Nick Offerman hasn’t slept in three nights, nor has he bathed. Even his famous mustache looks tired. “Go easy on these,” he tells the photographer conducting a lengthy photo shoot in the parking lot behind his Los Angeles wood shop. He is pointing at the bags under his eyes. “My face looks like Burt Reynolds’s asshole,” he quips.
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Everyone laughs, then Offerman stops kidding around. For the next two hours, he politely obeys the photographer’s direction, changing costumes four times without complaint, like the good
Minooka, Illinois, native that he is. His interior monologue could involve any number of pressing subjects: We’re the Millers, his new movie with Jennifer Aniston; the upcoming season of the critically acclaimed NBC comedy Parks and Recreation; his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! the previous night; his new memoir and how-to book, which comes out this month; or American Ham, his folksy-profane traveling revue of “songs and woodworking tips with minor nudity” that has toured intermittently for nearly two years.
Or perhaps Offerman is thinking about the routine physical he has later today. One can easily imagine his doctor begging him to lay off the red meat and single-malt Scotch as if he were addressing Ron Swanson, the dyspeptic, government-hating Luddite with a heart of gold that Offerman plays on Parks and Rec. And Offerman is cool with that. Because Ron is an inspired character—a once-in-a-lifetime role tailored to the actor’s quirky comic peccadilloes, so pitch-perfect and timely that he has advanced beyond the sitcom and entered the realm of the cultural phenomenon.
At a moment when humans find themselves neutered by the comforts of the modern world, it turns out we need Ron Swanson, a steely-eyed, helmet-haired paragon of masculinity who keeps a sawed-off shotgun on his desk and pokes holes in our self-seriousness with gleeful irreverence. If the average man said, “Fishing relaxes me: It’s like yoga, except I still get to kill something,” he might be thought insensitive. When Ron says it, we learn something about where America currently resides, culturally speaking.
Maybe Offerman is wondering what it all means, being famous enough to cause a stir in airports among people who call him Ron Swanson with no apparent irony. What is he to think when fans say things like “If Nick Offerman is not as much of a libertarian as Ron Swanson, I’ll punch him in the face”? Because Offerman is not a libertarian. He’s a gregarious lug who lives for the theatre, believes in gun control, works extremely hard, smokes pot when he can, and listens to Tom Waits. Trying to imagine him in Ron’s knit polos and pleated khakis, spouting crackpot government rants, is impossible.
It’s entirely possible he gets through the photo shoots and interviews by musing at the absurdity of it all: He’s a former pig-shit-shoveling farmer being fawned over and scrutinized at every turn. Or maybe he really is thinking about red meat and Scotch.
It may seem as if Nick Offerman is suddenly everywhere. He is, but there’s nothing sudden about it. He compares his career, which began in Chicago theatre and shifted to L.A. in the mid-1990s, to a slowly rolling snowball that has taken two decades to gain momentum. “I’m finally getting offered movie parts I’ve been craving for 20 years,” says the 43-year-old. He’s sitting in the office of his wood shop, where he and his small staff craft heirloom furniture to sell online (at offermanwoodshop.com). He’s clad in a worn Willie Nelson T-shirt and a musky baseball cap flecked with sawdust. “People said to me, ‘Where have you been?’ I’m like, ‘I’m right here in your pocket. I was driving your car last week.’ ”
Somehow, at this particular moment, Offerman is the perfect actor for America. This may sound like a stretch, considering whole swaths of the population don’t know his name, but plenty of people hate the Brad Pitts and George Clooneys and Leonardo DiCaprios for their impossible beauty and their self-righteousness. Not many people hate Nick Offerman. Maybe that’s because he looks and acts like the rest of us.
When he goes on Conan and talks about rubbing bacon grease behind his ears, men laugh; when he serenades his wife, the Will & Grace actress Megan Mullally, with a goofy love song on Letterman, women swoon. Despite his paunch and hairy back, People magazine named him one of the sexiest men alive in 2012 (mustache edition), and it wasn’t really a joke.
But nowhere is he more popular right now than online. Memes. Hashtags. Fan pages. A Tumblr blog called Cats That Look Like Ron Swanson. Even throwaway videos, like “How to Grow a Moustache with Nick Offerman,” garner more than a million YouTube hits. Though Offerman is well aware of all this stuff, he steers remarkably clear of the Web. “If I get on the Internet, that’s more time away from woodworking, guitar playing, lovemaking,” he says. “All the things that are delicious in life.”
