For four seasons, Rainn Wilson’s Dwight Schrute has given Steve Carell’s Michael Scott a run for his money as the funniest character on NBC’s hit sitcom “The Office,” but Wilson himself has notably taken a backseat in some of the films he’s appeared in like My Super Ex-Girlfriend, The Last Mimzy and last year’s Juno.
In the new 20th Century Fox comedy The Rocker, Wilson takes front and center as Rob “Fish” Fishman, the drummer in ’80s hair metal band Vesuvius, who is unceremoniously booted as they sign their big record deal. Twenty years later, Vesuvius has become world-famous and Fish has given up on his rock star dreams to work at a day job until his nephew Matt (Josh Gad) asks him to sit in on drums with his band A.D.D. One thing leads to another and A.D.D. starts getting attention, recording an album, touring and making a video giving Fish a second chance to rock out. It’s a funny role for Wilson, who really threw everything into the character, as he palled around with a group of young actors including singer-songwriter Teddy Geiger and Superbad‘s Emma Stone as the other half of the band.
Wilson stopped through New York on his way to San Diego for a Comic-Con panel for “The Office” to talk with ComingSoon.net about his new movie.
ComingSoon.net: Was it hard to relate to a guy in his 40s, who was playing in a rock band with teenagers?
Wilson: I certainly could relate to finding success late in life which is pretty cool and also pretty weird. I have no regrets about I wish this or that had happened. Some people like Leonardo DiCaprio are immediately brilliant at 19. I’m a much better actor now and I needed to learn and be in the trenches.
CS: Were you the first choice for this role?
Wilson: I doubt it. Any comedy script in Hollywood guaranteed goes to any three of Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. So I’m sure it went to those people, I have no idea who but then it trickles down to, “Okay, now what the f**k do we do with this thing?” then I was the next list of the B-talent list and somehow I rose to the top of that. I’m thought of for real people that are odd and kind of misfits and funny in their own way. Audiences are much more allowing of the fact that you don’t have to have chiseled cheekbones–not that I don’t have them–to star in a movie. People like Seth Rogen and Michael Cera are all these great new comedy stars are much more interesting and real. I think studios have discovered that audiences enjoy that.
CS: How did you go about finding your inner drummer to play the character?
Wilson: The first thing I started was to take drum lessons and that totally opened my mind to who this guy was when you start drumming. I play a little guitar and I’ve played in orchestras and stuff like that so to me music was more of a cerebral exercise. But when you drum, you’re just loud and you’re just pounding away. This drum coach I was working with was all about putting on a show behind the kit. When you get into the mindset of the drummer with the sweat and the pounding and the ugly face and the whole thing, Fish (the character) just became totally clear to me. He was about letting it all loose. It’s an incredible workout and it’s not even of your body but about concentration. It requires an amazing amount of focus.
CS: What drummers inspired this character?
Wilson: The iconic drummer of all time is Keith Moon so I watched a lot of Keith Moon but he’s impossible to emulate. He’s too good and too crazy and too specific. I watched a lot of heavy metal videos back in the day of Tommy Lee (from Motley Crue) and the one-armed guy (Rick Allen) from Def Leppard. Rock drummers before metal were so faceless except for maybe Keith Moon and John Bonham. You have all these great bands and you have no idea who the drummer is, but metal was the flowering of the rock drummer.
CS: How did you develop your “drum face” for when you’re playing?
Wilson: It comes natural to anyone. You try playing the drums and try making a normal serious, serene face. You can’t do it. You just look weird when you’re drumming and you’re intense. We started rehearsals and they thought it was hysterical what I was doing (with my face) but I didn’t even think about my face.
CS: Did you ever have rock star dreams like Fish?
Wilson: I got to thankfully live through a little bit of a rocker nightmare which was my shortest lived high school band ever. I did two gigs with my band Collective Moss; I wish I still had that flyer. We played two gigs, one for a bunch of 11 year-olds who ended up stealing our patch chords in a church basement. Then our second gig was an audition for the Battle of the Bands, which we didn’t get into. That’s how bad we were; we were not even in the top six bands at New Trier High School (in Illinois). I was the singer.
CS: The band A.D.D. becomes famous because of a viral video of you playing drums naked which gets posted on “YouTube”… what was it like filming that bit and would you consider doing more “naked drummer”?
Wilson: Are you propositioning me? You can see the naked drummer footage up on YouTube. Put it in “naked drummer” and you can see my ass crack all over the airwaves. It felt very sticky.
CS: Was it embarrassing at all to be seen all over the internet like that?
Wilson: Whatever, I’ll take my clothes off right now. I don’t care. I have no shame. It’s just a human body. It passes away at the end of our lives. It’s a glorious thing, it’s a temple. Your body is your temple, OK?
