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Rainn Wilson: Nerd King Of The Pacific Northwest

Rainn Wilson: 'I was on the chess team. Model United Nations. Computer club. Debate club. I played xylophone in the marching band, and the Shorecrest High School Highlanders wear kilts.  So I was a skinny, xylophone player in a dress.'
Flickr Photo/Jens Schott Knudsen (CC BY NC 2.0)/
Rainn Wilson: 'I was on the chess team. Model United Nations. Computer club. Debate club. I played xylophone in the marching band, and the Shorecrest High School Highlanders wear kilts. So I was a skinny, xylophone player in a dress.'

Rainn Wilson – Dwight Schrute on The Office – grew up in the Seattle area and attended the University of Washington. He spoke recently with KUOW Ross Reynolds about nerd-dom, the Baha'i faith and his new book, "The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith and Idiocy."

Here are edited excerpts from the interview

My mom took off when I was 2 years old. She was doing theater in Seattle in the late ’60s, experimental theater. And my dad lived on a houseboat on Lake Union. My dad was a painter. He wrote science fiction books on the side. I got their artistic Bohemian genes, that’s for sure.

Losing a mother at the age of 2, I don't know exactly what effect it had on me, but you know none good.

My family is very strange – they're incredibly uncommunicative. They don't really talk about things, especially uncomfortable things. They just don't give them voice. Which is why I like to talk about uncomfortable things and give them voice so directly.

We were poor. The only time I remember realizing that was when I went to a kid's birthday party, and he got all these presents and these toys and they were just piled up: 20, 25 presents and toys and I had just never seen so many toys in my life.

Did I put it together that we were poor at that point? Not so much, but I knew like, “Wow, I don't have what these other kids, the Gnip Gnops, the lawn darts and the Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots and all the great toys of the ’70s.” You know I had a couple of books and a remote control car and that was it.

They had a rule that they would buy me as many books as I promised to read. Every week I would come back with a stack up to my chin of science fiction paperbacks. And I would read them, and I read my dad's too.

He would write a new science fiction book about every nine months or so, and I would read it when it was hot off the presses. I was his first reader. I gobbled them up voraciously – they're really pretty terrific.

I was roped into (playing bassoon) at Kellogg Junior High School. I was a clarinetist and I wanted to switch to saxophone so I went to John Law, the junior high school band teacher. His actual name is John Law.

[asset-images[{"caption": "", "fid": "122249", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201511/20151119_the_bassoon_king.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Good Reads"}]]The saxophones were cool. My saxophone friends would wear sunglasses, and they could wear loud Hawaiian shirts that matched, and they would do that move with the saxophone that Clarence Clemons does all the time. They could honk it – you know WHAAK – like Lisa Simpson, and I wanted to be part of that.

But Johnny Law, he’s like, “Yeaaaah ... you know we've got so many saxophonists right now.”

He goes, “You know what? There is an instrument that is SO unique and cool that you could play.”

And I was like, “What? What's so unique and cool, what could I play?”

And he’s like, “It's called the bassoooooon.”

I was like, “Oooh, sign me up. Oh absolutely. I'd love to play that, whatever that weird thing is.”

So I kind of got conned into it. I had visions of being this unique guy playing this wildly cool instrument – the equivalent of a light saber – and girls fawning and falling at my feet. And none of that happened.

I call it my nerd crucifix. It's kind of a badge of honor, and yeah I love that damn bassoon.

I was the nerd king.

I was pimply, A.

B, I played the bassoon.

C, I was on the chess team. Model United Nations. Computer club. Debate club. I played xylophone in the marching band, and the Shorecrest High School Highlanders wear kilts.

So I was a skinny, xylophone player in a dress and played Dungeons and Dragons all weekend.

It gave me a great group of friends. We watched Monty Python sketches together and Saturday Night Live together and played Dungeons and Dragons. We were not worried about being popular. We weren't worried about girls, we weren’t worried about social status and moving up the food chain or any of that stuff.

It was this weird little stinky petri dish of nerd-dom where we could just express our humor and our weirdness. And I'm really grateful for that.

About being rejected by the UW professional actor program:There was a guy at the University of Washington – I forget the guy's name – he always wore an ascot.

If you're a drama teacher at a college and wear an ascot, I'm sorry something's wrong with you. That's not how the world works. But he wore an ascot. And he rejected me. He didn't understand what this skinny strange actor gesticulating in front of him was doing. But I ended up getting into the NYU graduate acting program and went to New York in ’86 and it was great for me.

I was working professionally as an actor, which was beyond my wildest dreams.

And yet I was unhappy. I couldn't figure out why. Because that's how happiness is supposed to work in the world. You work for what you want, you suffer along the way, once you get it, then you're happy. Well there I was with what I had always wanted, and I just was simply not happy. It was not fulfilling me.

I was getting into a lot of trouble with drugs and alcohol and a lot of other pursuits that definitely were taking me away from my center. But it started a spiritual journey, so I started reading holy books and attending various churches and meditation groups. I even joined the Green Party for a while and tried politics for a little bit.

I was trying to find something to fill that hole, and I went on a search for God. Eventually, after many years, it led me back to the (Baha’i) faith of my childhood.

From his book, “Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith and Idiocy”:

We Seattleites always wanted the city to be where it eventually ended up, which is not such a good thing in retrospect. Be careful what you wish for.

It was a backwater in the ’70s, famous only for the film “It Happened at the World's Fair” with Elvis Presley as a crop dusting pilot dancing under the Space Needle with a little Chinese girl and wooing a forgettable pretty young nurse with his guitar.

As a city we couldn't get any respect back then, even with the 1979 world champion Supersonics. We just wanted people to like us. We wanted to be San Francisco. How come everybody in the world loved San Francisco and knew every morsel of Frisco history when our little mossy burg was such a forgotten cultural backwater?

San Francisco had the 49ers and the Golden Gate Bridge and Chinatown and Rice-A-Roni and cable cars. We had Boeing. San Francisco had redwoods and Berkeley and Steinbeck and Alcatraz. We had Boeing. OK. Now I get why.

Seattle was a moody little town nestled under mountains and fir trees and drizzly low maritime clouds. There were lumberjacks around – at least there must have been with all the trucks of trees proceeding down from the mountains filled with Washington toothpicks. There were fisherman and airplane assemblers and surly wool-clad Scandinavian laborers drinking Rainier beer by the gallon.

Photo: “RainnWilson introducing Josh Ritter” by Jens Schott Knudsen on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)