“Delicious” is one of Offerman’s favorite words these days. When he talks about turning a piece of cherrywood into a canoe paddle, he calls the feeling “delicious.” The afternoons he spent in the Wrigley bleachers over the years? “The most delicious hours of my drunken life.” Working with Jeff Bridges, a personal hero, on The Men Who Stare at Goats was incredibly delicious. His life right now is an orgy of deliciousness.
A few years back, when Ron Swanson was beginning to look like Parks and Rec’s breakout character, various colleges begged Offerman to visit their campuses. His agent told him it would be an easy paycheck: fly in, tell some stories, do a Q&A, shake a few hands, and fly out. “What an asshole move that would’ve been,” Offerman recalls. “You know, to be like, ‘Hello, welcome to me. Feast your eyes on 5 foot 11 inches of Illinois meat. You’re welcome.’ ”
Instead, he wrote American Ham, an eclectic 110-minute variety show. The traveling revue, which has visited 50 or so cities over the past two years, includes a shirtless Offerman playing raunchy songs on his guitar, dispensing sincere advice, and telling uproarious sex stories. His wife’s rootsy band, Nancy and Beth (which includes Stephanie Hunt, best known as Devin on NBC’s Friday Night Lights), often performs. The whole thing is like Garrison Keillor after smoking a bowl—a notion Offerman would undoubtedly call delicious. (American Ham lands at the Chicago Theatre on October 3.)
The performance, which The Onion’s A.V. Club called “amazing and inspirational,” has been generally well received but is a bitter pill for more-conservative Parks and Rec viewers. “My balloon filled with love, admiration, and devotion for Ron Swanson was soon to become deflated with this other impersonator whose show consisted of continual ‘f’ this and ‘f’ that, hyperfocus on sex and drugs . . . [and] his exhaustingly long defamation of Christian beliefs,” wrote one audience member on Ticketmaster.com. “I would have preferred to continue to live in the fantasy of Parks and Recreation and the characters within.”
That commenter probably won’t buy Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living (Dutton, $27), the honest and funny new memoir that firmly establishes who Offerman is. And isn’t. At first glance, the book plays up old-fashioned manliness, its cover featuring a photo of the rugged author in a canoe he built himself. Offerman touches on everything from his days as a break-dancing, football-playing farm boy in Minooka (about 50 miles southwest of the Loop) to his freewheeling, hedonistic 20s in Chicago to the inevitable Hollywood struggles that followed.
But he doesn’t gloss over embarrassing moments, including his two trips to jail during college at the University of Illinois—one for shoplifting Ronnie Milsap cassettes from Kmart as a joke; the other, he says, a convoluted case of mistaken identity. Between anecdotes, he delivers impassioned pleas and rants about abortion (pro-choice), creationism (ridiculous), religion (too often exploited), and gay rights (a no-brainer). “I’ll never go on Bill Maher and get in a fight with him, because I’m just not as smart as that guy,” he says. “I have as many foibles as the next guy, but I’m in the business to dispense a little social medicine.”
Even if it means alienating a certain percentage of his fan base?
“Look, if they read the book and they dislike me, there’s nothing I can do,” Offerman says. “But for every one of those, maybe I’ll bring a few people around to a more open-minded sensibility. Sure, I’m like Ron Swanson a little bit. I love steak, I love Lagavulin [Scotch], I love woodworking. But I’m a human being; I’m much more complex or flawed than this character. Many fans want to believe that I am making all this shit up when I’m Ron or that I’m speaking my own mind. The thing they can never imagine is that the writers are so good. I’d be a jerk if I didn’t cop to the fact that I’m a lucky son of a bitch to be handed that script every week. All I have to do is say this line! It’s a racket.”
Offerman has been starstruck exactly once in his life. It was 1995 and he was an understudy for Ethan Hawke in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child at Steppenwolf. Neither Hawke nor the director, Gary Sinise, spooked Offerman; it was Shepard. The Pulitzer Prize winner popped into the theatre to do rewrites and gave a very green Offerman $40 to fetch him a bottle of Maker’s Mark. “It was like King Arthur handing me a sword and saying, ‘Please have this sharpened so I can go into battle with Excalibur,’ ” Offerman recalls. “It wouldn’t have been half as cool if he’d asked for something else, like, ‘Hey, can you get me a two-liter of Sprite?’ ”
The whole “Gosh, I’m a lucky bastard” theme runs through Offerman’s life like a mantra. The second of four children of a social studies teacher and a nurse, he spent much of his childhood on his grandfather’s farm, where he learned how to use tools. By fourth grade, he sensed he was different from the other kids, announcing to his class that he wanted to be a nonconformist. “It was basically like saying, ‘Excuse me, world? I’m a weirdo,’ ” Offerman recalls. As an altar boy at St. Mary’s Church, he would make the congregation laugh simply by raising an eyebrow while sniffing the Communion wine—a move inspired by John Belushi.
