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Rainn Wilson in "Thom Pain (based on nothing)" at the Geffen Playhouse. (Photo by Jeff Lorch)
Rainn Wilson in "Thom Pain (based on nothing)" at the Geffen Playhouse. (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

I Need You, I Hate You: Rainn Wilson Plays With the Audience in ‘Thom Pain’

The ‘Office’ star has wanted to tackle Will Eno’s breakthrough monologue for a decade, and Geffen Playhouse had an open slot. Is he ready to get shouted at?

Rainn Wilson is best known for his nine seasons as Dwight Schrute, the Malvolio-esque paper salesman/beet farmer on the NBC hit comedy “The Office.” A Seattle native who got his acting MFA at NYU, Wilson has done his share of New York theatre and film as well, and he’s also one of the creators of the media company Soul Pancake (of Kid President fame). This week he starts previews at Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse of Will Eno’s odd, affecting solo show Thom Pain (based on nothing); the show runs Jan. 8–Feb. 14. It represents both Wilson’s and Eno’s L.A. stage debut.

Thom Pain is a one-man show, but the published script lists the dramatis personae as “Thom Pain” and “Audience.”
I’ll tell you this much: The audience doesn’t have to memorize a 70-minute monologue. They have an easier acting job than I do.

I’ve heard that you and Will Eno go back a long way.
Will and I were roommattes in 1987 when I was in the graduate acting program at NYU. I and my girlfriend shared an apartment with him in Chelsea. We got along great. He was a painter then; he had been a competitive bicyclist. I lost track of him after that, but then a few years later I saw that he was doing theatre and creative writing. So we started working on some stuff. I did some readings of his early plays. I was the first person to do a reading of a play of his called Mr. Theatre Comes Home Different.

Did you see the original Thom Pain?
Yes, 11 years ago, with James Urbaniak. I was just blown away; I was absolutely transfixed. I was talking to Will at the time: Could I fill in, be a pinchhitter? That didn’t work with the TV schedule I had, but at various points in time, I’ve been looking for ways to do it in L.A. Then I talked to the Geffen, and you know, their schedule is planned two years in advance; they don’t just have instant space available. But actually in this case, they did have instant space available—they saw they were dark in January. So they asked me if could rehearse over the holidays. It worked out perfectly.

I know you did some theatre before, but probably not everyone is familiar with your pre-“Office” credits.
I did a couple Shakespeare in the Parks and I toured with the Acting Company doing Shakespeare. And I did a lot of theatre downtown; I did Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus at the Public, directed by Richard Foreman, and I worked at Roundabout, Playwrights Horizons, PS122. I directed a play I came up with called The New Bozena, this crazy clown sketch comedy show that performed at the Cherry Lane.

David Costabile, Michael Dahlen, and Kevin Isola in "The New Bozena" at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
David Costabile, Michael Dahlen, and Kevin Isola in “The New Bozena” at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

That answers one question I had, given your work on TV—whether you had comedy training or experience.
I was more of a theatre artist coming out of NYU; I didn’t do standup or improv, but I did a lot of comedy-based downtown work.

One thing people like and dislike about Will Eno is that some of his one-liners sound like, well, one-liners; one critic has compared him to Steven Wright.
Well, Samuel Beckett drew some of his inspiration from vaudeville and Buster Keaton. I’m not sure Will draws inspiration from standup, but he’s not afraid to just tell a joke to just make people laugh. It keeps you off your balance. It’s canny. Will always goes for the jugular, for the emotional story, but he’s also unexpectedly funny. You find yourself laughing, and that makes you so much more open to receive the next profound moment he sends your way.

His work can be really divisive, as you know.
It’s very language-oriented. You have to be into that. You have to want to dive into some exquisite and complicated language. It’s all used very precisely. There’s not a single word you can change, which is completely the opposite from TV, where you can go in and just make sure you make the story point and get the joke in there.

But you can’t play into the poetry of the language. It’s the same in Shakespeare: You have to make it seem like the character is having the thought in the moment, and never have it seem like you’re speechifying.

