From creator/executive producer Hart Hanson (Bones), Backstrom is a subversive and comic crime procedural about an unhealthy, offensive and irascible, although brilliant, detective who sees the worst in everyone, and is usually right. Detective Lieutenant Everett Backstrom (Rainn Wilson) is a man with no filter, who has returned from disgrace to lead Portland’s newly minted Special Crimes Unit, which is tasked with navigating the city’s most sensitive and serious cases. The show also stars Dennis Haysbert, Kristoffer Polaha, Genevieve Angelson, Page Kennedy, Beatrice Rosen and Thomas Dekker.
During this recent interview with press to discuss the show’s premiere, actor Rainn Wilson talked about how Backstrom (the show and the character) fits in with the current cultural landscape, his character’s best and worst qualities, what drew him back to TV for this show, the different in preparation for a 60-minute procedural vs. a 30-minute comedy, how moving from CBS to Fox changed things, his inspiration for the role, and whether there could ever be a cross-over between Backstrom and Bones. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Question: With all of the current societal concerns of racist police officers or tampering with evidence, how do you see Backstrom, the show and the character, fitting in? How does he fit in with the cultural landscape across the United States, right now?
RAINN WILSON: Wait a minute. You might be describing a television show that’s actually relevant to modern society? Outrageous. Yes, there’s relevance there. There are a lot of crooked cops, but 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 as 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 to be his worst quality?
WILSON: 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. 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.
After so many seasons on The Office, how did it feel for you to step in to playing this new character, who is a very different one?
WILSON: Doing another TV show was the last thing I wanted to do, right away after The Office, and after working so hard and for so long on that character. But when I read the character of Backstrom, it was like, “Oh, darn it, this is too good. This is too rich. This is too interesting.” 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. 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 god-send. And Hart Hanson is an incredible writer who can balance the drama and the humor and the absurdity, at the same time, so effortlessly so that it all fits in into one tone.
What is the difference in preparation between the 60-minute procedural, where you’re the lead, versus the 30-minute ensemble sitcom with more episodes?
WILSON: For the 30-minute sitcom, there is no preparation, so it’s a huge difference. The Office was usually short scenes that were largely improvised. If you messed up your lines, it was okay. We made sure that we always got it as scripted, at least once, but it was much more free-wheeling and about finding the comedy, in the moment. Yes, there were through-lines in the episodes, but it was just about being open and spontaneous, to find those little gems. With Backstrom, there is a lot of drama in the show and there are a lot of through-lines. You have to be very aware of what’s going on, scene to scene. I’ve never had to do as much preparation as I have in Backstrom. I’ve never worked as hard, in my life. It’s seven to eight pages of dialogue a day, usually with 13- to 14-hour shoot days, and it’s not like he’s just passive in the scenes. He’s very active in driving scenes, and digging, exploring, emoting and hitting the jokes. You have to be really, really on, at the same time. So, it was really night and day.
The show was developed first at CBS, so 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?
WILSON: Well, we always knew it was going to be very tricky at CBS. CBS is not really known for its likeable 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. Hart Hanson walks that tightrope in his writing very well.
WILSON: I would say the only inspiration that I had is growing up watching Columbo and watching The Rockford Files. I was really excited about the old-school nature of the show. There’s nothing slick about this show. I have a few little montages, here and there, but it really is cut from the 70s detective shows. It’s a quirky character that is not a leading man, who is struggling to get by in the world. He’s an anti-hero with some really major flaws, who happens to be pretty brilliant at solving crimes. So, that would be my only inspiration, and my main inspiration. Other than that, it was really figuring out who this guy is, and doing the rich, detailed acting work. I’m not saying that I was very good at it, but I tried to explore who this guy is, 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.
Will we find out more about the story between Backstrom and the kid who’s living with him?
WILSON: Yes, there’s definitely something going on there. There is some juicy connection 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. You go on a wonderful little story arc for the first 13 episodes. You get to know Backstrom’s father. Robert Forster is going to play his father. And you get to know his ex-fiancée. These 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.
WILSON: It really became the central relationship of the show. Backstrom’s relationship with his roommate/lodger/fence and the underworld connection/mysterious connection to Backstrom will be revealed. 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. He’s just a fascinating person, and he creates fascinating characters. And 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. I can’t say enough good things.
Any chance of a cross-over episode between Backstrom and Bones?
WILSON: You know, I highly doubt that that would ever happen. I think that they inhabit such different worlds. Bones is much more silly than Backstrom, 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 there will be such tremendous clamor for that. Bones fans are really loyal, and Hart Hanson fans are super, super loyal, so that would be interesting to see.
Backstrom airs on Thursday nights on Fox.