’ve got this crazy play,’ and he told me, ‘Well, we have this second stage that’s open for about five or six weeks.’ So the pieces fell into place at the right time.”
Wilson’s not just about stage, screen, TV and the internet, he’s also a philanthropist. He and his wife Holiday Reinhorn formed The Wilhorn Foundation to support a project of The Mona Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting educational initiatives around the globe. Wilson serves on the board of the Mona Foundation.
Their project is called Lidè, which has two meanings, says Wilson. “It’s a Creole word and when you say ‘li-duh’ it means leader, and ‘li-day’ it means idea,” touching on key aspects of their mission.
Over a number of years, Wilson and Reinhorn had visited Haiti as volunteers and fell in love with it. Their work is focused on “using the arts to empower adolescent girls,” he said, with the mission of integrating literacy through writing, drama, photography, film and art, as a gateway to academic education.
“Part of the reason why I work in Haiti is the cost effectiveness,” he continued. “It costs $500 to put a girl through school for a year. So if I can raise just $500, I can effectively help change someone’s life. Currently we have 500 girls in our programs, in seven different locations in rural Haiti.”
While his philanthropic work is ongoing, when asked what’s next in his professional life Wilson joked, “I have no idea! I will be completely unemployed, so if you have any ideas let me know!”
Rainn Wilson performs “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” by Will Eno beginning Wednesday, Jan. 6 through Feb. 14 at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre. Details at www.geffenplayhouse.com.
Rainn Wilson as “Thom Pain”; photo by Jeff Lorch Photography
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various print and online publications.