Ep. 10: Rainn Wilson
BY Future of StoryTelling — May 21, 2020

Rainn Wilson discusses the need for positive stories on the internet, what it took to create the iconic Dwight Schrute character, and his high school radio show where he read Dr. Seuss poems in between punk rock songs.


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Charlie Melcher: Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher and I'd like to welcome you back to the Future of StoryTelling Podcast. Joining me today is actor, writer, comedian and producer Rainn Wilson. Though many listeners will know him from his numerous film and TV roles, especially his iconic portrayal of Dwight Schrute on The Office. Fewer may be familiar with his broader work as a storyteller through his company, SoulPancake, which he co-founded with two friends in 2009. SoulPancake was one of the earliest companies founded with the vision of producing positive, uplifting, and informative videos for the internet audience, countering what Rainn saw as a growing trend of mindless and divisive content online. The formula was a runaway success, earning the company hundreds of millions of views on YouTube, on New York Times bestselling book and collaborations with the likes of Weezer and President Barack Obama. In 2016, SoulPancake was acquired by Participant Media, where it now fits and thrives, beautifully with Participant's model of creating inspiring entertainment that compels global awareness and positive social change.

Today, Rainn and I discuss his desire to unite people through better stories, the unique opportunities that platforms such as YouTube and Instagram provide for content creators and his newest live streaming project, Hey There, Human. Please join me in welcoming Rainn Wilson to the Future of StoryTelling Podcast.

Rainn Wilson, this is such a delight to have you on our podcast. Thank you for being here today.

Rainn Wilson: It's a delight for me as well. Thanks for having me.

Charlie Melcher: This is really a tremendous exciting pleasure for me because I'm a hardcore Office fan. I have to confess to you.

Rainn Wilson: Okay, good. Let's get that out. Good.

Charlie Melcher: We'll just get that out of the way. I started with the British version and then went to the American edition. And anyway, I'm a huge fan, so I'll get that out of the way now. Thank you. So your fascination with storytelling started when? Started young?

Rainn Wilson: Wow, we're going all the way back.

Charlie Melcher: Choose a spot.

Rainn Wilson: I guess my fascination with storytelling went all the way back to the earliest human civilization, when we lived in caves and my distant ancestors would huddle around the fire after the day's hunt and tell stories of the hunt of that day. And the shaman, who was part mystic, part priest, part guru, part standup comedian, part storyteller, a la Spalding Gray, visionary, mystic. Did I say comedian? I did. All of those things wrapped into one, would also tell the mythology of the cave by flickering candle light and regale people with funny stories, make them laugh, make them think. But more specifically, I guess my interest in storytelling started with watching way, way, way too much television.

Charlie Melcher: Well, first let me just say how much I appreciate and love that you started us back at the earliest origins of sharing stories, because that's when stories helped us to understand the chaotic world we lived in. Right? Why people got eaten by animals or there was lightning?

Rainn Wilson: Exactly, yeah.

Charlie Melcher: But I think that the storytelling you're doing today is doing exactly the same thing.

Rainn Wilson: I would be so flattered if it was doing exactly the same thing, but it's, I think, what all storytellers aspire to, on some level.

Charlie Melcher: Exactly. Tell me about your very first radio show in high school, Uncle Rainn's Story Hour.

Rainn Wilson: Uncle Rainn's Story Hour, yeah. I was from a pretty working class blue-collar area of Seattle, Washington. I transferred high school when I was 16, to suburban Chicago, to a big kind of fancy arts high school, and they had their own radio station. So I went to a high school, New Trier High School, had its own radio station up on the roof, literally a transmitter and a broadcast booth and the whole thing. And I had Uncle Rainn's Story Hour. I wanted there to be some gimmick, so I would play punk rock and new wave music that I loved, in those days. And I would read children's stories. So I would always bring books from the library of, Dr. Seuss and whatnot, and I'd read them to people on the air in between punk rock songs.

Charlie Melcher: I love it. I love it. So early experience as a storyteller, but also with music and radio. And then this rolled it into an acting career.