One thing the play has in common with “The Office” is a lot of direct address.
That hadn’t occurred to me, but yes: looking at the camera, having an awareness of the audience.

And both make the most of meaningful pauses.
Will’s work plays the pauses really beautifully. His writing, as you get into it, has such a rhythm to it. There are sections that flow like stream-of-consciousness, sections that are just like telling a story, and some that are jagged, all over the place. And there are pauses that range from anywhere from a second to a minute.

Do you think the character is going through some sort of breakdown during the play?
He definitely goes through the wringer. Would I characterize it as a breakdown? That’s a bit too on the nose. Yes, things fall apart, and he tries to put them back together; he’s in a different place at the end than he was at the beginning.

Even in plays where the playwright doesn’t explicitly note that the audience is a character, I’ve heard that the actor needs to think of them as his scene partner—to want something from them.
I look at it like he needs the audience and he resents them at the same time. There’s this constant pull and push: I need you, I hate you; I need you, I wish you weren’t here.

That reminds me a bit of Dwight’s occasionally snotty attitude to viewers of “The Office.”
Right: “You, the viewer, must be an idiot.” I don’t think Thom Pain goes that far. I guess you could say that both have a combative relationship to the viewer.

Thom says at one point, one of my favorite lines: “As for our story, if you’re lost at all, you’re not alone. Don’t think I’m somewhere out ahead, somewhere anywhere, with a plan. I’m right here beside you, or hiding behind you, like you, in terrible pain, trying to make sense of my life.” He’s in cahoots with the audience; he needs them there to work this out. Almost like you need a therapist in the room to work out your stuff; you can’t just go in a room by yourself and work it out.

In some cases you’re asking the audience questions. When you saw the play, did the audience answer back?
I’ve heard lots of stories from James Urbaniak and from Will. People get very confused; Thom asks the audience questions and they don’t know whether they should respond, and there are a lot of stunts involving the audience. The opening is in a blackout, and I’m told that it was common for audience members to shout out, “Lights! The lights aren’t on!” And it’s interactive enough that some felt free to say out loud, “Oh, this is terrible.”

So are you prepared for audience feedback?
I’m not really prepared. I don’t know what to do if the lights come up and someone in the audience is dressed as Dwight, or if during the blackout someone shouts out, “Bears, beets, ‘Battlestar Galactica’!”

Will you be disappointed if there’s not a little interaction during the run?
I will not be disappointed. It’s challenging enough to do. You have to be ready for anything. But you know, the audience has to be ready for anything with this play, too.

How involved are you in Soul Pancake?
I have a team of people that run it but I’m very involved. We’ve transitioned from a web presence to being a media company. We’re not interested in creating our own platform; we’re interested in making content for YouTube, SnapChat, Facebook, television, new formats.

You were a producer on “The Office.” Do you do a lot of generating your own work?
Yes, I’m currently producing several different things: trying to get a miniseries off the ground, and trying to write a television show for myself to star in. But one reason I’ve enjoyed doing Thom Pain so much is that I’m just an actor on this; my job is to bring it to life. I love being more entrepreneurial, writing and producing, working in the digital space. But my roots are in transforming myself into a character and bringing a writer’s words to life, and I never want to lose that.

Are you okay with being forever identified as Dwight?
It’s fine. I’m a suburban kid from Seattle, and the fact that I get to be a professional actor, or a professional anything, is fucking amazing. I have no problem being Dwight. I feel lucky to make a living.

I’d like to hit you with some of the questions Thom asks the audience. First: When did your childhood end?
Well, we’re going to get all deep here, aren’t we? My childhood ended when I moved to New York City in 1986.

Another: What if you had only one day to live?
I’d be brave and true and reckless. I would love life and people with wild and new abandon.

Good answer (that’s the rest of the quote from the play). A few more: Where are we supposed to learn about things?
From watching people on reality television.

Finally, most importantly: Must you be exactly that tall?
Well, fortunately, as I get older my height is decreasing. I was once 6’2”, but now I’m squarely 6’1”.

It happens that soon?
I’m 49, and the spine is starting to bend.

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