CS: What will you do if the music of this fictitious band A.D.D. suddenly takes off?
Wilson: We’re hitting the road. We’re opening for The Jonas Brothers. It would be a little bit of a stretch and take a few weeks of rehearsing but we could pull it off. I could learn those songs. Emma Stone totally learned the bass; she learned every note. She got really good at it. Josh Gad is a total fraud so we would Milli Vanilli a keyboard behind him somewhere. Teddy (Geiger) is the real deal. He has an amazing voice and he’s completely self-taught suburban kid musician. I did my own drumming. You won’t hear me on those tracks but that was me playing over the tracks. That was something that was important to this film, that the music should be authentic. Rock music in movies sucks nine times out of 10 and we wanted catchy pop songs that would accessible but at the same time that Indie rock feel of a 17 year-old writing songs in his garage in Cleveland. We would shoot into the night through morning rush hour so a lot of times we were driving home at 10:30 in the morning wanting to go to bed. It was ridiculous. They would just be drinking their Red Bulls and chattering away. I called them The Squirrels.
CS: How do you feel about rock ‘n’ roll movies in general?
Wilson: There definitely needs to be a ridiculous period metal movie. There’s that “Rock Star” movie with Mark Wahlberg–that sucked but that took itself very seriously. There’s a nod in the film to the famous Robert Plant story (in “Almost Famous”) where he said, “I am a Golden God!” and jumps into the swimming pool on top of the roof. I rode a tricycle (in this film) into a swimming pool, which was my little stunt. There’s still another heavy metal or hair metal comedy to be made. It has to be more than dancing around like peacocks with black eyeliner.
CS: What bands would you like to sit in for as a drummer?
Wilson: My two favorite bands have the most awesome drummers ever from Radiohead (Phil Selway) and Wilco (Glenn Kotche). They are the best drummers in rock ‘n’ roll. I think it would be really cool to go with The Raconteurs. They have a great drummer but Meg White, I don’t know what happened to her, she had a nervous breakdown or something so I would love to play with Jack White. It would be pretty cool.
CS: What role did Pete Best play in the film and was the story of your character supposed to be loosely based on what happened to him?
Wilson: He had a tiny cameo. If you blink you miss him at the bus stop reading Rolling Stone magazine. We had a little scene that will be on the DVD. I find it highly ironic that Pete’s from the movie got cut. That painfully freaked me out. He’s a great guy. I got to interview him and hang out with him. The movie is not based on him in any way shape or form but he’s kind of the poster child for this kind of story. There have been plenty of band members kicked out of the band before they got big during the course of rock ‘n’ roll but he’s the most famous. He’s such a sweet guy. He couldn’t be nicer or more low-key. He’s not bitter. He said, “You just don’t know how things are gonna work out. I got six grandkids and I get to tour the world with my band.” He’s doing great.
CS: Do you have any favorite concert memories?
Wilson: I never caught a drumstick and I’ve never been sweated on or urinated on, but I got to see Nirvana in their last U.S. Concert and that was a thrill for me as a Pacific Northwest Nirvana freak. I wasn’t a huge international superstar like I am now to throw my weight around to get backstage. My favorite concert memories are about the music. I saw Radiohead last year and that was pretty awesome. Doing this VH-1 Rock Honors The Who concert was just tremendous. I got to meet The Who and they were idols of mine growing up. I just thought Pete Townsend was the best and I got to interview Flaming Lips and Dave Grohl and Pearl Jam. That was really awesome to be part of the experience.
CS: What was your first encounter with a fan?
Wilson: My first fan was when I did Casey Keegan, the homicidal stand-up comic from “One Life to Live.” I was on three episodes, that’s when I first had my first fan. People really watch the soaps and when you’re on the subway people see you. I was the bad guy so I got a lot of “Oh man, you’re him. You tried to kill my man Antonio! That’s the guy. That’s the guy.” That was pretty cool for me who had mostly done theater up until that point and had never been recognized.
CS: How does Dwight from “The Office” love of metal music compare to this character Fish?
Wilson: He would listen purely as a motivational tool to increase the adrenalin and the flow in his brain stem. They both have a love of metal, unflattering haircuts, and not the best wardrobe but beyond that pretty different characters.
CS: Do you know if you’ll be appearing at all on “The Office” spin-off?
Wilson: No, they would never break up the kind of a formula that’s already working for fear that it would fall apart. They cast Amy Poehler and it’s not really gonna be a spin-off per se. It’s gonna be another place, kind of based in a mockumentary of some kind.
The Rocker opens on Wednesday, August 20.