by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Rainn Wilson has played comedic characters in a wide range of stories. From the oddly sweet Arthur on Six Feet Under to the quirky clerk Rollo in Diablo Cody’s Juno. He is perhaps most revered for his role on The Office, making Dunder Mifflin paper salesman Dwight K. Schrute a household name.
Currently, Wilson is bringing the classic antagonist Gargamel to life in The Smurfs: The Lost Village. LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Wilson to talk about what he looks for in a character, a script, and the processes he uses to bring words on the page to the screen.
John Bucher: You’ve portrayed some pretty iconic characters in the past. What did you find new and exciting in playing Gargamel?
Rainn Wilson: Well, he’s one of those delicious comedic villains. He’s never going to catch, eat, or destroy the Smurfs. It’s always fun seeing different ways that he gets foiled or that he gets in his own way, and that’s why I love playing these comedic villains because they’re so preposterous. They have such giant egos and such amazing blind spots to their own foibles.
John Bucher: You portrayed one of the greatest comedic villains that television has ever known — Dwight Schrute on The Office. Did you find similarities between him and Gargamel?
Rainn Wilson: I think they’re similar in many ways. I think they both think that they’re brilliant and that their plans are flawless and they have a very particular intense way of taking the world. They also have incredible blind spots filled with idiotic stupidity. So, it’s just really fun to watch that unravel and it’s a source of great comedy.
John Bucher: Are there roles and characters on the horizon you are looking to play?
Rainn Wilson: You know, John, I’m very lucky to be a professional actor. It’s beyond my wildest dreams that I got to make my living this way, let alone become a celebrity and become rich from it. And I love playing a huge variety of roles. I love it. I like being in dark indie comedies and horror films. I love being on TV comedies and on long term shows, big budget action movies, and I love doing characters like Gargamel.
So, for me, it’s just about playing a wide range of characters because I love transforming and that’s what being an actor is all about — transforming yourself to become other people and to help tell stories.
John Bucher: When you encounter these words on the page and you begin to breathe life into a character, what does that process look like for you? Do you try different things? Is there research involved?
Rainn Wilson: The most important thing is you have to find what connects you to the role, what turns you on about it, and why you should be playing that character and not anyone else. What you bring to the table in the creation of that character. Your deepest connection. You’ve got to get your claws in, your hooks into the guts of the character, and once you do that, then you can do anything as the character. You know once you’ve found the character. It doesn’t matter if they change the dialogue or throw new lines at you or throw a new script at you if you’re really truly connected. So, that’s really where I put my focus.
John Bucher: What sort of stories are you looking for as an actor?
Rainn Wilson: Well, its two things. I want to play a variety of roles. I love stretching myself to play different kinds of characters. That’s number one. And number two: I am more drawn to stories that help make the world a better place. There’s a lot of negativity and there’s a lot of negative comedy these days. It’s just very lowest common denominator, the worst of human beings, and I’m really not so interested in that.
John Bucher: In this role, where you are providing the voice for an animated character, how did that process work? Did they base some of the actions and looks of Gargamel on your performance in the studio, or had you already seen work that had been done and animated and bring voice to that?
Rainn Wilson: Anytime there’s an animated film, they’re filming the actor doing the voice. So, they take not just your voice but your gestures, your looks, your eyebrows, how the corners of your mouth turn up or down in a particular phrase. They bring a lot of fun personal eccentricities of the actor into the character, which is really fun. To see a character that you’ve voiced mirroring some of your gestures or facial tics is amazing.
They really want an actor to improvise. I love doing that — improvising, going off script. Just letting it rip. Seeing what comes. On The Smurfs I actually got to do a punch up and rewrite of the character of Gargamel. So, that was a really fun project to be a part of. It was great to just contribute in a lot of different ways to the character. So, when you see Gargamel, many of the lines I wrote. Many of the lines I improvised. Many of the gestures are mine. There’s a great deal of Rainn Wilson in the character.
John Bucher: When you think back, ten twenty years from now, having been a part of this film, what will be the one thing that sticks out in your mind as the result of this experience in having played Gargamel?
Rainn Wilson: You know, I think the Smurfs bring a lot of joy to a lot of children. There’s just something really fun and magical about the whole Smurfs experience, and just being a part of that is great. Hopefully a couple of generations of children will be able to enjoy the Smurfs the way that we all did in the 80s when it was on TV. I think that’s a great legacy to be a part of.
Smurfs: The Lost Village is currently in theaters.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.