His many interests in high school ranged from playing the saxophone and sports to making comedy videos with his cousin. So when it came time for college, he surprised his parents by telling them he wanted to enroll in the U. of I.’s acting conservatory. “It was as though I had informed them that I wanted to study wizardry so that I might travel into alternate dimensions,” he writes in Paddle Your Own Canoe. They urged him to have something to fall back on.
After graduation, he moved to Chicago and with his friends founded Defiant Theatre, a scrappy experimental company driven in equal measures by Kabuki, slapstick, and surrealism. “I wasn’t a great actor,” says Offerman, who subsidized his meager income by doing scenic carpentry and roofing. He found acting jobs here and there, doing experimental plays like The Questioning of Nick with Michael Shannon and Guy Van Swearingen at A Red Orchid Theatre. “He’s always been a character,” Van Swearingen says. “He had a great sense of comedy and timing. And he made a point of standing out.”
Offerman worked as the “fight captain” for Richard II at the Goodman and A Clockwork Orange at Steppenwolf. “I was living in abject poverty,” he recalls. “When people ask, ‘Do you like going back to your old haunts?’ the answer is no. My old haunts were whoever had the cheapest burrito.”
Offerman’s first film job was a bit part in Chain Reaction, a 1996 action movie starring Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman that was shot in Chicago. Though both his scenes were cut, he earned the equivalent of two months of carpenter’s wages for two days of work—plus the all-important Screen Actors Guild card. Later that year, while acting in Going All the Way with Ben Affleck and Rachel Weisz, his cast mates convinced him to move to Hollywood. He packed up his rusted Subaru station wagon and left for Los Angeles.
In L.A., Offerman built cabins and decks for rent money while toiling as a journeyman actor on TV shows including ER, 24, The West Wing, NYPD Blue, Gilmore Girls, and Deadwood. When he made it to the big screen, he was usually cast in such thankless roles as a construction worker in 1998’s City of Angels or as the corpulent, incompetent hit man in 2005’s Sin City. No one in Hollywood seemed to recognize the potential of an intense Shakespearean actor who looked like a plumber.
In 2000, while working on a play at the Evidence Room in L.A., he met Megan Mullally. Already a star from NBC’s hit show Will & Grace, the Oklahoma City native—a vet of Chicago theatre herself—immediately made an impression. “She was so hilarious and gorgeous,” Offerman says. “What first attracted us to one another was our filthy sense of humor.” One night, they made out for two hours in her Range Rover while listening to the Beck song “Beautiful Way” on repeat 38 times.
Around that time, both were cast in a John McNaughton movie, Speaking of Sex, which was filming on location in Calgary. Mullally, however, would not allow Offerman overnight access to her hotel room. “I was trying to keep the puss-ay on reserve for as long as possible,” she told BuzzFeed years later.
They’d been dating for only a few months when she took him to the 2000 Emmy Awards. When she won best supporting actress, he was ecstatic. When she lost in the same category the next year, he was enraged: “I was like, Who says someone else is funnier than Megan? Who do I punch?”
In 2003, the day before the Emmys, Mullally and Offerman got married at a tiny backyard gathering at her home in Beverly Hills. Their pairing has morphed into that rarest of Hollywood occurrences: a normal, healthy marriage. “The fact that we truly like each other is foremost,” says Mullally, who is 11 years older than Offerman. “Then there’s the fact that neither of us comes from an industry background, but from everyday upbringings. Our relationship is more romantic now than when we met. It’s in the small things, the minutiae of every day, as well as in the grand gestures. I’m not sure why that is.”
Offerman will tell you, without a hint of insincerity, that he’s not sure how a jackass like him managed to woo and marry the most beautiful and talented woman alive. And that all he ever wanted was to “tickle” people and to build things. Now he gets to do both. He also gets to do Megan Mullally.
