Rainn Wilson has three Emmy nominations to prove how convincing he is as pompous paper salesman Dwight Schrute on "The Office." But is he so good that he’ll never work again?
Wilson would not be the first actor to ride an indelible second banana role on a long-running sitcom to stardom, only to see the offers dry up because it's tough to imagine them doing anything else. David Ogden Stiers was nominated for two Emmys for "M*A*S*H*" but has done mostly voiceover work since then. "Friends"' David Schwimmer is another former Emmy nominee who has done the bulk of his subsequent work in cartoons. And, although Michael Richards won three Emmys as Jerry's klutzy neighbor Kramer on "Seinfeld," his career is so invisible he could soon turn up on milk cartons. (Of course, racial comments Richards made in a nightclub act didn’t help his career longevity.)Video: Watch the 'Super' trailer (on this page)
Wilson's giving a new role a go in "Super," opening in a few cities April 1 and in much of the country April 8. Wilson plays Frank D’Arbo, a short-order cook who is deserted by his wife (Liv Tyler). To win her back, he dons a superhero costume and becomes the Crimson Bolt, fighting crime with a sidekick (Ellen Page).
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Wracked by grief and acting out violently, the character is an underdog like Dwight, but that's about all they have in common. Wilson’s characterization of D'Arbo is both more serious than his “Office” fans might expect and much more poignant.Story: 'Office' producer: Will Ferrell not joining cast
The actor’s efforts to diversify will be helped by that fact that Wilson is also widely known for at least one other character: Arthur Martin, the creepy mortuary apprentice in “Six Feet Under.” As threatening as Dwight Schrute can be, he never approaches the levels of menace and oddballery Wilson regularly hit on “Six Feet Under,” a role that likely brought him to the attention of many Hollywood casting directors.
Even before “Six Feet Under,” director Joe Dowling knew Wilson could play a variety of roles. They've worked together several times in the last 20 years, including a Broadway comedy, "London Assurance," an Off-Broadway production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and the drama, "Philadelphia, Here I Come" at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater, where Dowling is the artistic director.
Since being cast on “The Office,” Wilson has often acknowledged his fear of being typecast. So he has worked hard to make sure audiences have opportunities to see him doing other things, appearing in a dozen movies since the show’s 2005 premiere. Those roles have ranged from a brief "Juno" bit as a hipster who refers to Juno as "home skillet" to the head-banging lead in “The Rocker” to what he called a "lascivious professor" in "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."
Dowling says Wilson is wise to showcase his breadth as a performer.
"I think he's one of the most remarkable actors we have," says Dowling. "He has immense charm and great language skills. He can play comedy, as you see on TV. He plays that character brilliantly, and that character is absolutely nothing like Rainn. He's a vitally intelligent, curious and inventive man.”Slideshow: April movies (on this page)
In fact, Dowling has invited Wilson to return to the Guthrie several times (he envisions him in Sam Shepard's "True West," as the buffoonish Malvolio in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" or as the evil title character in "Richard III"). Scheduling hasn't permitted that, but Dowling says, "With (Wilson's) classical training and background, I would be very surprised if he doesn't get masses of offers straightaway after he leaves the program."
If Wilson — who has a master's degree in fine arts from New York University — opts for a return to the stage, he'll be following in the footsteps of another actor who shook off his second banana character by shifting from television to theater. David Hyde Pierce was best known for his stage work before he picked up four Emmy awards as Niles on "Frasier" and he has mostly performed on stage since the show ended, winning a Tony for "Curtains."
Performing in a different medium might be the easiest way for Wilson to dodge Dwight, since, unlike TV sitcom fans, theater audiences are more used to seeing actors shape-shift from role to role.
TV buff Allison Sutton, for instance, says she'll have a hard time ever seeing Wilson as anything but Dwight Schrute.
"My friend and I still call each other ‘home skillet’ because of 'Juno,'" says Sutton, 21, an art history student at Northern Illinois University. "And I'm excited to see him in 'Super' because that role looks different enough. But, in all honesty, I do think he'll be associated with Dwight forever. He's just too good."
Robert Sanders, who says Dwight is "by far, my favorite TV character ever," disagrees. He thinks Wilson has the acting chops to do lots of other things, such as wielding a butcher knife in his own horror movie franchise.
"I think he could be believable in any type of role, but I think he'd be great as a really smart, really deliciously evil serial killer guy," says Sanders, 25, of College Station, Texas. "He can be very intense and very persuasive. And his voice is unique — it doesn't sound like anyone else's. The Dwight dialect is so unusual you can tell he has a lot of control of his voice."
That’s the sort of vocal control that led Dowling to cast Wilson as an Irishman in “Philadelphia, Here I Come” and a dissolute Brit in “London Assurance.”
Like any actor, Wilson is liable to be limited by his age and appearance — he’s never going to get the romantic comedy leads that Paul Rudd and Bradley Cooper play. But Dowling says Wilson has the acting chops to impress audiences who are willing to give him a chance.
According to Dowling, “If the question is whether he can play other sorts of characters, the answer is that he has been and will be again, for a long time to come."
Chris Hewitt is the movie critic for the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn.
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