Rainn Wilson: Yeah. So, a lot happened in between me reading children's stories on the high school radio station and me kind of committing to acting. But really the reason I started acting is I took my first acting class, I did an exercise that made all the girls laugh. I was the new kid at the school and it was kind of ungainly and gawky and weird. And nevertheless, the girls came over and said, "Hey, will you sit with us at our lunch table? You're so funny. Where are you from? Tell us about yourself." That was it. It was off to the races. So I went out into the world and started auditioning when I was around 19, and boy did I suck? And so I auditioned for training schools and I went to NYU, which I was so fortunate to get into when I was 20 years old and moved to New York city in 1986.

Charlie Melcher: And that was a very intense experience, right? I mean, acting school, you're deep in it.

Rainn Wilson: Super intense. 16 hours a day, rehearsing, nonstop. You're doing clowning, we did circus skills, we did dance, voice and speech, we did Shakespeare, all of these countless classes. And you had to be prepared for all of them, so you had to have songs ready, monologues ready. You had to be memorizing your lines from the play that you were currently doing at nights. We'd do that all day and then we'd rehearse plays all night. And I just loved it. I was like a kid in the sandbox. For someone who loved acting, it was exercising all of those incredible acting muscles. You really learn style.

Charlie Melcher: And then how did you get from New York to LA?

Rainn Wilson: Nine years I did theater in New York and although I worked a lot, I never made over 18 or $19,000 in a year. A lot of side jobs, catering, driving a moving van to keep myself going. And I knew in the back of my head like, "Listen, if I ever want to make it, if I ever want to have a kid or buy a house or anything, I'm going to need to get some film and TV work." Some friends of mine, we started a kind of a sketch comedy clown show called The New Bozena. It was very surreal, clowns and giant talking birds. We took our crazy ass clown show out to Los Angeles in 1999 and started performing it around. And believe it or not, we actually got some interest and people were really turned on by the show.

And upon arriving in LA, I was able to get some movie roles and TV roles, and started to get a film and TV career going. And while I was in New York, I couldn't even get arrested in film and television. I couldn't even get an audition for like Law & Order. Like everyone and their cousin auditioned for Law & Order. I couldn't even get an audition for like forklift driver number three on Law & Order. So that's how slim the pickings were in New York City. But doors started opening for me in LA.

Charlie Melcher: And then eventually that led to being an overnight success with The Office.

Rainn Wilson: Overnight success, no, not quite. By the way, if you hear weird clicking and squeaking and squawking in the background, those are my very loud guinea pigs doing their thing. So if people are like, "Am I just hearing noises back there?" They're doing their own storytelling back there. Several years of being broke in LA, auditioning, doing terrible guest spots on TV shows. I was on CSI. I was on Charmed and a bunch of other shows that no one ever watched. And that is what led ultimately, to The Office.

Charlie Melcher: If you'll indulge me just one or two questions about The Office, and we'll move on.

Rainn Wilson: Of course, you can have three or four.

Charlie Melcher: You and Dwight Schrute might look alike, but otherwise you're just so completely different. How did you go about creating that beloved character?

Rainn Wilson: The actor's fundamental role, I believe, is one of transformation. So you take all of the tools that you have been given in this world, that your God given DNA, your voice, your speech, your sense of humor, your way that you use language. And then you meld that with the character from the page. So what is my version of Dwight Schrute? My version of Dwight Schrute would be very different, than say, Paul Giamatti's version of Dwight Schrute. He would be using his psychosocial relational history and body and language and speech and personal way of seeing the world, and meld that with the Dwight from the page.

But in this act of transformation, something really magical happens. I drew a lot on my background, coming from kind of trashy working class Seattle roots. And that's a theater training, how would that manifest in the body? So kind of like a ramrod straight neck and a kind of like a arrogance in his shoulders. And those are the tools, the physical, emotional, humor tools that you use in creating a character, and I got lucky.

Charlie Melcher: I don't think it's a lot of luck, but it worked very beautifully. So after the office, or I guess maybe it was right around while you were still doing it, you decided to start SoulPancake with a couple of partners. Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration for starting that?

