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From A Weirdo Nerd To A Guy Who Plays One On TV


Pop culture is full of lovable nerds, people who are charmingly odd, brilliantly quirky or offbeat in just the right way. Growing up, the actor Rainn Wilson was not that kind of nerd. As he describes it, he was a bullied, pimply weirdo. And then something delightfully weird happened. Rainn Wilson became famous for playing one of the biggest nerds on television.


RAINN WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) My father's name was Dwight Schrute. My grandfather's name was Dwight Schrute. His father's name Dwide Schrude - Amish.

SHAPIRO: Dwight Schrute, over nine seasons of "The Office." Rainn Wilson's new memoir is called, "The Bassoon King: My Life In Art, Faith And Idiocy."

And welcome to the show.

WILSON: Hey. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: This book, "The Bassoon King," it's not just a comedic title. You actually did play the bassoon in high school.

WILSON: I played the bassoon for five years, yeah.

SHAPIRO: And you made all of these - I mean, listen, some aspects of your childhood nerdom were beyond your control, but throughout the book, it also seems like you made a lot of conscious choices that, in hindsight, might not have been the best choices for a person trying to escape the little niche that you found yourself in.

WILSON: But that's how nerds work. Nerds are not, like, conscious about, like, doing things - maybe I should do things that aren't so nerdy. I loved "Dungeons And Dragons." I loved playing chess and competing on the chess team. I loved Model United Nations. And yes, there's part of me that loved playing this big, weird adenoidally-grating instrument called the bassoon (laughter).

SHAPIRO: You also write in the book, you say, looking back on this phase of my life, I'm incredibly grateful for these little tide pools of weirdo culture I swirled around in. Explain how you can be grateful for being at the bottom of the food chain.

WILSON: I had great groups of friends, and I think because other social pressures were off, we weren't trying to be cool. We weren't trying to be popular. We weren't trying to date. All of that was way beyond our ken. So we just lived in the world of imagination and the world of humor. We were inventing our "Dungeons And Dragons" characters and drawing maps, and it was like this petri dish that bred wonderful imagination, and I'm grateful for it.

SHAPIRO: People who only know you from "The Office" may not appreciate that there is a deeply sincere, perhaps earnest side to you, which you explore in depth in this book. You're very serious about your Baha'i faith, and you created this now phenomenally popular website called Soul Pancake where people talk about what you call life's big questions. Even people who may not know Soul Pancake probably know this video, which now has 37 million views.


ROBBY NOVAK: (As Kid President) The world needs to stop being boring. Yeah, you - boring is easy. Everybody can be boring. But you're gooder than that. Life is not a game, people. Life isn't a cereal, either. Well, it is a cereal. And if life is a game, aren't we on the same team?

SHAPIRO: Even after you've watched that video, who knows how many times, Rainn, does it still - I don't know, make you smile, make you cry, make you proud?

WILSON: I still get chills. Yeah, it's a phenomenal video. Yeah, it's a media company with a mission to uplift people, inspire them and bring them together, and also to dig into the human experience.

SHAPIRO: I wonder if in some way it also comes back to this idea of growing up as a nerd, the bassoon king, doing what gave you pleasure and stimulation and challenges, whether or not it was what's cool.

WILSON: Believe me, there is nothing cool about a comic actor talking about spirituality. This is not what (laughter) Hollywood or the comedy community or anyone wants to hear about. It's like, OK, cuckoo. But, you know, I just - I stopped caring a while back so much about what other people thought of me. So it's something I'm really passionate about.

SHAPIRO: So that must be really weird to be in Hollywood, where everybody cares passionately about what people think of them, and who are you wearing, and you are a person who has spent his life getting over that.

WILSON: Yes. I mean, it helps that I've always had, internally, this kind of outsider status. I don't feel like I'm in the in-crowd in Hollywood. I don't hang out at the Chateau Marmont with movie stars. I live with my wife and son, and we have a pet zonkey.

SHAPIRO: Which - a zonkey is...

WILSON: Come on Ari, do the math.

SHAPIRO: I know. I'm just trying to get you to explain it for our listeners (laughter).

WILSON: OK. It's donkey and zebra mashed up, and Derek (ph) is his name. He's a beauty. He's my wife. So I've just always...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

WILSON: Did I say he's my wife?

SHAPIRO: You said, he's my wife, yeah.

WILSON: He's my wife's. I forgot the possessive.


WILSON: Sorry, honey.

SHAPIRO: Well, Rainn, thank you for these personal revelations. (Laughter) We will get this to air immediately.

WILSON: Put it right on. But I've always felt like I was an outsider. That's who I am.

SHAPIRO: You and your zonkey...

WILSON: Me and my zonkey.

SHAPIRO: ...Just be who you are.

WILSON: (Singing) Me and my zonkey.

SHAPIRO: Oh, keep going.

WILSON: No. I'm writing a musical about me and my zonkey. That's all I've got so far.

SHAPIRO: Is it called me and my zonkey?


SHAPIRO: Well, stay tuned. Rainn Wilson, author of "The Bassoon King: My Life In Art, Faith And Idiocy" and the forthcoming musical, me and my zonkey.

WILSON: That's it.

SHAPIRO: Thanks so much. This has been really fun.

WILSON: Hey, great talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.