Interviews

BACKSTROM: Rainn Wilson Previews His New TV Series of a Detective Hell-Bent on Putting Criminals Away

Backstrom Rainn Wilson

Backstrom Rainn Wilson

Based not the books by Leif GW Persson and brought to television by BONES creator Hart Hanson, BACKSTROM is Fox’s new drama series of a prickly (or prick, depending on how you look at it) detective that will chase down every last criminal on the planet, if given the chance, and does not care who he pisses off in the process.  Detective Everett Backstrom is good at one thing: catching criminals — and the worse they are, the more determined he is to make them pay.  This is good news for anyone not crossing his radar, but very bad news for those that do.  But, on the con side, Backstrom is not exactly the easiest guy to work with or even to like.  Fortunately, Hart Hanson wove his magic and, with the sublime casting of Rainn Wilson in the title role, what made BACKSTROM, as a show, so great is that it shines with humor and heart and that Backstrom, the character, has a delicious silver lining — for underneath that gruff, off-putting exterior persona, Backstrom is a really good guy who is a bit world weary on all the scumbags, bullies, and crooks making the world such a miserable place.  Accordingly, Backstrom feels it is his God-given right to make their lives just as miserable as they have inflicted on the world — and viewers are going to cheer every step of the way.

Also adding to the secret recipe of success for the show is the great casting of co-stars Dennis Haysbert, Thomas Dekker,  Kristoffer Polaha, Genevieve Angelson, Page Kennedy, and Beatrice Rosen as his stalwart comrades at the police precinct and his long-suffering housemate Valentine, with whom Backstrom shares an unexpected connection.  Interestingly, all these characters serve as a perfect foil for Backstrom’s more acerbic and irritating manner, and it is through their eyes that we see what they already know:  Backstrom may be an ass, but he is a lovable one that they will champion every chance they get; for they know that his peculiar genus is the reason that criminals are getting caught and the streets are a bit safer with him around.  In addition, each adds a piece of the puzzle that makes Backstrom, as a cop, so successful, and as a show a much more fun and intriguing place to visit each week. (Side-note: do not miss episode 3 entitled “Bogeyman,” which rose to the level of art in its craftsmanship of story and characters.  It will be the episode that makes you fall in love with Backstrom, the character and the show, and admire the layers written into each of the characters so that each feels like you are opening up a treasure chest of secrets. Seriously, mind-blowingly fantastic episode!)

In a recent press conference call, star Rainn Wilson talked a bit about what drew him to such a challenging role and what he feels audiences will be drawn to as the show progresses.

With all the current societal concerns of racist police officers and/or police tampering with evidence, how do you see Backstrom, the show and the character, kind of fitting in?  The message is that he is kind of obnoxious or Fox described it as ‘unorthodox message.’ How does that fit in with sort of the cultural landscape across the United States right now?

RAINN: Wait a minute, you might be describing a television show that’s actually relevant to modern society! Outrageous.  Yes, there’s relevance there.  You know, there are a lot of crooked cops—and I don’t think there’s near as many as there used to be—and there are a lot of racist cops, but once you get to know Backstrom, you’ll see that it’s really not racism like you think of it.  He hates himself more than anyone.  So he’s racist against whites and blacks and any other race; and he is sexist against men as he is sexist against women.  He just is an all-purpose hater.

What would you consider to be Backstrom’s best quality and what would you consider his worst quality?

RAINN: I think that Backstrom’s best quality is sensitivity.  I think that anyone who is outwardly so insensitive, that has to come from somewhere; and it comes from a history of abuse, abandonment and neglect that he has gone through.  I’m not trying to get all psychobabble on you, but he truly is a deeply, deeply sensitive person.  He’s just been twisted and worked so much that it comes out sideways.  What’s his worst quality? He’s selfish and puts himself first.

This is your first TV starring role since THE OFFICE.  After so many people are used to seeing you play Dwight for nine seasons on that show, how did it feel for you now to step in to playing this new character, a very different one than you had played for many years?

RAINN: Yes, doing another TV show was kind of the last thing I wanted to do right away after THE OFFICE, after working so hard and for so long on that character.  But when I read the character of Backstrom it was kind of like, “Oh, darn it. This is too good. This is too rich.  It’s too interesting,”and it just drew me in incredibly.  I couldn’t say no.  It’s such a rich, multi-faceted character that I had to take it; and they don’t come along very often, especially for weird looking middle-aged character guys like myself.  So, to get a role this interesting for an actor such as myself was just a Godsend — and Hart Hanson is an incredible writer who can balance the drama and the humor, the absurdity at the same time so effortlessly so it all fits in into one tone.

The show was developed first at CBS.  Did you make any changes to the character when it moved to Fox,  or are you essentially playing the same guy that you signed on for?

RAINN:  We always knew it was going to be very tricky at CBS.  CBS is not really known for its unlikeable characters.  It really is known for its ensemble procedurals where characters are not as important on the CBS shows.  This is a show all about character.  Everyone in the ensemble has a very strong point of view and is very quirky in their own way.  So the adjustment really was going, “Goodie, yippee, we’re on Fox. Now we can do something a lot more interesting, and take a lot more risks.”  It’s still network television.  It’s not like a show that we could do if we were on FX or AMC, but for network television I think we’re trying to push the envelope in some really interesting ways.  We have some very [dark] episodes and we have some really comic episodes, too, but Hart Hanson walks that tightrope in his writing very well.