Rainn Wilson: I was talking to some friends of mine about using my platform, like what can we do? The internet was pretty new then, it was 2007, 2008, that we first started having discussions about what to do on the web. And it was kind of, the web at the time was kind of the worst of humanity. I mean, it was just the worst of people. It was Kardashian butts and credit scores and fails, all these videos of people falling off their hot tubs. And we were like, "Well, what can we do that's positive on the web, that can unite people and bring them together and challenge them and get them talking?"

So we started SoulPancake. Originally it was a web destination, a kind of social media site where you could post your life's biggest questions. We were like, chew on life's big questions. We pivoted partway through, in about 2009, 2010. We realized that the video content we were making was far more successful. It was reaching more people, affecting more people. And we were the first. We were before Upworthy, before any A plus or any of the other companies that followed thereafter, doing kind of inspiring content. We were the first on the map.

Charlie Melcher: What's an example of one of your favorite positive pieces of content that you guys created?

Rainn Wilson: Well, we did Kid President early on. That was a big hit show and people still, teachers play a lot of Kid President videos over the years. And that really kind of nailed who we were and what we were trying to do. But early on, there was another show that still continues to this day. It's called My Last Days. And it's by the great filmmaker and actor, producer, Justin Baldoni. It's about what lessons do we learn from life, from people at the end of life? Yes, it's sad, but is it a bummer? No, it's really inspiring and uplifting and heartwarming. Believe it or not, a big hit show. We've got tens of millions, hundreds of millions of views on a show about death. A few years in, we put together a sizzle reel about the show and we took it around like, "Oh, maybe there's a TV show in here." We showed it all over town. We literally would show it in rooms, it happened multiple times, and we would show it to the executives and they would be in tears at the end.

Charlie Melcher: They're crying, yeah.

Rainn Wilson: And I am not kidding you, teared. I'm talking about tears pouring down their faces. Not like one little tearing up. I mean weeping television executives. Top that. And every time they would say, "I'm so sorry, we just can't do this." Because they, ultimately in television, they have to sell Honda's and Coca-Cola's and ice cream bars. And they can't have a show about death, they're not going to get the advertisers to advertise there. So YouTube and these other forums and formats and platforms are there for a very good reason, to allow stories like this to be told, stories that can't be told in other ways.

Charlie Melcher: Mainstream media.

Rainn Wilson: It's the same thing what John Krasinski is doing right now with Some Good News, like it's a phenomenon. And people are like, "Oh my God, this is amazing." He had to do it himself. I mean, he couldn't have even, John Krasinski, couldn't have gone to CNN or Fox or NBC or anywhere else and said, "I want to just do a good news show" because television is the devil, basically. So fortunately, there's these other platforms that allow you to do some other cool stuff.

Charlie Melcher: I was having a conversation with a friend recently who works in a children's publishing house and was talking about the fact that so much of the fiction that's out there for young people today is dystopian. So it has this very negative message. In fact, I had the honor of having this conversation with Margaret Atwood a few weeks ago. And with another friend, who's a very talented storyteller who lives in LA, we started this conversation about the responsibility of storytellers to try create positive images of the future in order to help people, young people especially, have a positive view of what could come, that tomorrow would be a better day. If everything you're reading and watching is suggesting the world's coming to an end, then you might not have the sort of hope and optimism moving forward. And I guess my question to you, and I know I'm leading the witness here, but do we, as storytellers, have a kind of moral responsibility to think about the type of stories we're sharing with audiences?

Rainn Wilson: Mostly, yes and a little bit no. I had a show about the future that I watched when I was a kid, growing up in suburban Seattle, and that was Star Trek: The Original Series, in reruns.

Charlie Melcher: How did I know you were going there?

Rainn Wilson: And that was the opposite of dystopian. That was utopian. Humanity has solved its issues on planet earth. Everyone has enough food. Racism has been solved. Technology, reason, wisdom, empathy have dictated the future of mankind. So what does humanity do? It goes out into space to explore. And this was really exciting to me. And it was back in the seventies when I remember people would talk about world peace. We would talk about like, "How are we going to have world peace?" And it was like possible. And people were having conversations about it, and leaders were talking about it, and the United Nations was talking about it.