Offerman’s career took off, sort of, in 2004. That’s the year he auditioned for the part of Michael Scott on the American version of the breakout British comedy The Office. The job, of course, went to Steve Carell. Offerman read for various other roles on the show, none of which he ended up getting. But Michael Schur, one of The Office’s producers and writers, scrawled Offerman’s name on a Post-it note and attached it to his computer. “It was his economy of action,” Schur recalls over e-mail. “He stood perfectly still and said the words as succinctly and straightforwardly as they could be said—they were like missiles coming out of his mouth. Often, actors think they need to be ‘memorable’ in auditions for guest roles by putting a ton of spin on the lines. Nick was memorable because there was no spin at all.”
Three years later, Schur found himself in charge of casting his own show, Parks and Recreation, and he persuaded NBC to give Offerman a part. “I’m not sure what he saw in me,” says Offerman. “But he couldn’t have had any idea at the time that Ron Swanson would come out of it.”
Now in its sixth season, Parks enjoys rabid fandom and critical acclaim, but last year, it ranked a tepid 131st in average viewers among network primetime shows, according to Nielsen.
“Parks and Recreation is a smart, warm, and insanely funny TV show that’s had the misfortune to air on a network in dire shape, ratings-wise,” says Alan Sepinwall, a TV critic on the website HitFix. “A more popular network would have either made Parks a hit or canceled it.”
Year after year, around Emmy time, Parks fans go ballistic. Amy Poehler gets her usual best actress nod for playing the ditzy and indefatigable Leslie Knope, but the rest of the cast is overlooked. When the nominations are announced, Offerman goes fishing with his family in Minnesota. “I would rather be snubbed for playing Ron Swanson than win a trophy for being on any other show,” he says. “Because the trophy is meaningless. I consider us Guinness and most of the mainstream comedies Budweiser. They’ll give you a buzz, but it’s not nearly as delicious as our pint.”
“This is sort of my man cave,” Offerman says, gesturing around his 3,200-square-foot wood shop. Like everything he touches, the mellow, sun-drenched space tucked away among back-alley warehouses on a quiet stretch of east Los Angeles has that easy, lived-in look: tons of books, a dusty piano, movie posters and tchotchkes, a marked-up periodic table of elements, a fridge filled with Guinness, and Johnny Cash on the stereo. And wood. Lots of wood, all from salvaged trees. “Megan and I have a deal,” Offerman says, rubbing a diseased camphor tree saved from a friend’s yard in Burbank. “I like to make a mess, usually with sawdust, and so it’s better to do it here.”
This, obviously, is Offerman’s secret. While many Hollywood actors drown in a frustrating business driven by ego and money—an environment where you may not see the results of your work for years, if ever—Offerman retreats to his fortress of solitude. “After a few meditative hours here, I’ve accomplished something tangible,” he says.
When a talk show host calls Offerman “manly” simply because he builds things, he always seems slightly embarrassed. In a family full of firefighters, paramedics, and farmers, he’s the oddball who went to theatre school and studied ballet. “If you had told me when I was 12 and my uncle Don taught me to use a socket set that I would be celebrated for that skill one day, I would have laughed long and hard,” he says. “It’s not a manly thing. It’s a human competence thing.”
His wood shop colleagues (“a charming and ragtag fellowship of elves” that periodically includes Offerman’s father, Ric, and brother Matt, a brewer at Solemn Oath in Naperville) don’t see him as a star; to them, he’s just Nick, the nice guy over there with the table saw. “Whether he’s here in the shop or doing something in Hollywood, he’s the same,” says Michele Diener, who has worked at Offerman Woodshop since 2010. “His personality really comes through.”
Here is a polar bear of a man, not the best-looking guy by any means, living smack-dab in the most superficial city on earth—but by being himself, he succeeds. There’s something commanding yet comforting about his presence, as though you’re watching the goofy uncle, the one with the ridiculous giggle who cracks up the whole family at backyard barbecues, finally make it big.
The ride won’t last forever. Parks and Rec’s moment will pass, as it always does with sitcoms, and he’ll be forced to live in a post–Ron Swanson world and find other work as an actor. Supporting roles in The Lego Movie and Diablo Cody’s upcoming Paradise, with Russell Brand and Holly Hunter, imply that he will. But he knows that the snowball of his career, rolling so fast now, could melt completely.
“If I had to trade all future TV and film work for the role of Ron Swanson, I would do it in a heartbeat,” he says. “Because then I could spend the rest of my life working in theatre and the shop. And that’s delicious.”
Where to see him next: Offerman’s comedy tour American Ham stops at the Chicago Theatre on Oct. 3. For info, ticketmaster.com