Is there any either person or character, something specifically that you took inspiration for in creating Backstrom?

RAINN: I would say the only inspiration that I had is growing up watching COLUMBO and watching THE ROCKFORD FILES.  That is why I was really excited about the kind of old school nature of the show.  There’s nothing slick about this show.  Well, I have a few little montages here and there, but it really is an old school.  It’s kind of cut from the 70s kind of detective show — a quirky character that is not a leading man, who is struggling to get by in the world, kind of an anti-hero and with some really major flaws who happens to be pretty brilliant at solving crimes.  So that would be my only inspiration, my main inspiration.  Other than that, it was really figuring out: who this guy was. Doing the acting work — the rich, detailed acting work.  I’m not saying that I was very good at it.  I tried to do the rich, detailed acting work that was exploring who this guy is, how he sees the world, how he sees the world through his particular work lens and his choices accordingly. Where does that come from?  What’s it like to really be in his shoes and see the world the way he does?  There’s a lot of pain there, but there’s also a lot of humor.  

Since you do have so many humorous lines, do you have a favorite one?

RAINN: Do I have a favorite line?  I like to say I’m a big fan of one they keep using on all those promos that they’re running over and over, “We’re looking for lesbians in a shed.”  That always makes me laugh for some reason.  Let me think about that.  I don’t have lines off the top of my head, really good Backstrom lines.  I’m sure there are plenty.  I wish Hart Hanson were one the phone; he can think up a thousand of them.

The guy living with Backstrom, are we supposed to think he’s his son or maybe his stepson.  Do we find that out sometime?

RAINN: Yes, there’s definitely something going on there.  There is some juicy connection between those two — between Thomas Dekker’s character, Valentine, and Backstrom.  You will definitely find that out.  That’s one of the great things about what Hart has done on this show is you go on a wonderful little story arc for the first 13 episodes.  You get to know Backstrom’s father, you get to know his ex-fiancée, and these kind of mysteries of who he is and why he is the way he is are revealed and that’s one of the interesting mysteries of it.

Is it a big star playing his father?  

RAINN:  Yes, Robert Forster is going to play his father in about three episodes.  It was fantastic working with him.  I’m just such a huge fan of his.  He did a great job.

Without divulging the actual mystery, can you talk a little bit more about Backstrom’s relationship with Valentine as well as your chemistry with Thomas Dekker?

RAINN: So this really became the central relationship of the show, Backstrom’s relationship with his roommate/lodger/fence/underworld connection/mysterious connection to Backstrom in some strange way that more will be revealed.  And it was one of those cases where Thomas Dekker is truly one of the very best actors I have ever worked with in my life.  He’s astonishingly good.  He’s so quick and he can go from high comedy to deep tragedy on the drop of a dime and he’s just a fascinating person and he creates fascinating characters.  So it just was this rich world of this relationship between the two of them.  We always knew that it was there, but it just really blossomed and grew over the episodes.  So you’ll see more and more of Valentine as this series goes along.   At first he was—do you remember Angel from ROCKFORD FILES? He always had this like kind of weaselly guy that was really funny that was always given choice tidbits of information.  You were always really excited when you saw Angel on the screen because you knew it was going to be really interesting — that’s kind of the role that Valentine originally was meant to be and then he just became much, much more than that as we went along.  I can’t say enough good things.  I can’t wait to talk again to you after the mystery is revealed, and then we can really kind of talk deeper about that relationship.

If you were interviewing your character on Backstrom, what would you ask him?

RAINN: That is an excellent question.  I guess I would ask him about his super power of how does seeing the very worse in humans allow him to see so deeply into the criminal mind and the criminal heart.

In what ways would you say that you are the same as Everett?

RAINN:   I’d certainly be slovenly and I certainly have a predilection towards being addictive compulsive — and I what else? I definitely can be super insensitive as a person.  That’s something I’ve always struggled with.  (Laughs) You can just ask my wife.  I think that would be a great question for my wife, actually.

This show comes from Hart Hanson, the mind behind BONES.  I was wondering if there was any discussion of maybe doing a crossover type episode with that show.

RAINN: I highly doubt that that would ever happen.  I think that they inhabit such different worlds.  BONES is much more silly [at times] than BACKSTROM, it’s much broader and I don’t see how the characters would jive.  I don’t see how they would get along in the same world —  but maybe so, maybe there will be such tremendous clamor for that. I mean BONES fans are really loyal and Hart Hanson fans are super, super loyal so that would be interesting to see.

What are three reasons why you think people should tune in to the show?

RAINN: Three reasons why they should tune in to the show? (Laugh) One, they get to see me almost naked a lot.  Two, I think I’ve rarely seen a network show that balances humor and the dark edge of the underbelly of the human condition so nicely.  And, three, what else can I tell you about for three?  Well, every episode is surprising in some way that you haven’t seen before.  So there is a nice surprising aspects.  Four, which you can actually substitute for one, would be it’s a terrific ensemble of actors:  Dennis Haysbert and Page Kennedy and Kris Polaha are really interesting, interesting actors that bring a ton to their characters.

Make a point of watching this new series.  Give it a chance and tune in for the first 3 episodes.  It’s worth it.  I promise.  So be sure to tune in for BACKSTROM’s premiere on Thursday, January 22nd (after “American Idol”) at 9:00 p.m. on Fox.  (Do not miss the “Bogeyman” episode!)

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