Best known as prickly beet farmer Dwight Schrute on the hit NBC show The Office, Rainn Wilson will star in the premiere of Matthew-Lee Erlbach’s The Doppelgänger: An International Farce at Steppenwolf Theatre. While a student at New Trier High School in Winnetka, where he first started acting, Wilson worked as a security guard at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette. (His parents were full-time employees at the Baha’i administrative center.) “Imagine a skinny, pimply teenager in a uniform patrolling that beautiful temple,” Wilson recalls. “One time I grabbed the arm of a kid skateboarding down the steps. That was the only official act of law and order I presided over. I mostly walked around, sipped Mountain Dew, and pined for my girlfriend that had dumped me.” Ahead of The Doppelgänger’s opening on April 5, Wilson, 52, shares some of his influences.
The Baha’i faith teaches that art is essentially the same as prayer and encourages art as service. And what better service is there than making people laugh?
One of the first professional plays I ever saw was Three Sisters at Steppenwolf in 1984 or ’85. I love all the Russians, but I’ve spent my life coming back to Chekhov’s plays and short stories. No one has a more compassionate and humorously searing take on the human condition.
An inspiring acting teacher at New Trier. She had mystical and spiritual ideas about the theater—what it was and what it could be—and would have us spend entire classes pretending to be animals. She told us we should pray to the gods of the theater and that we’re all made of stardust. I still keep in touch with her.
I had a little Panasonic tape recorder and would record episodes that ran on PBS late at night back in the late ’70s. I would listen to the sketches over and over. I thought it was the most magical thing in the world.
My theory is that the goofing around nerdy kids do in their teenage years is the best breeding ground for comedy. We would hang out playing Dungeons & Dragons. Or we’d hang out in a park, in the woods. A bunch of bored suburban kids with too much time on their hands is a great petri dish.
We went to school together at New Trier. In Oklahoma! I was Jud Fry and he was Ali Hakim; in Cyrano de Bergerac he was Cyrano and I was Christian. I had no idea a 17-year-old could act like that. Jim blew everyone away. I think he became the youngest member to ever join the Steppenwolf company, and when he did, his Chicago theater career took off like a rocket.
Punk rock and new wave
The world changed for me in 1982, when I was 16. A friend gave me a tape of the Police, the Clash, Elvis Costello, Squeeze, and X. It had an existential angst. People were a little slow to music at New Trier, so they mistakenly thought I was really cool because I listened to Black Flag and they didn’t.