And nowadays you are just a naive asshole if you bring up world peace. People will roll their eyes and snide and snarf at you for daring to think of such a thing. Human nature is gross, dark and corrupt, it'll never happen. It's just about keeping a balance of power in check to try and stop civilization ending wars from breaking out. Listen, I think anyone who's producing content has to have an understanding of like what affect it's going to have in the world. The stories I can't stand are like John Wick, like this idea that there's a hitman and someone kills his dog so he just goes and kills 500 guys. And teenage boys all over America are like, "Yeah, John Wick. He's bad ass." And I love Keanu Reeves and he's put a lot of great stuff into the world, but I don't know why someone would sign up for that.

Like, it's just pure death and carnage. And yeah, I guess, because they're killing bad guys so it's okay. But in this day and age, back on the verge of war again, climate change, some very real issues, I think storytellers need to have a certain obligation. But that doesn't mean they have to do everything needs to feel like Walt Disney or everything needs to feel sugary or sentimental or obvious, or "heartwarming" in a Hallmark channel way. We still have to tell rough, dark, raw human stories as we're doing it.

Charlie Melcher: So before I move on to the most recent thing you're working on, I did want to ask you about Ms. Landor's Great Books class in high school. I had the pleasure of listening to your book, The Bassoon King, yesterday, which I downloaded and really enjoyed. And you give, in the book, sort of some credit to her and that Great Books class for being a real inspiration for SoulPancake.

In this day and age, back on the verge of war again, climate change, some very real issues, I think storytellers need to have a certain obligation. But that doesn't mean they have to do everything needs to feel like Walt Disney or everything needs to feel sugary or sentimental or obvious, or "heartwarming" in a Hallmark channel way. We still have to tell rough, dark, raw human stories as we're doing it.

Rainn Wilson: Yeah. So it ties way back to that great high school that I had the privilege of going to, New Trier, which is something that I think America needs to strive to make every high school in America like New Trier, have a radio station on its roof, have an incredible drama program, have Great Books courses. This Great Books course was unbelievable. Here we were, a bunch of 17 year olds, and here comes Ms. Landor, this crazy old woman. I thought she was old at the time. She recently passed away, just six months ago. Just a beautiful soul, luminous, so well-read, so sharp. She passed from cancer. I had the good fortune of getting to hang out with her a bunch near the end of her life.

I did a podcast with her for this podcast that I do called Metaphysical Milkshake, with Reza Aslan. The theme of that was our teachers gurus. So we got to speak to our old English teachers. But basically, yeah, we're 17 year olds, would go into this classroom and we're reading Rousseau and Kant and The Book of Job and Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, and Nietzsche, lots of other stuff. And it was part English, part philosophy, part sociology, part psychology. It opened up my brain to like, "Oh my God, we can have these incredible conversations about life's biggest questions and they can be fun and interesting and exciting and funny and entertaining, and it's about the stuff of life." So I've always said from the very beginning that Ms. Lander was a great inspiration.

Charlie Melcher: So I went on Instagram and watched a few of your, Hey There, Human episodes and was so touched by them. I mean, I literally found myself with tears in my eyes. The generosity of spirit, and open-hearted nature of your reaching out to people at this time, while people are isolated, distancing, lonely, scared going through a whole array of motions. And then to have you reach out to be sincerely interested in what's going on in their day, in their life, in their room, it was such a gesture of caring, it seems to me. My wife is a social worker. It felt to like you were there in a way using your skills as a caregiver, but really just to connect as a human being, to reach out to human being to human being. And it also makes me think about the power of us having now this two way mass media, this ability to not just broadcast down to people, but to actually engage with them in a conversation and to share that with others.

