FOX’s Backstrom (Thursdays, 9/8C) could be seen as Dr. Gregory House as a police detective, or he could be seen as Sherlock Holmes as Inspector Lestrade. Whatever the case, Detective Lieutenant Everett Backstrom is the misanthropic head of a team of detectives that tackles the crimes that must be dealt with fast.
In the Swedish novels on which the series is based, Backstrom’s one gift is taking credit for the achievements of his team. Here, however, despite his selfishness and detestation of people in general – and despite fact that his team could probably do the job without him – he is more brilliant than they are so it takes less time to close a case if he works on it (he still tries to do as little work as possible).
Rainn Wilson stars as Det.-Lt. Backstrom and was kind enough to speak about the show – and his character – with a group of journalists/bloggers late last week. He had some interesting things to say – to see how he arrived at the conclusion he made in our headline, follow the jump.
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Rainn Wilson: I’m doing well. How’s it going?
Going great. Thanks so much for taking the call.
Okay, I have got a couple of questions for you. The first one – you know with all the current societal concerns of racist police officers or tampering with evidence, how do you see Backstrom, the show and the character, kind of fitting in; or the message is that he is kind of obnoxious or I think 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 if you watch the episodes, I’m not sure if you’ve gotten a chance to see them yet, but when you do, assuming that you’re going to, 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.
Okay and yes, I have seen the four episodes that Fox released.
Rainn: Awesome. Thanks for [indiscernible].
I enjoyed them, I enjoyed them. And I guess my next question then, follow up, would be what would you consider Backstrom’s best quality and what would you consider his worst quality – the character?
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. 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.
So, this is your first TV starring role since The Office. And 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, well it was really—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.
And just a follow-up on that, I know the show was developed first at CBS and 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: 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. We have some very [indiscernible] episodes and we have some really comic episodes, too, but Hart Hanson walks that tightrope in his writing very well.
I was going to say first, I really enjoyed the first two episodes. I was curious, 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 is I was really excited about the kind of old school nature of the show. There’s nothing slick about this show. Well, you know, 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. You know, 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 inspiriation, 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.
Right. And then I was going to say as a follow up, since you do have so many humorous lines, do you have a favorite one?
Rainn: Do I have a favorite episode?
No, line, like something he said because there are a lot of good ones.
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.
I actually never saw The Office, so I think you’ve been doing a great job on Backstrom.
Rainn: Oh, right. Okay, good for you. I love that you admitted that. That’s very brave.
I was going to say, I like the interplay of all the different characters and I was wondering, I don’t know if this is too early for you to answer or not, but it seems like the kid living with him, we’re supposed to think he’s his son, or maybe his stepson. Do we know, 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.
Good. Is it a big star playing his father? Somebody that’s we’d go, oh, that’s a great—
Rainn: Yes, Robert Forster—
Oh good, I love him.
Rainn: —is going to play his father in about three episodes.
Oh, great. Oh, he’s wonderful.
Rainn: Yes, and it was fantastic working with him. I’m just such a huge fan of his. He did a great job.
Oh, yes, he’s terrific. Oh, good, I look forward to seeing that. Have you filmed all of the episodes for this season yet, or are you still working on them?
Rainn: We finished 13 episodes and we were done by early November.
I was wondering if you could tell me three reasons why you think people should tune in to the show?
Rainn: Three reasons why they should tune in to the show. One, they get to see me almost naked a lot.
Oh, that’s a good one.
Rainn: 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.
Yes, from the episodes I’ve seen I agree with that.
Rainn: And, three, what else can I tell you about three? Every episode is surprising in some way that you haven’t seen before. So there is a nice surprising aspect. 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.
Great. And then for a follow-up question, 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.
Rainn: 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. [Indiscernible] 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.
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. 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.
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 he 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.
Right, it’s just a really interesting chemistry you guys have.
Rainn: Yes, yes, I loved working with him. It was very exciting.
Can you talk a little bit about the difference in preparation between the 60-minute procedural where you’re the lead versus the 30-minute sitcom with more episodes?
Rainn: Yes, in the 30-minute sitcom, no preparation, so it’s a huge difference. The Office was usually short scenes, largely improvised, if you messed up your lines it’s okay. And then we made sure that we always got it as scripted at least once, but it was much more freewheeling and it was more about finding the comedy in the moment. Yes, there were through lines in the episodes, but it was just being open and spontaneous to find those little gems.
In Backstrom there is a lot of drama in the show, and there’s a lot of through lines, you have to be very aware what’s going on scene to scene and I’ve never had to do as much preparation as I have in Backstrom. I’ve never worked as hard in my life; 7 to 8 pages of dialogue a day, usually 13 to 14 hour shoot days and it’s not like he’s just passive in the scenes. He’s very active driving scenes, and digging and exploring and emoting and hitting the jokes. So you have to be really, really on at the same time. So it was really night and day.
And just for fun, if you were interviewing your character on Backstrom what would you ask him?
Rainn: I would ask him, oh, that is an excellent question. Really excellent question. I guess I would ask him about his super power of how does seeing the very worst in humans allow him to see so deeply into the criminal mind. [Indiscernible] the criminal mind, [indiscernible] the criminal heart. [Indiscernible] the criminal element must be feeling.
I was wondering if you had to choose, what things would you say that you’re the same as Everett? Obviously not physically, but mentally or—
Rainn: Well, I am physically. That is [indiscernible]. I’d certainly be slovenly. 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. You can just ask my wife. I think that would be a great question for my wife, actually. Could you ask my wife, please, in what way I might be the same as Everett Backstrom?
Photos by Brendan Meadows, Frank Ockenfels and Sergei Bachlakov/Courtesy of FOX