FOX’s newest procedural, Backstrom, hits our TV screens tonight. Backstrom stars Emmy Award nominee Rainn Willson as Everett Backstrom, an unhealthy, offensive, surly—albeit brilliant—detective who sees the worst in everyone. Fortunately—or unfortunately—he’s usually right. He spent five years in the traffic division after being knocked down there for offensive behavior, and he has now returned to lead Portland’s newly minted S.C.U. (or Special Crimes Unit).
Because of that, series lead, Rainn Wilson, recently spoke to the press about his character, how the show/character relates to what’s happening currently in society, and what it was like to work with the others on the show. Check out what he had to say…
On the relevancy of Backstrom, the show, & the characters to the current societal feelings toward the police
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. 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, 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.
Jump with me to read more from Rainn.
On Backstrom’s best and worst qualities
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.
On joining Backstrom and playing this new role after Dwight on The Office
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.
On the show moving to FOX after first being developed at CBS
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 [dramatic] episodes, and we have some really [comedic] episodes, too, but Hart Hanson walks that tightrope in his writing very well.
On where he drew inspiration for his character
Rainn: 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 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.
On the relationship between Backstrom and Valentine
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 [played by Robert Forster], 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.
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. I loved working with him. It was very exciting.
On the difference in prepping for and filming a 30-minute sitcom and 60-minute procedural
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.
Three reasons why people should tune in
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.
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.
Thanks again to Rainn for taking the time to speak to everyone. Don’t miss the series premiere of Backstrom tonight on FOX at 9/8c. You won’t be disappointed!