Rainn Wilson: Well, that's very sweet. Thanks for your kind words. As soon as the quarantine hit, I called SoulPancake, which I'm still involved with as a consultant. I don't have a official role there, just co-founder and consultant. And I was like, "Let's do something. We got to do something to connect people. Everyone's feeling so anxious and scared and weird." And there's mental health issues we deal with a lot at SoulPancake. We really wanted to connect to people. And so I volunteered to host it every day at noon. And I do a little monologue on self care and mental health and spiritual tips and emotional psychosocial ideas, meditation, breathing. And I have a guest, special guest. We had Ellie Kemper from The Office was on just today, the day we're recording this podcast. And then I interview random human beings from the internet, which is just great.

And people tell me their life stories, their struggles, their issues. Some of them are a little bit squeebed out that they're talking to Dwight Schrute and their Dwight fans. But, it's really great and people have really enjoyed it because there's something about all that connection that makes people feel like, "Oh, I'm not alone in this." Everyone's going through the same thing, whether you're a 14 year old kid in West Virginia or a French horn player in Poland. No matter who you are, I've had people from all over the world that I've been interviewing and they're just loving it.

Charlie Melcher: Nobody who plays the bassoon?

Rainn Wilson: No bassoonists, no bassoonists. Just me. I'm the only one. The lonely bassoon player.

Charlie Melcher: Just tell me about Laughing Matters, a short doc about comedy and depression.

Rainn Wilson: So among the many shows that we've made on the topic, we did a documentary called Laughing Matters. A lot of standup comics like Sarah Silverman and other comedy folk, talking about their issues with mental health, the link between mental health and comedy, comedy as a tool to survive mental break downs and fissures. And it was really successful. It's a really great documentary. We showed it at schools and colleges all over the country. We've had live events around it. And as well as it sits on our YouTube channel right now. So again, allowing a media company to be a force for social good. Every company, every family, every community, every individual has to have some X percentage of themselves working for social good if we want to have the world get better. And it has to be genuine and it has to come from a place of service.

Charlie Melcher: I couldn't agree more. It makes me think a little bit of Michael Pollan in his book where he said, "You vote with your fork." Remember that tagline? And it was really about how we need to take control over what we put in our bodies, both for our own health and for the health of our planet. And so by empowering us to be conscious of those decisions that we make with what we consume, we can help solve the climate crisis, or at least contribute to its solution. And I wonder if that's true too, if there's a way where we sort of, we vote with our consumption of stories. We make a decision every time we choose to watch something or just support a company who has a certain kind of storytelling or messaging. And that if we are more conscious and empowered in what we choose to consume, that we will ultimately create the kind of positive ripple and the kind of human connections that we want.

Rainn Wilson: Yeah, absolutely. And conscious consumerism is as a big tool. It can be used in climate change and in making the world a better place. And people dump on millennials a lot. But I'll say this about millennials, they really do care about what they buy and the companies they buy from and what those companies are doing. It's a strong component in how they make their consumer choices. It's in the best interest of individuals to vote with their forks and vote with their remote controls and vote with everything that we consume, and to make our voices really heard and strong about what's important to us and not be passive consumers. But it's also important for companies to know that people do care about this. You shouldn't do it for the profit margins, but more and more, the younger people coming up, they want to know, "What are you doing to save the environment?"

Charlie Melcher: If choosing the sources of our media as one of the things that will make the world a better place, choosing SoulPancake and the stories that you, Rainn, help to tell is certainly what we should all be doing. So I want to thank you.

Rainn Wilson: Well, thank you so much for saying so. It was a real pleasure. Thanks for having me on the show. A real pleasure speaking with you.

Charlie Melcher: Thank you for joining us today, and a special thanks to Rainn Wilson for this wonderful conversation. A quick note, we'll be taking next week off, but we'll be back in your feed in two weeks and will look forward to seeing you then. If you enjoyed listening and would like to hear more, we'd really appreciate it if you'd subscribe to and rate our podcast. And if you know anyone who'd enjoy the show, please be sure to pass it along. A big thank you to our production partner, Charts & Leisure. Please be safe, be strong and story on. For more information about Future of StoryTelling and to subscribe to our newsletter, FoST in Thought, visit us at fost.org.